RAW madness

Yesterday, as part of my day job, I found myself sitting at a presentation on current markets and perspectives. Supply, demand, rational allocation of time, ressources and so on; my mind began to ramble, and I suddenly wondered: does RAW make sense ?

For the uninitated, RAW is defined, courtesy of Wikipedia, as a variety of standardized image files used by digital cameras containing the unprocessed data from the sensor. They're a bit like digital negatives in that the image, often in TIFF or JPEG, needs to be extracted from the RAW file. But they're also a bit different, as the RAW file contains loads more data than the extracted TIFF or JPEG image. This means the RAW file contains a depth of data allowing for substantial, very flexible post-production editing, way beyond what you could normally do with only a TIFF or JPEG file (or with a negative).

When you're out there taking photos, your camera settings normally let you chose between taking a) only the RAW file, b) only the TIFF or JPEG file, or c) both the RAW and the JPEG of TIFF. I only ever take just the JPEG, without the RAW. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, I often think of RAW as a "laziness solution", allowing you to cut corners in the hope of putting things right post-production. Problem is, if you get used to cutting corners, or if you use a fat zoom as a substitute for moving around your subject, you're liable to become a lazy, and poor, photographer.

Mind you, I'm no ayatollah opposed in principle to playing around with your photos after having taken them. You'll certainly notice the photos on this site are often cropped, or have had their constrast or colour saturation boosted. But these adjustments are all perfectly achievable with the JPEG file. The RAW file lets you do far more however, and feeds the illusion that a boring photo can be made excellent, post-production thanks to the RAW file. In my opinion, it can't - just as Hollywod can throw countless millions into amazing special effects, without these turning a bad film into a good one.

At least not unless you have a larger vision that goes beyond fiddling your photo. Take Gursky and his monumental photos for instance. These are the product of considerable, painstaking and subtle postproduction work, with the initial photo often serving essentially as raw (no pun intended) material. If you can get your hands on it, there's actually an excellent and fascinating documentary about the making of his photo Hamm, Bergwerk Ost, 2008. But Gursky uses potproduction as part of a larger vision, much as a painter would use his colours and brushes to creat a coherent whole with emotion and meaning. It's not just about boosting colours and using HDR to disguise a boring, flat photo.

As it happens, I'm also a classical music buff, and a fan of both historical recordings (where they couldn't do much editing) and recordings by Glenn Gould, who was legendary for the time he'd spend in the studio editing and splicing the countless takes he did of each piece, movement or phrase. Again, Gould wasn't doing this simply because it was available and everyone else did, but as part of a larger vision he had of the work he was recording.

So back to my question: does RAW make sense, quite apart from my personal feelings about it ?

By its nature, it allows you to spend a good deal more time doing vastly more edits on each photo. The implication is that each photo has more value, or else we wouldn't bother.

On the other hand, there's more of us taking more photos than ever before - which, in terms of supply and demand at least, would suggest that each photo in fact has far less value than the ones we used to take with film cameras.

On top of which demands are now being placed on our time by a greater variety of things and activities than ever before, so that if anything, people are probably not spending more time with, and thereby ascribing more value to, photography than before.

It is therefore my conclusion and firm belief that, with some exceptions, RAW makes no sense.

Having said that, and though I've happily forked out a large sum to purchase a Nikon Df without video capability of integrated flash, would I buy an even moderately expensive digital camera without RAW capability ? Probably not. Go figure...

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