The D(i)S(ney)LR Series: Shooting RAW
I have many photography soapboxes. I know I do. This one... this might be my biggest one.
STOP LIMITING YOUR CAMERA. SHOOT RAW.
When you bought your DSLR, what camera attributes did you look at? What made you pick the camera you did? One of the most touted camera characteristics is the Megapixels. IF YOU AREN'T SHOOTING RAW, YOU AREN'T ACTUALLY USING ALL OF YOUR MEGAPIXELS. NO, REALLY.
What is RAW?
When you take a photo with a digital camera, you're capturing light that is being exposed across the sensor. When you tell your camera what type of file you want it to capture, you generally have several choices of JPEG (a standard COMPRESSED image file), and then your camera brand's proprietary RAW file format.
A RAW file is not technically an image file, but a massive collection of image data. It's also the ONLY file format your camera can/will capture that is completely uncompressed and the entire span of imaging data that your camera is capable of capturing.
Herein lies the only downside to shooting RAW: RAW files require turn around and formatting before they can be delivered to a client, posted to social media, printed, etc. In fact a lot of people, when they first switch to RAW, express disappointment in their out-of-camera images; they tend to look a little flat. This is merely a symptom of how RAW captures data: it's setting you up for maximum editing potential, rather than unprocessed image. So, I suppose, if you haven't fully embraced image editing and started to get comfortable with editing software of your choosing, MAYBE RAW isn't for you. Yet.
HOW DO I SHOOT RAW?
The first thing to know is that shooting RAW is, in almost every sense of the word, easier. You don't have to be married to your white balance settings as much, since making color adjustments to RAW files is generally a dream. Small exposure discrepancies are so much easier to fix. Something that can trip a lot of people up, however, is that your camera is graduating to processing exponentially larger data files. So you need to help it out.
The easiest way to maximize your camera's ability to shoot RAW is to equip it with the proper memory card. First: brands. A fascinating lesson I learned the hard way when I bought my camera is that not all memory card brands are created equal; there are brands out there that will actually jam up your camera and make it dysfunctional. All you need to do is go to your camera's website and look up their recommended "safe" brands for your particular camera. If you type "[camera model] approved memory cards" you can find a list like this one for my camera. Once you've got the brand figured out, you MUST get yourself a reasonably high capacity memory card with a HIGH DATA TRANSFER RATE. That data transfer rate is JUST as important as the size of the memory card itself. Think about it: you're now asking your camera to transfer 20-30MB at a time, when it was previously doing a maximum of 5. Your camera will be SLOW if you don't upgrade to the right memory card. And by upgrade, I'm not talking about shelling out massive quantities of cash. My camera has dual memory slots, and they both hold the same card right now. The SanDisk Extreme 32GB 90mb/s. You can find it most places for $20 or less. I bought this as an XMas gift for my buddy Ado when he finally got sick of me harassing him about not shooting RAW and decided to convert. How many photos you'll be able to capture on a single card will depend on your particular camera's resolution (the d600 is 24.3 MP, which means each raw file I capture is around that size). Each of those cards will take a little over 500 photos. More than enough for me on an average park day. Now when I went to Disneyland on vacation, I did have to offload my cards between days, which brings me to...
INVEST IN SOME EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES FOR YOUR COMPUTER. RAW files gobble up hard drive like nothing else. I initially offload my cards to my hard drive for editing, but about twice a month I will transfer those files over to an external drive to keep my computer's hard drive from getting bogged down.
BUT... WHY SHOOT RAW?
*sigh* I'm perfectly happy with these JPEGs my camera is currently shooting. Why bother? I mean, I have no problem editing these JPEGs right now, and RAW files they just... take more work. They take up more space...
I've heard this. Many times. And for the first week or so of shooting RAW, I'll still hear people grumbling about it. Yes, your workflow will change. Yes, you'll spend more time tweaking and finessing your images (is that a bad thing?). But usually a week or two in, usually around the time you have to truly SAVE a photo that you would have thrown out if it was a JPEG... THAT is when the messaging starts changing.
Oh my god... look what I did. Look what I COULD do. I didn't know I COULD do this. Look how good this looks! Look at the colors! Look how sharp! Look how much I could clean up the ISO grain!
The latitude afforded to you by shooting RAW is nowhere more evident than at a Halloween Party. You're already pushing the limits of your camera when it comes to exposure and focus. Throw in stylized show lighting, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Unless, of course, you're shooting RAW.
To paraphrase Clueless, "I figure these [RAW files] are just a jumping off point to start negotiations."
Color and tone adjustments, high iso clean up, brush work, exposure work, there's literally NOTHING that isn't better when it comes to editing than a RAW file. Here, side by side. A before and after of a JPEG I had to edit from my phone in Lightroom.
I did minimal work: just a little bit of color correction and exposure work, but look at the overall quality of the image at the end. It's just... not great. All the other before/after images you see in this article are RAW files.
Ok, do you need one more reason? Let's come back to the Megapixels. A typical JPEG file is around 5MB. At that resolution, you're going to max out at an 8x10 when it comes to prints (and that's pushing it). With a RAW file, you can export your file to be ANY resolution or format, so if you want a photo to be blown up to a POSTER, you can do that.
Just do it. You'll love it. I promise.