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Those of you with digital SLRs or high-end point-and-shoots have a
choice when it comes to the fi le format that your camera writes: JPEG
(the world and web standard for photographic imagery) and raw (a
proprietary, unprocessed, “negative” of your image fi le). As raw fi les are
exponentially larger than JPEG fi les, many users fi nd they can “buy” three to
four JPEGs for the cost of one raw fi le, and thus never bother to explore the
many advantages raw capture has to off er. The raw format does have
signifi cantly powerful advantages and those not (yet) shooting raw should
consider all of the following benefi ts.
Raw fi les are larger, but they are also uncompressed, high bit depth unaltered
originals. This means many things as you bring them into your imaging
application: fi rst, you have the best image fi delity that your camera can
muster, the greatest amount of capture information, and the most control
over image processing. Further, the raw format maps to the image settings
applied at capture, and every subsequent editing change applied in
processing, sits alongside the raw fi le as an external reference component
associated with each image fi le. Since changes and edits are not applied
directly to the raw image fi le, all raw processing adjustments are completely
non-destructive and infi nitely editable.
Although programs like Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom can now read
JPEGs, the application of controls such as “temperature” and “exposure” are
hacked into the JPEG fi le artifi cially.
While a raw fi le contains the unprocessed and uncompressed image data
captured by the digital camera sensor, images captured in JPEG format are
compressed in the camera in order to make them smaller. This compression
process, known as lossy, is extremely destructive to image data. Artifacts can
easily be seen in magnifi ed viewing on screen. In addition, both JPEG and TIFF
formats process the image data in-camera, manipulating the image data by
adding adjustments to all images unilaterally such as contrast and saturation.
For this reason, JPEG fi les tend to look much better initially, but remove a
great deal of control over image processing. JPEGs also freeze applied capture
criteria and bake the settings into the pixels which, unlike raw, cannot be
undone. JPEGs can be extremely useful and benefi cial if memory is essential, if
the number of images you can capture on a card must be increased, if general
pre-processing speed outweighs custom image processing, or if images are
destined for the web.
Keep in mind, however, that quality is signifi cantly compromised in the
exchange. Best practice therefore is to use JPEGs when resolution and image
control are not as important, and use raw for everything else!Most camera manufacturers have created and maintain their own unique
proprietary formats for raw image fi les, diff erentiated by unique fi le
extensions. For example, NEF defi nes a Nikon raw fi le and CRW defi nes a
Canon Raw File. As for CS4, Adobe Photoshop (via Camera Raw 5.0) and
Photoshop Lightroom 2.0 support over 200 unique, proprietary raw camera
formats. But with the rapid advancement of technology, it is not safe to
assume that the camera companies that make each format will continue to
support them once they become outdated. The proprietary fi les that can be
converted with manufacturer’s solutions now are not likely to be supported
years down the road, and will certainly never be archival enough to last a
lifetime. Furthermore, they presume that someone else that might want to
read them will have the same camera and software!
For this reason, and with an eye toward the long-term future, Adobe
proposed a universal, free specifi cation format called DNG. The DNG format
has the advantages of being future-proof publicly available, free of cost and,
in classic Adobe style, it even compresses the footprint of the characteristically
large raw fi les (lossless, of course).
Unlike a proprietary raw fi le which stores settings in an accompanying
“sidecar” text fi le, a DNG encapsulates those settings in the fi le itself – so
there’s no worry about separating the image from the instructions that tell it
what it looks like. An additional advantage of the DNG format is that it enables
the user to read new camera formats in older software via DNG conversion
(drag and drop converter).
While several major companies such as Leica and Hasselblad have written
to DNG natively, any fi le can be converted easily to DNG with any of the