What is a raw file?
Updated: May 30, 2021
I'm sure you've heard the term 'raw file' or 'shooting in raw' when it comes to a photo session or photography. Or it's been mentioned during the process of taking pictures. Often I get asked if I shoot in raw, or I get asked for the raw files.
But what is a raw file? And why don't professional photographers give them to their clients? Let me shed some light of the basics of RAW files.
What is a RAW file and what does it do? How are they different from JPEG's?
A jpeg is a photo file that is used for printing and sharing (such as uploading on social media platforms). It takes all the information, what the sensors and camera settings are saying, and compresses that information. Jpeg is the most common form of photo files because of how convent it is.
A Raw file, on the there hand, is just that; it's raw. They are NOT photo files. It is a file that holds unprocessed and non-compressed information, because of this, images often look dull and flat and need to be processed to bring out that beautiful colour and light. These files are harder to use because they need to be imported into programs such as Adobe Camera Raw or Light room, and needs to be converted to jpegs for printing and similar purposes. In short, they are files that have been designed to be edited.
Why don't photographers hand out RAW files?
Once upon a time, I was one of those photographers who handed out raw files to clients. But I was just getting starting didn't know any better and trying was to keep clients happy, however I realized one important thing! Clients were disappointed with the raw files.
Going to back to what a raw file is, it's unedited! It lacks lusters because it is meant to be processed! A raw file is not the finish product. As a client you are going through a photographers portfolio as part of the selection process. Be it images on my Facebook page or my website or what have you, all those images have been edited. I make colours pop, make the images light and airy, I sometimes add in sun flares. Other photographers add a soft matte finish to their images. It is all part of our style, which part of the reason you are hiring us. But the unedited raw files lack that those frills and flairs, leaving clients disappointed with the dull outcome. Think of it as going to the restaurant and ordering
chicken. You want your chicken cooked right? Not Raw.
Also takes away the appeal of the final image as well. Think of the Wizard of Oz. Oz is a wonderful and exciting world... till you realize it's a man behind the curtain, taking away the magic of it all. Taking away the awe. The magic isn't so interesting once you realize how it's done.
Speaking of style, handing over unedited files is a request mostly, made by clients who want to edit the images themselves. This starts to create branding issues. As mentioned above, a lot of photographers bring their own style into their images during the editing process. If you are taking a photographers image and adding your own spin on it, even though it may have the photographers name attached to it, it is no longer the photographers work. It becomes a misrepresentation of the what the photographer does. People see the work you have done and associated with the photographers or it creates confusion, which can turn away potential clients or bring on clients who may want one thing and end up receiving another, which also leads to disappointment. Another turn off is having those dull, lifeless files posted as is to social media, again turning away new clients.
This is why Canada changed is copy right laws in 2012, making the sole copyright owning of photographs, the person who took them. At the end of the day, this is a photographers lively hood. It's how we put food on tables and keep the roof over head. Branding is a big reason as to how we get clients and allowing clients to play around with our images or use unedited ones, can threaten the flow of new clients. Although they may be images of your family and friends, it is the creative property of someone else whose income depends on it staying their creative property. Just a like a novel.
At the end of the day, if you are hiring a professional photographer, you should being hiring someone whose creative vision and artistic talents you trust. Sometimes a client is hoping that they will find a hidden gem in the unedited batch. Unlike large corporate super stores that have photography studios inside, a boutique photographer/photography studio takes a lot more then 7-10 images during a shoot. Especially when it comes to shooting a wedding. To have a client try to sort all those images is quite overwhelming for someone who doesn't do that for living. We photographers spend hours painstakingly going through you images and carefully selecting the best photographs. The ones with the best moments, the best facial expressions, the best poses and lighting and so on and so forth. At the end of the day your photographer isn't going to hand over anything to you that would make you look bad, because that would, in turn, make them look bad as well. If there is something specific you looking for or are a certain look you are hoping to capture or create, it is best to discuss this with your photographer before hand.
Raw files are HUGE! Because they have not yet been compressed, they hold a lot of
information. All that information is there to be manipulated by the photographer. Until this happens and it is compressed in to a jepg or similar photo file, it is very, very large. Which means it will take up a whole lot of space, it can slow things down, and it won't look good on your screen. Images can seem not quite as sharp or crisp as they really are. Plus in the raw format they are much harder to use. They cannot be used for printing and a lot of social media platforms and photo sharing sites are not able to handle RAW files
I hope this helped to explain what a RAW file is and how it is used. Photographers do not hand them out to be mean spirited or anything like that. There are some valid reasons behind that choice. At the end of the day, we are proud of our work and we want our clients to be happy and receive a top-notch product. We take that raw material, and using our talent and knowledge, to create a final product that our clients can be proud of as well. That is what we have been hired for.