Got a new digital camera? Impressed with some of the photos you can capture with it? Here's a hot tip — with a bit of effort, you can make them look even better with the power of the RAW image format and a handy PC or laptop. This is everything you need to know to get started with RAW processing and make your photos really stand out from the crowd.
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What Is RAW?
RAW is a photo file format that holds more data than JPEG. Where a JPEG out of your 18- or 24-megapixel digital camera might be anything from 3MB to 8MB in size, a RAW photo file might be anything from 25MB to 40MB. The photo looks the same in the camera, though — in fact, it might even look a little bit worse. But there's a reason for that. A RAW file holds a huge amount of extra image data captured by your camera's photo sensor, which includes extra detail in areas that might be otherwise black or white in a JPEG.
RAW can help fix mistakes during shooting and can save a 'bad' photo. Because there's all that extra image detail and data in a RAW photo, a photo that you initially capture that's too dark or too bright can be easily fixed if you captured it in RAW. You might be able to fix it in the camera, or you can transfer your files to a PC for some serious editing. RAW means your photos don't have to be perfect the first time around, because you can recover from mistakes — but capture a good photo and you can make it even greater.
Because it's larger, you'll need more storage space for your camera. This might seem obvious, but RAW photos take up a lot more space — sometimes up to 10 times the data — of a regular quality JPEG. If you're only shooting a couple of images, then you have less to worry about, but if you're the kind of person that takes a bunch of photos and doesn't clear off your memory card on an obsessive and regular basis, then picking up a large card — like a 32GB or 64GB card — really isn't a terrible idea.
Shooting In RAW
Expose the the right to capture as much light as possible. "Expose to the right" might sound like some kind of lewd politician's sex act, but it's not — it's actually a method for capturing as much light and therefore as much detail as possible in your digital camera's images. To do this, you might want to use your camera's exposure compensation button, or manual shooting settings, to raise the exposure — to ensure even shadowy areas of the image are visible, without blowing out the highlights of the photo and losing detail there.
Don't worry if your image capture isn't perfect the first time around. The beauty of RAW is that because there's so much extra detail hidden away in that digital file, a lot of changes can be made if need be to rescue an image from looking mediocre. Compared to a JPEG, a RAW file can be altered nearly six times as much for exposure — you've got a lot more leeway in both highlights and shadows, versus JPEGs that are almost completely fixed in their exposure settings, and similarly colours can be boosted or muted much more while still keeping detail.
You can shoot in RAW plus JPEG if you want to share your photos quickly. This will take even more space up on your camera's memory card, but you don't have to be locked in by the large file sizes of RAW at the same time as being freed up by its potential. If your camera has the option, shooting a secondary JPEG file alongside the RAW gives you a file that uses the camera's sharpness, saturation and white balance presets that you can share quickly to your smartphone or tablet, with a RAW file that you can extensively edit and print or save for later.
Editing In RAW
Use a program for PC or Mac like Adobe Lightroom for best results. A program like Lightroom is entirely built around making it easy to edit your photos, while also making it simple and powerful enough to make a huge range of changes or enhancements if you need to. You can also use the program that came with your camera for free if you want to save on another cost or monthly subscription fee. Use a common and well-regarded program so you're able to find help online if you run into any issues.
Try changing settings and experimenting with styles to find a favourite. You might prefer photos in a set that have a slightly cooler white balance, or some that are warmer with stronger yellow and orange tones. You might like your photos with the level of brightness boosted slightly to bring out detail in shadowed areas. Sharpness and lens correction settings in particular are usually best set to a preset for any particular digital camera and lens combo you use, while colour and exposure can be played with shot-to-shot.
Keep your favourite settings as a preset, and apply batch changes. Most decent image editing applications will let you save a series of settings — white balance, exposure compensation, brightness, contrast, shadow and highlight compensation, colour and sharpness adjustments — as a single preset, making them easy to apply to multiple photos. Different presets for different locations you shoot, times of day or different lenses for your camera can also give you a very easy go-to that takes the majority of guess-work out of the process.