Why Shoot in Raw Format?

Reader Question:

Do most National Geographic photographers shoot in raw format? Why?

My Answer: Yes, National Geographic photographers shoot exclusively in raw image format.

Shooting in raw format allows for more flexibility in making the pictures look their best in post-processing, particularly when it comes to correcting for white balance. If a photo is shot as a JPEG with the improper white balance, it’s almost impossible to fix.

But be aware, there is a danger in shooting raw with the mindset that you will just crank out the photos and fix problems later in the raw converter.

That being said, I would encourage beginning photographers to avoid shooting in raw. The JPEG engine in most newer cameras is very good and shooting JPEGs lets the photographer learn how the changes they make to their camera settings affect their photographic outcomes.

If you are just starting out as a photographer, I think it’s helpful to bracket different exposures and white balance settings, and to then look at those pictures with your computer immediately so you can see the different effects.

After you’ve spent some time learning how your camera works, you might want to shoot in raw so the pictures can be optimized after the fact. But don’t use shooting raw as a crutch to try and make bad pictures look good.

In this photo by Raymond Patrick from the June/July 2013 issue of Traveler you can see the difference between what a raw photo looks like at the default setting, and the final product that we published in the magazine.

Unless you are a computer it’s impossible to actually see a raw file because most viewing software will apply its own interpretation to the picture, but this is how a typical raw file will look: A little low in contrast and saturation.

Back in the days of film, National Geographic photographers used to carry around several types of film to impose a “look” on their pictures. Now we add that flavor to the pictures by choosing how to process the raw file. The biggest problem now is to resist the temptation to push the adjustment sliders too far.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.