What is Raw? Ultimate guide to shooting on Raw

Shoot in Raw, forget the jpg, make sure you have configured the shot in Raw, the Raw is the digital negative , I tell you that if you don’t shoot in Raw the bogeyman will come out of the battery cover to kidnap you!

Does it sound like you? You hear it constantly in any photography circle or blog when you are starting out in the world of DSLR cameras , but why what are the benefits of shooting in Raw vs Jpeg ?

There is not a week that I do not receive an email telling me that they have configured the shot in Raw and that the photos are fatal, with hardly any color, little contrast, even almost out of focus … That is the problem, people are told to shoot in Raw lightly but it is not explained that to take photos in Raw it is necessary to know how to edit the photos later on the computer.

I always try to make people understand that when they buy a SLR camera, their photos will surely “get worse” if they are not willing to learn a few digits in Lightroom or similar software.

Personally, I always shoot on Raw, being aware of the work behind it, no matter how small. Day-to-day photos or photos that are not worth editing, I take them directly with my mobile.

The best thing is that you read the article and decide for yourself what is best for you, knowing the pros and cons of shooting raw.

If you don’t feel like reading the whole article, this gif of a RAW file entering a JPEG party sums up the whole post:

What is the Raw format in photography?

The raw files are those that retain all data that records the camera scene.

When the shutter is released and light passes through, it is recorded as a 12 to 14 bit signal depending on the camera. Those that are capable of recording 14 bits can represent 16,384 tones or brightness levels for each pixel. If instead you have the camera configured to save the photos in JPEG, each pixel can contain up to 256 different tones . 

As all cameras really shoot in Raw, only that they automatically convert the image to Jpeg and assign it some contrast, brightness, saturation or focus values, the 14 bits they capture would be compressed and reduced to 8 bits, a real loss of information . don’t you think I’d at least rather have 16,384 shades or brightness levels to choose from and work with than settle for just 256.

Since the information is not compressed in the Raw file , we will achieve higher quality images and we will have much more flexibility when editing the photograph later at home.

To be able to recover the lights (within a few margins), illuminate the shadowed areas , choose the desired color temperature without losing quality, contrast the image, etc. Modifying all these factors in a Jpeg file would lose even more quality, so shooting in Jpeg “ties our hands” in digital development.

Currently the vast majority of SLR, compact or mirrorless cameras have this option, so it is recommended that you look in the specifications of your camera if it accepts this type of files and configure it to start shooting in Raw from now on.

You should know that even if you have the camera configured to save the file in Raw, the camera settings such as white balance and image styles (sharpness, contrast, saturation) will be saved in a label. This label works as a post it that accompanies the Raw so that the development program takes them into account if you want.

Only official programs such as Canon DPP or Nikon Capture NX apply Image Styles to Raw. Other development software like Lightroom only apply white balance.

What may really interest us is that it saves the white balance, even so there is no problem, and personally I prefer to adjust it myself at home. In the case of the Jpeg file, it applies the values ​​automatically and it is not possible to change them because of the compression algorithm they use, a “lossy” algorithm.

Revealed on Raw

Take a look at this example, the image on the left is as it came out of the camera, in Raw, the photo on the right is the result after development.

If a person who is just starting out in digital photography reads that they have to shootin Raw , but no one tells them they have to learn to edit thatphotograph with photographic software , all their images will be like the one on the left. Imagine his disappointment when he gets home to see that his photos take up three times the memory and look much worse than when he shot in Jpeg.

You have to use Raw, yes, but you also have to spend time learning how to reveal . It can be two minutes adjusting contrast, brightness, focus and color, or hours using the local adjustments brush and multiple exposures.

Could the same result be achieved by shooting in Jpeg?

Of course, yes, but you may have already done your homework during the shot, exposing perfectly, adjusting the white balance and having an image style configured according to your tastes, if not, you are going to pull your hair.

Benefits of shooting on Raw

Get higher image quality.

Shooting in Raw is another factor that affects image quality, in addition to many others such as sensor size, optics or your light measurement.

Shooting in Jpeg lets the camera make its interpretation of the scene and process it, compressing it and applying the values ​​that are configured in terms of contrast, sharpness, brightness, saturation, etc.

