Let’s also get something out of the way about “why RAW”:
1) RAW images have (more often than not) greater colour depth than JPEGs. The RAW output of most cameras is 12 or 16bit, whereas the JPEGs are only 8bit. This means that there can be a greater tonal range in the resulting image. It doesn’t mean that there always *will* be, as you’ll learn from many people who’ll tell you that they’ve compared the same image taken as JPEG and as RAW, but there are situations (usually higher contrast images) where it will be the case. This also means that you’ve got a little bit more room to move. In terms of nailing the exposure, digital cameras have a similar exposure latitude as slide film. That is, you have to get it bang on to get the most out of it. Negative film has a greater latitude, which means that any minor mistakes in the exposure can be corrected during the printing stage. When we come back to digital shooting, that just means that with RAW you can recover from any minor mistakes you make. As a landscape photographer that might not bother you, but as a wedding photographer I can’t go back and ask them to just do that again (well OK, sometimes I can).
2) Everyone shoots RAW. Yes, you do. The only difference is that if you think you shoot JPEG, actually you just leave the RAW processing to your camera. Given that once you’ve taken the photos you’re more than likely going to view them on your [far higher powered] computer afterwards, it seems a bit strange to me that you’d let your camera deal with the RAWs.
3) Saving RAW for special occasions, like the “Sunday Best” of digital photography seems crazy to me. When I first got into photography I took an awesome landscape. The sun was setting, I had some lovely warm-up filters on the front of the lens. Everything was Just Right. The resulting image, as fantastic as it was, was a JPEG. The large print which came from it wasn’t so hot. It’s now a canvas print hanging on my wall downstairs, and it does look good, but it’s only around 20×16″. The point is that you never really know when that awesome shot’s going to come, and once you’ve got the Compact Flash (or SD or whatever) then shooting on it’s free.
4) Processing RAW images doesn’t take forever, so there’s no reason not to use it all the time. Admittedly it’s not necessarily as quick as just dropping the shots into iPhoto (or whatever package you choose to use), but given the advantages abound when it comes to adjusting photos, the short time penalty is one which I’m more than willing to pay.
In the interests of balance, there are a few good reasons to shoot JPEG instead. The biggest one for me is brought up by sports photographers who have to shoot many frames very quickly. That’s fair game: shooting RAW can slow down the continuous drive of a digital camera, and the buffer can fill up quickly. However, newer cameras coming onto the market are addressing that issue, and whilst they might still be well out of some people’s price brackets, they will get cheaper over time.
Let’s talk about processing RAW Images
Let’s pretend that we’ve got back from a successful day’s shooting with our Compact Flash cards all ready to go…
Obviously, the first thing we need to do is get the photos off the card. For this I use a dedicated card reader, rather than having to plug my camera into my computer and sit there draining camera batteries. Each wedding has its own folder in my Photos directory. Inside there are (usually) three more sub-directories: RAW, TIFF and Finished. Obviously, the shots straight from the camera (none of which are deleted during the day, despite how bad some of them might look on the camera’s screen) go straight into the RAW directory.
Once we’ve got the shots onto the computer, the RAW directory is backed up to DVD. Twice. The first copy goes in my storage case. The second one is sent up to what I lovingly refer to as my “offsite backup storage facility”. It’s my parents’ house! What can I say? If it ain’t broke… This is a massively important stage. It ensures (as best as we can) that we can always revert to the original shots taken on the day if we need to. There’s the obvious (though fairly unlikely really) risk of my house burning down and losing the shots, right through to the slightly less obvious but probably more likely event of my hard drive dying sometime during the editing process, leaving me with a bunch of useless, corrupt bits! Repeat after me, “backups are good.”
Right, got those backups sorted? Great. Let’s do some editing. I use Adobe’s Lightroom for my RAW processing. It’s not the cheapest RAW management package, but I’ve been using it since it was first released as a beta and now have a full copy of version 1.0. If you have it, great, but there are other equally capable, I’m sure, RAW processors available. Anyway, back to it. We need to remove the crap from the good stuff. A slideshow is best for that, where you can rate each shot as it’s shown. This way you can plough through the shots fairly quickly and opt to delete all those which scored less than a certain value. Once that’s done, we can start to work on the “keepers”.
It’s now time to work through each of the remaining shots in turn. I do any colour correction that might be needed, along with some exposure tweaking.