I photograph exclusively in RAW format these days — unless I happen to be using a camera that doesn’t have that capability. This post is a small but tangible example why shooting in RAW is a good thing.
Have a look at the photo below. That’s what happens when you combine dark streets, tall buildings and bright skies. It’s hard to get the exposure correctly, especially if you haven’t got the time to sit there taking lots of photos of the same thing while you adjust the aperture and shutter speed manually. If you expose for the shadows, you get an unpleasantly bright sky, like here. If you expose for the sky, you get really dark buildings, and then you can’t make out the details.
Fortunately, I can adjust the exposure of a photo (within limits) after the fact if I shoot in RAW. I can also make tonal adjustments much better than with a JPEG file. Here’s that same photo, post-processed. I only used Lightroom, no Photoshop here. (In case you’re wondering, I also made contrast and color saturation and luminance changes.)
I was able to recover the highlights and even get a decent amount of detail in the clouds. Yes, you can tell the sky isn’t natural, but hey, it’s a whole lot better than a blown out highlight. And there’s still plenty of shadow detail.
If your camera lets you shoot in RAW, don’t hesitate, take the plunge. Yes, the files will be a little bigger, but you get a ton more creative capability in post-processing. And you don’t have to use Lightroom or Bridge if you can’t afford them. (I know Bridge is free but you need Photoshop or another Adobe app to get it.) Both Picasa and iPhoto will work with RAW files. One caveat about iPhoto: at the time of this post, it does NOT work with DNG files (Adobe’s own RAW file format). It does, however, work with Canon, Nikon and other RAW formats. Your camera may also have come with software that lets you develop and manipulate the RAW files. Get started exploring this new medium — it’s the equivalent of a film negative — and have fun improving your photography!