Introduction to RAW

Every digital camera captures raw data from the sensor and processes it through the analog to digital converters making it available to the cameras CPU.  Almost 100% of consumer compact cameras take this data and using the cameras CPU and a program in the cameras firmware, convert this raw data to the jpeg files you’re used to seeing from compact cameras.  The firmware program applies a set of parameters common to what the ‘camera thinks’ you need, and you get a jpeg file as a result.  This file might be perfect, but most often it could stand some corrections/changes.

The problem with jpeg files it that every time you open and save a jpeg file, it induces image degradation.  More, you are very limited to what you can do with a jpeg image.  DSLRs (digital single lens reflex) and a small handful of compacts (Canon G9, G10, Panasonic Luminx 3, Nikon P6000) make the raw data available to the photographer.  Some parameters (such as white balance) can be adjusted with very little image degradation, while others can be adjusted much more than a jpeg but still suffers a quality loss.  To process RAW files you’ll need your manufacturers included raw converter software, or a good aftermarket software package like Adobe’s Lightroom or Phase One’s Capture Pro.  Let me introduce you to the processing of a very difficult raw file and show you the magic within.

Original Picture

Above is an image right out of the camera.  This would look the same whether or not I outputted it as a jpeg or a raw file.  The difference is what I can do with it and still maintain image quality.  Notice how the colors are way off?  The skin tones are wildly inaccurate and most people would either delete this image in camera or just discard it later.  Lets see what we can do with it.  First we’ll adjust the white balance.

White balance adjusted

WOW!  Can you see the dramatic effect of just being able to adjust the white balance?  (I also cropped to taste) No other adjustment was made.  White balance ‘usually’ results in zero image degradation.  It can degrade the image in more extreme circumstances and I’ll get into how this happens in a future topic.


Now you can see I’ve brought the exposure up exactly 1/3rd of a stop and we now have the correct exposure.  Most people would be happy with the correct exposure and the correct white balance but lets go further.  Take a look at the image below.

Adjusted exposure

It’s a face of life that 99.9% of humans have blemishes of some sort, usually temporary and brought on by stress or cycles.  In this case we can see several small blemishes, one on the nose, under the eye, and on the forehead.  You’d probably not notice these in person, or on a 5x7” print, but you would on a 11x14” print where the size of the head almost doubles its life size.  Using our healing brush the blemishes are removed in seconds.

Remove blemishes

With the blemishes removed we want to eeekk out the maximum detail from this image without creating sharpening artifacts or halos, sharpening errors common even with experienced amateurs.  They go too far with a good thing.

Focus Magic

With this particular image, especially considering it’s high ISO, I chose to not use your standard Lightroom or Photoshop unsharp mask or sharpening features.  Instead I used a program called Focus Magic which in the mode I used it actually realigns the pixels for maximum sharpness without inducing artifacts.  Check it out here.

Final picture

After achieving the most detail can you believe the final action I want to do is remove detail?  Its not hard to use Photoshop to soften skin and give an overall softer look, but it’s much better to selectively soften that which you want softened (skin and background noise (grain), while leaving the areas where detail helps make the picture (eyes, hair).  For this purpose I used Kodak’s excellent Airbrush Pro.  You can check it out here.  Now we have a presentable image ready for print that looks much better than most would expect from ISO 1600 and totally looks different than the darkness it was taken in.