Photoshop for Beginners; Keeping your photographs RAW

For my very first post in my ‘Photoshop for Beginners’ series, I thought I’d take a few minutes to quickly explain the different file types that you will come across in photography, and which ones are the most useful for your purposes. For the record, I’m going to try and make this as short and simple as possible, as I do recognise the file types are a pretty boring subject for most people; they do, however, make a fairly big difference when it comes to photography, so it’s useful to have a little bit of general knowledge on the topic. If, however, you’re a photography expert or a bit of a computer nut, you won’t learn anything knew from this post – and you may even roll your eyes at my over-simplified explanations; this post is for beginners only!

So, to begin with, lets talk about JPEGs. Now, I’ve no doubt that you’ve all heard of jpegs, but I’m willing to bet that your knowledge about them goes very little beyond ‘well it’s a type of picture…’. And you are correct, it is a type of picture, sort of; more specifically, it’s a format in which photos are commonly saved. The important thing you need to know about JPEGs is that they are what’s known as a ‘lossy compression’ format; this means that the image is compressed to such an extent that you lose a lot of detail and information from the original photograph.

Let me try to explain this a bit better. Very simply, when you take a photograph on a compact camera, you assume that the image you see on the screen is an exact copy of what you see in front of you in real life- but it isn’t. The camera itself ‘edits’ the photograph before saving it; you can adjust these edits in camera by, for example, choosing to shoot in ‘nighttime’ mode, or ‘daytime’ mode. These modes tell the camera how to process and edit the photograph for best results depending on your situation, so that the photograph you end up with looks great. It isn’t, however, the photograph you took; the camera has simply edited the photograph according to your settings.

These alterations are the most noticeable when you shoot under coloured light; if you take a picture under fluorescent light with no alterations, you’ll see a very yellow colour-cast on your image; by playing around with your camera settings however, you can adjust this to get a perfectly coloured photograph – this is an example of your camera editing the image for you.

As I mentioned before, however, the problem with JPEGs is that when the image is saved, it is also compressed, which can result in a loss of quality and detail. It usually isn’t too noticeable, unless you’re comparing it directly to a RAW file, but it can sometimes make a difference when editing your photos.

Why? Well, let’s take that example of the colour cast again. The way we measure and adjust a colour cast in photographs is called ‘White Balance’, and when you shoot in JPEG your camera will measure and adjust the white balance (the colour of the image) itself. Now, if your camera measures the light in the scene wrong, and decides to process the image slightly ‘warmer’ (more yellow) to compensate, it’s almost impossible to correct this mistake with photo-editing software. To add yellow pixels to the image, your camera has removed blue pixels – and there’s no way to get these pixels back. You can play around with colour gradients etc if you like, but the resulting image often looks tacky and unrealistic, because you’ve essentially painted the colour on top, not corrected the colour of the original image.

So what are RAW files then? Well, really, they’re exactly what they sound like; they’re the ‘raw’ image that the camera took, almost completely unprocessed and with very little compression.

A far too dark RAW file...

A far too dark RAW file…

The edited RAW file. Yes, it's EXACTLY the same image, with about 5minutes worth of editing. Try doing THAT with a jpeg!

The edited RAW file. Yes, it’s EXACTLY the same image, with about 5minutes worth of editing. Try doing THAT with a jpeg!

These files contain a lot more information (more pixels) from the original image, meaning they have a lot more information to play around with whilst editing. If a JPEG image has dark shadows in it, you will never be able to recover the information from those shadows, because the data has already been lost. If you have dark shadows on a RAW file however, it’s often possible to correct the light and bring back some of the detail from those shadows, so that resulting image is not so dark or contrasty.

Not all cameras are able to shoot RAW files of course, and different brands call it different things; Nikon shoots ‘.NEF’ files, and some models shoot ‘.TIFF’ files, but they’re essentially the same thing. Little compact cameras very rarely have the ability to shoot RAW, but you can at least go in to the settings and make sure you’re shooting in the highest quality available. If you’re using a DSLR, you should be able to choose between shooting in RAW, JPEG or a combination of both.

If you’ve never tried shooting in RAW before but are interested in having more control in the way you edit your photographs, I’d seriously recommend trying it out. The next time you set up a jewellery shoot, shoot in JPEG first as you usually would, then try tacking on a few RAW images at the end and see for yourself the difference it makes when editing. The thing to note is that you will have to adjust the White Balance yourself in the editing software rather than in camera, as RAW files aren’t processed by the camera at all (and therefore the camera won’t correct WB or anything else), but I think you’ll find you prefer the results of correcting it yourself anyway; you have so much more control over the exact hue, vibrancy etc when you do it yourself.

The other important thing to note is that not all software can read RAW files; Photoshop can, but GIMP can’t. Pixlr can’t, but PhotoPlus can; check the documentation for your chosen program before making the switch. Also remember to save your images as JPEGs when you’re finished editing them, as most websites only allow JPEG submission (though I think flikr, DA etc accept .psd documents and some other non-destructive save formats if you’d rather not lose quality).

And there you have it! I hope you found my explanations fairly easy to understand, but if you do need any further clarification, please don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comments down below 🙂

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