*** There are plenty of articles on why your need your RAW files for legal reasons, and I encourage you to go read them. But that’s not what this is about. This post is about why you need the RAW files for yourself. ***
If you don’t know how to work with RAW, or you don’t think you’ll ever do anything with your photos, like displaying or selling them, you may think it’s fine to skip capturing the RAW files. It’s a choice you will come to regret. Even if you’re not a professional photographer, you’ll eventually wish you had the RAW files to work with. Here’s why.
Endless Possibilities, Moments You’ll Never Get Back
This is a photo I’ll never take again. A moment that’s irreplaceable. A moment I need to keep with me and be able to revisit.
We all have those moments. Rarely do we have the photos that capture them – only if we’re lucky. When we do, they are often haphazard and hard to see, not just right. We cherish them anyway and wish that by remembering the details we could make them visible in their full glory.
But what if you could? What if you could go back and bring it into something that everyone else can see too? Or just something for yourself?
During his years as an indoor cat, Gorgeous would sit on the stairs, right over my shoulder while I worked at my desk. And he would go from there to the back of the chair and into my lap. Even though he did that all the time, getting a picture of it wasn’t easy. Eventually, the cancer came back, and we had to say goodbye. I can’t tell you how hard it was to sit at my desk every day, constantly glancing over my shoulder for him only to find an empty space. I had this photo that I was able to put right there where he would normally be. Did it fix everything? Of course not! But it did make those moments just a tiny bit less empty and frantic.
I started with the version on the left, and I was so glad to have it there, just for me. But after enough time passed, I realized I wanted to do something more with it. Something I could share with the world.
Recovering from Bad Settings
Ideally, you’ll always set your white balance correctly, you’ll always remember. But that doesn’t always happen (if you’re relying on your camera’s auto white balance, you’re just screwed).
That same goes for a lot of settings. Too many people have this fantasy that if you’re really any good, you’ll get all your settings right and meticulously compose each shot before you take it. Sure, that’s something to aim for, and you’ll get better photos for the effort, but it’s not realistic to think you can do it for everything.
The kind of work I do almost never allows for it. My subjects don’t wait for me to be ready. Neither do my opportunities. They don’t come at planned times of day or in predictable settings.
I take pictures of animals. I do a lot of shooting indoors, when the moment presents itself. If I were to try to change the lighting or my settings the moment would be lost. Similarly, I have to take my outdoor shots when they are there, almost never when I actually go out with shooting in mind.
Even under the ideal conditions, with all the time and cooperation you need, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes your best shot, the one you really love, is a test shot. And you wish you had some way to just go back and make that one like the ones you got right after you started the “real” session.
Maybe it was the expression or tilt of the head. When you’re shooting people, there is a good reason this! You’re catching them when they aren’t trying to pose and trying throws everything off.
An Example of White Balance
In this example of white balance, I had been taking pictures outside. Neither of these photos are among my best ever. They’re just in the photos that are very important to me personally, for my memories. I was in the middle of a long session and ran in for something. When I stepped inside, Gorgeous was headed for his food dish – his favorite thing. I wanted to get a quick shot of him and changing the white balance didn’t even occur to me. Until I saw the VERY ORANGE result flash on the display. Ugh! Here’s the original, and some improvements I made very quickly (at a later date) by working with the RAW file.
I got lucky and was able to catch this next photo after changing the white balance from daylight to tungsten. MUCH better, but still a little off. The original is on the left. By working with the RAW file, I was able to improve this one too (on right).
Something More Dramatic
It was only because I had the RAW file to work with that I was able to do this.
Which translates to this in black and white.
And what then became Stash Stalking the Amazing Mr. Tom.
Why RAW is for Everyone
Whatever your purpose, someday you’ll wish you had the RAW files – whether your intention is making art, preserving memories, or both.
Sometimes, you think you’re doing one thing and when you look back at the pictures a few days (or years!) later you realize you have something completely unexpected. When you thought you were just messing around and capturing loved ones, you got something that makes great art. Or, it’s the other way around and in the middle of a serious shoot you happen to capture a memorable moment that has nothing to do with the session. I’ve tried to include examples that represent the range.
The dream that you’ll get the chance to do it again and get it right may never come true. Shit happens. People move away. Loved ones get sick, disfigured, or die – sometimes suddenly. Buildings get torn down. Hell, that old junker car that was sitting there so perfect for 20 years, might even get moved tomorrow.
Don’t chance it. It takes no extra effort to capture those RAW files. Go set your camera now and forget about it, even if you don’t think you’ll ever do anything with them. One day you (or someone else) will be glad you did.