In the case of Raw, you will decide those values ​​later in the development, being able to calmly choose what best suits each photograph.

Capture many more levels of brightness

Brightness levels are the number of steps from pure black to white in an image . The more steps a photo has recorded, the smoother the transition from one tone to another.

The Jpeg registers 256 levels of brightness while the Raw registers between 4,096 and 16,384 levels, almost nothing.

Easily correct poorly exposed images

In a Raw file you can easily correct underexposed or overexposed images . How many times have you checked at home that the photos do not work because they have been dark or you have gone over with the light?

If you have shot in Raw you have a great chance of solving it, but if you did it in Jpeg I think there will be no easy solution. How many important photos will have been lost for not having taken them on Raw.

Avoid posterization

One of the effects of the loss of quality of a Jpeg , is the posterization or » comb effect «, you can see it in its histogram .

In the histogram on the left we see how the curve is uniform, it is the original of the photo in Jpeg. In the histogram on the right when trying to retrieve the highlights, the file does not have enough information to fill in the new shades or brightness levels, so it ‘staggers’ the histogram and results in posterization.

Remember that with this raw format, you have 64 times more density of tonal information saved, which you can recover when necessary without drastically losing the quality of the file as has happened in this case with the JPEG format.

Adjust White Balance with a Raw File

When you shoot in Jpeg, the white balance and other configured values ​​are automatically applied to the image without the possibility of modifying them without loss.

In the Raw file the white balance will also be saved, but you can modify it to your liking without loss of quality.

As I said before, remember that Lightroom will apply the white balance that you have configured in the camera, while the official software of your camera will also apply the image styles such as contrast, sharpness or saturation.

Get more details in a photo

Shooting in Raw will allow you to modify values ​​in Lightroom or another type of development program such as focus, noise or distortion of some lenses , essential to achieve the greatest detail in a scene.

Batch digital development

One of the options that I use the most in Adobe Lightroom is batch development, what I do is edit a photo, copy its adjustments and paste them in all the photos that I have taken in that period of time and in the same place, trying to have the same lighting, for example:

You are photographing a wedding banquet abroad, imagine that it lasts an hour, because to all the photographs that I take during that hour, I paste the settings that I have copied, so I do not have to edit one by one.

If you were to do this in Jpg, there would be dark areas that may become lighter when pasting the settings, with the risk of posterization and noise .

Disadvantages of shooting in Raw and advantages of Jpeg

  • The Raw file must be edited later on the computer, since it is a “flat” file , you will have to apply the contrast, saturation, brightness, etc. Although for me it is not a problem but an advantage, there may be people who do not want to bother with editing photos on the computer . Still, I recommend setting up the Raw + Jpeg shot in case you ever change your mind. This mode will generate two files, a digital negative (RAW) and the Jpeg, ready to use.
  • The Jpeg file is much faster as the image styles and settings configured in the camera are applied. It is recommended for jobs in which there is no time for editing, such as photojournalism . The photojournalist in many moments needs to send the photographs in real time to the medium where they are to be published.
  • The Jpeg file takes up much less space than the Raw, but currently space is no excuse. Memory cards or hard drives are very decently priced .
  • A JPG photograph is saved ready to print or view on a monitor without the need for post – processing , RAW is not.
  • Jpeg files can be opened from any image software, while for the Raw format you will need specific software (it is not an excuse because it is easily achieved). Visit the article  5 programs to edit photos .


It’s really hard to find downsides to the Raw format, at least for me. I like to have control of my photographs in case I have made a mistake in the shot and can fix it with editing software or give the image some creative effect. The mobile phones that want to stand by your camera, end up implementing such files as a normal thing. The compact cameras advanced or midrange, already have the raw format in the specification would not make sense that they did not.

For those who make photomontages, this type of work requires having the image in a Raw file, since many times it is necessary to modify the color temperature or eliminate shadows to adjust the photograph to the general lighting.

As I have told you, the best option if you still have doubts is to shoot in Raw + Jpeg , I am sure that sooner or later you will take the step and only use the «digital negative».