RAW files are unprocessed images containing all the information captured by your camera’s sensor. Because these files are unprocessed, they often look flat and dark compared to JPEG’s, which have been processed by your camera's internal processor. This is why your images look better when shot in JPEG compared to your RAW files. The problem with this is that the JPEG files are compressed after being processed by your camera and much of the sensor data is lost. In addition, the most important information pertaining to your dynamic range (the amount of detail or stops of light, for the more technical) that we can recover is significantly reduced once a file is converted to a JPEG. This is also why your JPEG files are much smaller in size compared to the RAW files—and in this instance, size does matter.
But let us not digress. My focus for this little "notes and tips" instalment is the power of RAW files and learning to know how much information you have available to edit your files so you can recreate the scene you envisioned when taking the photo.
Below I have a snapshot of an unprocessed RAW file. You can see that the image is rather flat and quite dark. This photo was intentionally taken slightly darker than I would normally shoot a scene because I wanted to protect the highlights at the back of the scene from becoming overexposed (which would have been outside of the dynamic range of my sensor so the information/detail would be unrecoverable in post-processing). Knowing that my camera sensor’s dynamic range information is captured in the RAW file, I know that I will be able to recover all the shadows in the darker areas of the image (your sensor generally retains more detailed information in your shadows compared to the highlights). Depending on your sensor or camera model, you can normally recover a full stop of light from the shadows. For those of you feeling a little lost right now, this means that when you look at your light meter bar, you can generally shoot with RAW files down to the -1 and still recover all the detail from the shadows.
The next image is a processed RAW file and you can immediately see how different it looks from the unprocessed RAW file, with a lot more contrast, brightness, vibrancy and detail. This is the power of shooting in RAW. You do require a basic understanding of post-processing to edit your images and this is generally where people get stuck, as you do need to sit down and learn how to edit your images. I edited this image with Adobe Lightroom CC, which has a very user friendly interface and doesn’t permanently change your files, so you can always go back to the unprocessed RAW file if you find you don’t like any processing you have done.
My intent for this article is not to debate the ethics of over-processing images or to show you how to edit your photos, but rather to highlight the power of RAW files and what can be achieved using the information captured by your sensor and stored in the RAW file. In this processed image I was able to recover the shadows and increase the brightness of the image so that more detail is clearly visible in the scene. I was also able to adjust the brightness and vibrancy of the scene.
In conclusion, RAW files require editing; how much editing is a topic for another post. If you don’t want to post-process your images at all, then shoot in JPEG as this will slightly edit your images, adding brightness, contrast, vibrancy, and sharpening to them. But I would recommend always shooting in RAW as there is a lot more information stored in them that you can control when editing.