This is why shooting in RAW is closer to what we see with our eyes

Mar 21, 2020

Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad is a Norwegian math teacher and landscape photographer. He fell in love with photography in 2013 when he got a camera as a birthday present.

This is why shooting in RAW is closer to what we see with our eyes

Mar 21, 2020

Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad is a Norwegian math teacher and landscape photographer. He fell in love with photography in 2013 when he got a camera as a birthday present.

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When I received my first camera I only shot jpegs. That was all I knew. A few months later a friend of our daughter came for a visit. She told me that it would be an idea if I started to shoot in RAW. I was like: “Say it again….what?” My ignorance was almost tangible. However, I took the challenge and have never looked back. Little did I know that my yes would start a life long learning and cost me a small fortune in editing software.

I soon discovered why RAW files are superior to jpegs, and in this brief article, we will have a closer look at one of the advantages of switching to RAW format. For landscape photography in particular switching to RAW has huge advantages.

Understanding light

As photographers, we play with light. We often learn by trial and error on how to master and control light. Our greatest challenge is that a camera sensor doesn’t perceive light as our human eyes do. The sensor is linear in its perception of light whereas our eyes handle light quite differently.

Human eyes are tuned to see a wide range of tones. We are able to see shadow detail in a very contrasty scene, and we reduce the impact of the highlights. It is as if we add a curve to the light so that we make it non-linear compared to the camera sensor’s treatment of light. We can compare this curve to what the shadows and highlights sliders do in Photoshop. When we edit, we open up the shadows and take down the highlights to arrive at an image in the likeness of what we saw.

The difference between our eyes and the camera sensor

Let’s have a closer look at this photo which was shot in Jotunheimen, Norway. The sun found an opening in the clouds and the scene was very contrasty. The image below shows how the camera sensor perceived the scene when I exposed for the highlights like my eyes saw them. (Shot with the Pentax K-1 and Pentax 15-30).

Pentax K-1, Pentax 15–30, Iso 100, 1/350 sec, f/11

The next image is approximately how my eyes interpreted the scene:

Lightroom settings: Exposure +3,57 Shadows +38 Blacks +36 Highlights -100

Since I shot the scene in RAW, it was possible to extract a lot of shadow detail from the original file. And it is even now still possible for me to fine-tune the white balance. The “problem” with a jpeg file is that we allow the camera software to destruct a lot of information which is impossible to recreate at a later stage. This includes the possibility to adjust the white balance after the image is captured. Image compression also contributes to this information loss. Some say we lose around 20 percent information. Others prefer to point out that a raw file is three to four times larger than a jpeg in terms of megabytes.

Switching from jpeg to RAW comes with it own set of challenges, but it is so worth the effort. As an added bonus we in increasingly degree become the masters of our own creations and can let our creative juices flow. What was your biggest challenge when you switched to RAW?

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Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad

Ole Henrik Skjelstad is a Norwegian math teacher and landscape photographer. He fell in love with photography in 2013 when he got a camera as a birthday present.

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9 responses to “This is why shooting in RAW is closer to what we see with our eyes”

  1. Aaron Alonzo Wigfall Avatar
    Aaron Alonzo Wigfall

    I agree. When I first started shooting I shot in jpeg. I had an opportunity to be a second shooter for a friend of mine. She said to me I hope that you shoot raw because they’re more flexible files than jpeg. So I shot in RAW. When the shoot was over she took my card and loaded it onto her laptop when she brought with her to the shoot and gave me the card back. So I went home and I stuck a card in my laptop and I had the aha moment of my life in photography.

  2. Mark Smith Avatar
    Mark Smith

    The eye actually fools you. At any given time you are not looking at the big picture in front of you. You think you are, but you are actually looking at various sections of the big picture: near and far, bright and dark, focussed and not focussed. The brain stitches all these sections together to make up the big picture, but you do not see it all at the same time with the human eye. Shooting RAW allows for local adjustments much more and allows us to re-create the remembered whole image.

    1. Leo @ Image Melbourne Avatar
      Leo @ Image Melbourne

      Yes, I agree. The brain doesn’t really see images in the same way that a camera does.

  3. Stephen T Avatar
    Stephen T

    When I got my first DSLR in 2007 I used jpeg because someone had told me it cost hundreds to get raw processing software and it was very involved and difficult. Unfortunately I believed them.

    Ten years later and I upgraded to a Nikon d7500. This time I didn’t listen to well meaning friends and researched it for myself. I found that Nikon made a free raw processing engine capture nx-d so I started to shoot in raw and process in nx-d. It was easy and I was astonished by the extra detail I could recover from raw files. The Nikon software was good but I outgrew it after a few months and I now use Lightroom and Photoshop.

    I now kick myself that I didn’t switch to raw years ago. I see old pictures that I would love to reprocess in Lightroom but I am limited in what I can do because they are in jpeg. Grrr. All I would say is do not delay one day. Switch to raw processing. If you are a Nikon owner then you will be able to process your images for free. If you feel that you need more creative control then you can always upgrade to more capable software later

  4. DALVINDER Avatar

    I totally agree with you and it makes sense, at least for most of us. But I have seen Ken Rockwell saying he only shoots in jpeg. He put it down to he doesn’t have to to edit raw files and he needs to move on to his next paid job, instead of editing raw files. I get that, but he seems to have the same idea on raw and jpegs in general, in other words if he did have enough time to edit the photos, he would still shoot jpeg. No doubt he knows his stuff, he has much greater knowledge than me about photography. I have seen some of the stuff he shoots, very contrasty HDR type of jpegs, personally I would not hire him myself. But to get back to the point, I shoot in raw all the time, admittedly I have time to edit them, and those I don’t have time for now are saved on externalhard drives. And most importantly as photography software improves in the future, you will have an opportunity to breathe new life into photos that have been taken in raw.

  5. Cliff Oswald Avatar
    Cliff Oswald

    There are two paths one uses here; there are those that enjoy driving the car and there are those who enjoy tinkering with the engine.
    Photography, when limited to controlling the light passing through a negative film, produced some of the finest work we know.
    So, yes, you can shoot RAW and tinker with it, or you can go out and shoot pictures.
    The only thing of importance, regardless of your style, is not to overexpose; otherwise, all the detail necessary to the subject at hand is there.

    1. Jeffrey Brenman Avatar
      Jeffrey Brenman

      I have to disagree with the notion that no “tinkereing” was needed in what you seem to imply were the good old days, when film was the storage medium for photographic images. To take the negative on which the original information was captured to a medium (the fine print) that you could experience as an image, there was typically a LOT of darkroom manipulatioin, using at least dodge and burn techniques, but also including the choice of printing paper, filtration, choice of chemical developers, toning baths, etc. I worked with black and white negative film as well as direct printing from color transparency to Type R paper for many years, and we always ended up doing rather elaborate “post-processing” in the darkroom to create a good photographic print. If you have ever seen pictures of Ansel Adams test prints, where he recorded his “post-processing” manipulations to his images, he was a fastidious and elaborate tinkerer with almost all of his images! And the manipulations had to be carried out individually for each print that was made. Shooting digital in RAW is a piece of cake compared to the “good old days” of processing film and making wet prints (far simpler and less environmentally damaging too)!

      1. Cliff Oswald Avatar
        Cliff Oswald

        I stand corrected.

  6. Jurgen Lobert Avatar
    Jurgen Lobert

    Yet another misleading title, you guys really need to put more thought into these and avoid click bait! Raw files do not see scenery as our eyes do, they see it very much like the JPGs, you have proven so above with your own images. The correct title would have been “Why raw files are much superior to JPG in high contrast scenery”…