Camera Raw

Recently I’ve been asked by some clients for my original camera RAW files. Some of these clients only want to receive the camera RAW files while others want them in addition to other formats. The request for these files has become a hot issue for professional photographers. Below are a few reasons why photographers are reluctant to provide RAW files.

First, a little background. What exactly is a RAW file (not to be confused with Adobe Camera Raw)? A RAW file is the file that comes directly from the camera without any type of adjustment. Each camera sensor is made of individual points called pixels. The total number of pixels on the sensor is measured in megapixels. One megapixel is one million pixels or points on the sensor. A 24 meg camera would have 24,000,000 pixels. Each camera manufacturer has its own proprietary format. Pixels only measure the amount of light at a point in the image. Pixels don’t see color, only measuring the relative light or dark in the scene. Each pixel has a filter of red, green or blue over it in order to measure the respective color. Together RGB makes daylight or white light: all the colors we can see. The image shown on the camera back is actually a JPEG image, which has been adjusted or processed by the camera.

So why don’t professional photographers want to give away their RAW files? The first reason is that even if the client has Photoshop or Lightroom it takes a skilled and experienced user to handle the files properly. This is similar to architects who are reluctant to giving away their CAD or Revit files.

Second, is the importance of what the photographer does in post-processing. The initial capture is only the first step in creating a final image. The photographer’s skill and experience during post-processing is as important as the initial capture. Post-processing is a multi-step procedure in which each step builds upon the previous to create the vision of the photographer. When consumer cameras capture an image the camera automatically makes assumptions about the scene and image before it is displayed on the camera back. This is why consumer cameras have settings for snow, beach, mountains, people etc. It helps the camera decide how to process the image. Using the RAW format all adjustments are in the hands of the photographer.  Photographers typically only want to release a final product that is consistent with their brand, vision and style.

To illustrate, below are three images of a scene taken for a recent client. The first is the RAW file just as it came from the camera. The second image is what was sent to the client after post-processing. The client wanted a ‘normal’ scene with good highlight and shadow detail because it was to be used it in scouting movie, TV and other film production locations. The third is another possible interpretation of the scene taking the post-processing even further. Which is the correct or most authentic to the scene? All of them. It all depends on the vision of the photographer and purpose of the image.

To see additional samples click here