Introduction to RAW

I am continually surprised by how many photographers do not shoot in RAW format.  To be honest, when I got my first DSLR I wasn’t sure that it was worth the hassle of extra processing.  I soon became converted.  My next few blog entries over the next couple of weeks will go into greater detail on all of the adjustments that you can do with a RAW photo that you cannot do with a JPEG.  I will discuss what each adjustment is for and when to use them to make your photos really stand out.

What is RAW?

First, let’s discuss what RAW is.  If you have a Canon, the file shows up as a .CR2 file on your computer.  For Nikon users, it’s a .NEF file.  When the senor in your camera records the data for the image in front of you, the RAW format is like a database that keeps a record of a wide range of colors, bright/dark areas, etc…much more than is displayed on your screen.  If you use JPEG, all of that data is automatically compressed and lost and you are limited to a small amount of the data that are otherwise available.  Have you ever looked at a beautiful landscape with a bright blue sky, white fluffy clouds, and a wonderful nature scene in front of you?  When you take a picture of that scene, the sky is all washed out and you can’t tell the difference between the color of the sky and the clouds.  (Or maybe that just happens to me).  What happened to the beautiful blue sky?  With RAW, that information is still there.  You can unlock that information and adjust your photo to seem more like the scene you saw with your eye.  Afterwards, you can convert to JPEG and do more edits if you want.  It is worth noting that when you edit a RAW image, you are not changing the RAW file.  You are simply indicating your preferences on which parts of the information you would like to view.  All of the information stays in that database for access at a later time if desired. 

Before and After

I was at an Air Force football game recently and one of their jets did a fly over before the game started.  I was caught off guard when the jet began its approach.  I scrambled for my camera but did not have time to adjust the settings.  To be honest, I was in such a hurry that I am surprised that I even focused half way decently.  Because of the settings, I was worried that the image was lost.  As you can see, the “before” picture turned out way too bright and you can barely make out that it is supposed to be a jet.  Luckily, the picture was in RAW format which contained much more information than a JPEG would have.  After playing with some of the adjustments, you can see a dramatic difference in the color of the sky, and hey, there’s a jet in the picture now too!  This dramatic difference would not have been possible if I were trying to make adjustments to a JPEG because all of that data would have been compressed and lost.
Wrap Up

Over the next few weeks, I will discuss what the various RAW adjustments do and when to use them.  The topics will include adjustments like temperature, exposure, clarity, etc.  Below is a screenshot of the adjustments I made to the Air Force jet in RAW.  This gives you an example of the various adjustments that I will discuss in future posts.  While some (not all) of the adjustments in the screenshot can be done with a JPEG, the amount of those adjustments is very small compared to what you can do in RAW.

I happen to use Photoshop Elements, but many of the same adjustments are available in Lightroom, Aperture, and usually even the conversion software that came with your camera for free.  If you don’t shoot in RAW already, hopefully you will start to branch out a little bit after seeing some of the benefits of it.

Do you have any success or horror stories?  Feel free to post your comments and questions to this post and I’ll be happy to discuss them.  Happy shooting!
Bryan Rasmussen is a landscape/nature photographer at heart, although he has been known to include people in his photos from time to time.  He owns Chiseled Light Photography and is also a freelance photographer for a local newspaper.  Check out more of his work at and follow him at  He is also on Instagram, Flickr, and Fine Art America.