Why Camera RAW Matters

In this post, I want to explain what Camera RAW is for those of you who might be unfamiliar. Historically, this has been a topic only for still photographers. But with the recent proliferation of HDSLR cameras and what we are seeing out of entry level professional cameras such as the RED family of cameras and the Arri Alexa, we’re seeing that RAW is making its way into the world of video as well.

 

Let me back up a bit first. When I first saw the tests online from the Canon 5D Mk II and the Canon 7D, I was really impressed, of course. Who wasn’t? But I resisted making a purchase because you can’t record to RAW. People on Twitter thought I was crazy. Maybe. But shooting RAW makes that much of a difference that it significantly diminishes the coolness of these cameras because they can’t do it.

 

So what is RAW? Have you ever had your photos developed somewhere and they looked like pure unadulterated crap when you got them back, then you took them somewhere else and they looked fine? That’s because of the differences in the way images are processed. Many don’t realize that your camera performs processing like this on your images, too. And unfortunately, our poor little cameras aren’t much better than the local Wal-Mart at processing those images correctly.

 

When you shoot in a non-RAW format, the camera processes the image before committing it to memory. So you never get to see the beautiful, pristine version. You get your camera’s version of a Wal-Mart print. (I’m not sure why I’m picking on Wal-Mart’s photo department so much here. I actually don’t have much experience with them, so just use this as a hypothetical. Sorry, Wal-Mart photo processing employees).

 

However, when you shoot in RAW, your camera just records what’s there. It’s often referred to as a digital negative. And it’s sexy. Check out these examples from my Canon 7D. Here’s the first image taken with one of the profiles that came with the camera (so in other words, it’s still high quality processing, just not RAW).

 

full-frame jpeg image

 

This image just looks terrible. It’s not just the lack of contrast (which I think is actually a GOOD thing because it gives me more room to fiddle with it in editing), but the colors just don’t look natural. It almost seems as if the colors of the greenery on the left are posterized a little. And to top it all off, this is nothing what that shot looked like to my eye at the time.

 

So now I invite you to behold Exhibit B for the prosecution. This is the exact same shot, except shot RAW. The Canon 7D has this cool feature for stills that allows you to take a processed image and a RAW image simultaneously, which is great for writing blogs on their differences. Thank you Canon. Notice the kid on the bike in the left, proving that these are identical shots. Neither have been color corrected or adjusted in any way.

 

full-frame raw image

Holy Improved Image Processing, Batman! Instantly, our eyes recognize this as a more realistic image. The greens are more believable, and these colors are EXACTLY what I saw with my eye when I took the shot.

 

Now, I can already hear many of you say “Who cares? I can just fiddle with the colors in post”. Kind of. You see, when an image is processed by the camera, the resulting problems are not just shifted colors. Because who really cares about that after all? Everybody color corrects everything these days anyway.

 

But there’s a bigger problem here. Let’s go in for a closer look. Check out the leaves from the foreground tree in the processed image. Look at all those bright halos around the edges! Yikes!

 

 

Now, in all fairness, a lot of that undesirable stuff comes from the fact that the processing in the camera also includes image compression. And also (usually) sharpening. And sometimes white balance. And sometimes more crap than that, too. But that’s just my point! RAW images are uncompressed, unaltered images and these attributes remain untouched. Do you really want your camera messing with your stuff like this? No way. I know you, and you aren’t into that at all.

 

And this also goes back to the argument that you can just fix it in post. Really? What happens when you brighten this image and those crappy halos also get brighter? What happens when you bump up the contrast and those compression artifacts start sticking out like a neon sign? Any of you that ever purchased a DV camera under $200 and tried to color correct footage from that knows how limited you are by the quality of your footage.

 

Check out the same close up of the RAW image.

 

Look how clean! You could process this in post for days! This level of detail and clarity would make it so much easier for tracking and rotoscoping, cloning,  color correction, and a host of other visual effects and post production tasks. Let alone the fact that it just looks SO MUCH BETTER!

 

So why not shoot in RAW every second of every day? Well, RAW files are big. B-I-G. They might be several times larger than a compressed image of the same pixel dimensions. Why? Because of all of that extra beautiful data! But if you’re just shooting a pic of what you’re eating for breakfast so you can post it on Twitter, perhaps RAW might be a bit overkill.

 

Hopefully, I’ve done a good job of making a case for the importance of shooting RAW. I’ve gotten more than one look that says “you’re crazy” when I’ve said that I plan on waiting to shoot my feature films until I get my hands on a RED EPIC camera. The extra resolution and HDRx really make a difference too, of course. But really, for me it’s all about the ability to shoot RAW. If I’m going to go to all of the trouble to get permits and insurance and audition a cast and feed everyone on my set, I’m not going shoot on something that I’ll regret using in post.

 

Thanks for reading!

About the author

Chad Perkins has written 20 posts for Movies & Computers

Creator of Movies & Computers. Filmmaker. Author of How to Cheat in After Effects, The After Effects Illusionist, and of several video training series on Lynda.com, Video2Brain, Total Training, and VTC.


10 Responses to "Why Camera RAW Matters"

  1. stevelucky says:

    Seriously, SO good! I’ve always “known” that RAW is better in the same way that I “know” that Led Zeppelin is an amazing band. People have been telling me that for years but I never stopped to really SEE the difference. I’m really stoked to be able to make better use of my RAW shots.

    P.S. – No amount of convincing could get me to truly like Led Zeppelin. I’m not saying they’re bad, just not for me. No offense to any Led Zeppelin lovers out there.

  2. Damon Davis says:

    This is a good illustration.

  3. Gdub says:

    I’m a huge proponent of RAW (self-deprecating fat joke). But seriously, I’ve been shooting in RAW for years— I even hacked the firmware on my cheaper point-and-shoots just for that reason. I do a lot of post-processing because I don’t want to have to worry about all of that when I’m shooting. For me, the shooting should be all about the composition and expression. Save as much lighting and color and processing for afterwards as possible.

    You bring up a good point about sharpness in particular, which is usually not a reason people shoot in RAW. Great job bringing that up and explaining it.

  4. Josh says:

    Very informative, and very entertaining! Nice work.

  5. image969 says:

    RAW Rules…

  6. jared says:

    interesting topic, but, since when were red cameras considered entry level?

  7. Dragon says:

    Yup, that shloud defo do the trick!

  8. Steve Henwood says:

    Are there any other camera options besides Red for shooting in raw? It’s so expernsive! Did Chad eer get his Red camera?

    1. Chad Perkins says:

      Thanks Steve! Most DSLR still cameras shoot raw stills. But raw video is quite a rare thing still. The $15,000 RED Scarlet-X is by far the cheapest raw video solution out there right now. There’s rumors of a digital Bolex that shoots much cheaper raw video at a much lower price. The next cheapest raw video solution is the ARRI Alexa at $60,000 (and I believe that doesn’t even include the optional, additional component that records raw. And yes, I did get my RED. It is mind blowing and I’ll post results from my shoots here soon! Thanks!

      1. Steve Henwood says:

        Did you get the $15,000 RED Scarlet-X, or a more expensive model? From reading your post, it sounds like you need to get add ons too, like a graphics card of some sort. Can you tell us more about that?

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