Steering Clear of the RAW Format Wars

Most professionals (and serious photographers) working digitally, shoot RAW files. They usually do so because of the incredible degree of control and the higher image quality that comes with RAW files. Being able to correct white balance after the fact is one of the many great things about RAW files. The worst thing about RAW files, in my mind, is what I call the ongoing proprietary RAW file wars. In this blog entry, I will talk about what you need to know to stay clear of the RAW format wars.

This blog originally appeared 06-10-2011 on the B + H Insights blog.

RAW files are digital data records of the information as it is—raw and unprocessed—as it comes off the digital sensor in the camera. Processing that raw information into a processed file such as a TFF or a JPG invariably throws out some data. Also, the computer in the camera that converts that raw information into a processed file is not nearly as good as the laptop or desktop computer you would use to make the RAW file into a finished JPG or TFF.

The problem is that almost every camera company creates their own unique proprietary RAW file format. What is worse is that each time those same manufacturers bring out a new camera, they usually build that model so the RAW files it makes are slightly different than the RAW files of previous models. The camera companies want you to use their software. Some of the camera makers argue that their proprietary formats are better than going through outside programs like Photoshop or Lightroom, because their unique RAW file and software combination results in images with the very best image quality. The long-term goal of most of these same manufacturers is to up-sell you to their more-expensive image-processing software.

I, for one, hate learning new software. Also, most of the manufacturers’ software programs for RAW file conversion that I have seen and used have uniformly clunky interfaces. Most photographers do their processing of RAW files through a program they are used to using, usually Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or Aperture (from Apple). So, in my mind, the manufacturers are all but waging war on photographers, continually bringing out new RAW file formats with each new camera.

Leica is one of the only camera companies that do not follow this very annoying practice. Their cameras produce RAW files that—right in the camera—are made in the Adobe DNG format. Adobe created their DNG (Digital Negative) RAW format in an effort to create one universal RAW file format. Use of the file format is royalty free, and Adobe has licensed DNG so that anyone can use it.

Is Adobe’s DNG perfect? Probably not! Would it be nice to have one universal RAW file format? Certainly! Are the software manufacturers to blame when the RAW files from your new camera are not opening in Photoshop, Lightroom Capture One, or Aperture? Absolutely not! Blame that on the manufacturers. In fact, we should thank the software makers at Adobe, Apple, etc., because they are continually updating their software to accommodate the newest RAW file formats created by the camera makers.

So how do I deal with the newest RAW files coming out of my new cameras? That is, until the software companies catch up with the new RAW formats churned out by the hardware companies? I have a two-pronged strategy that I encourage all serious photographers to keep in mind.

1. I pretty much always set my camera so it shoots JPGs and RAWs simultaneously. That way I edit those images in pairs, deciding which to keep (or dump) based on the JPG, which any editing program will definitely read. That helps me decide which files to keep and which to dump, but it does not help me when I want to get a final, processed file like a TFF or a JPEG.

2. With that in mind, I always keep the latest version of the Adobe DNG Converter on my computer. That free software download converts RAW files that often can only be opened with the camera manufacturer’s proprietary software, into new files that can be opened in most recent versions of Lightroom or Photoshop. (The DNG converter makes a new file out of the old one, giving the newer files the suffix DNG.) You can get the latest version of the DNG Converter from Adobe. The companies behind Capture One and Aperture also are pretty good about updating their software.

On the Adobe DNG Converter site, you can see an ongoing (and ever growing) list of which RAW files it works with. It is very important to keep checking to see if you have the latest version of the DNG Converter. A new version is released periodically by Adobe, to take into account all the new RAW file versions that have been created and released since the most recent update of the DNG converter.

You will also see information about what is called the Camera RAW update for Photoshop. That download, when installed to update Photoshop, will also allow Photoshop to open the newest RAW file formats. The problem with that system is that Adobe is continually revising Photoshop. The Camera RAW update is made so it only works with the current or two most recent versions of Photoshop. In my case, I am still using Photoshop CS3, so the Camera RAW update no longer updates my version of Photoshop to open the latest RAW files.

Are the RAW format wars a serious annoyance for photographers? I think so! Is this work-around a pain? Certainly! Is it better than nothing? Absolutely! Is one of the best parts the fact that the Adobe DNG Converter software is free and works cross-platforms? It seems to me that it is. Is it pretty clear who the bad guys are in this situation? I think so!

3 responses to “Steering Clear of the RAW Format Wars”

  1. Yes, dealing with new RAW formats is annoying. No doubt our life would be simpler and more secure with an industry standard for image files that all camera makers used. However, I do not see DNG as a good workaround and I do not blame the camera manufacturers. The root problem is that the sensors and specialized in-camera adjustments are all different and proprietary. Only the native RAW format supports features specific to the sensor and lens such as auto noise compensation, distortion adjustments, etc. The quandary is how can the camera makers protect their technology while using an open file format?

    I see DNG as another Adobe attempt to steer all digital imaging into their product line. Despite the “open” label on DNG, Adobe appears to be the only entity that updates and maintains the format. There is no accepted standard and nearly a decade after introduction there are only a handful of cameras that support DNG. Why would camera makers buy into that? And what guarantee is there that future imaging software will work with today’s DNG files? We would likely wind up with a mess like Android where there are many incompatible versions.

    For my workflow DNG is not even an option. Aperture, the Adobe DNG Converter and the MFT format do not play well together. For example, I cannot convert OM-D E-M1 files into DNG and import them into Aperture. What I do until Apple updates their RAW compatibility is to use the Olympus Viewer to convert the RAW file into TIFF which Aperture can read; or I use fine JPEG. It would be nice if Olympus had a TIFF or DNG option in-camera but I can live with another processing step for a month. You claim the camera maker is trying to sell their software but the Olympus software (and Panasonic which I also use) comes packaged with the camera.

    Until such time as the digital photo industry can agree on DNG or some other format, I’m afraid we have to deal with RAW files the best we can, even if it means using new software for awhile.

  2. Hard to argue with some (but not all) of your points.

    This is indisputable: “Until such time as the digital photo industry can agree on DNG or some other format, I’m afraid we have to deal with RAW files the best we can, even if it means using new software for awhile.”

    While Olympus and the other companies include the basic software with their cameras, they prefer that you buy the advanced software. Whether Adobe is trying to corner the market or unify is debatable. What is clear is that few manufacturers are following their lead.

    I do know that having my RAW files in two different formats increases their long-term viability so I use the DNG.

  3. I hope your complaints gain some traction. I don’t understand why RAW files need to be proprietary. There is certainly compression applied to the data (otherwise they’d be much, much bigger), but otherwise, what do they need to carry along in the file?

    In the scientific world, we’ve been using the FITS standard since 1981 for imaging (esp. astronomy). I’m not suggesting that photography cameras adopt that standard for their raw images, but its *really* easy to open any FITS file produced in the last 30+ years. And you can read the header with any text editor (even easier than jpegs).

    For my purposes, I’ve used “dcraw” by Dave Coffin to convert raw files to usable formats. I’m impressed by how he’s been able to keep up with new formats and code is very easy to compile.

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