Why RAW Files Need a Little Love

I’m all for making life easier, but only when it makes sense. Sometimes putting in the extra work is more than worthwhile.

Here’s an unedited RAW file before and what it looked like after a few simple edits that took less than 2 minutes.

RAW File Before Edits & After

Even though shooting in JPG is technically easier – since JPGs usually looks pretty finished straight out of the camera – I shoot exclusively in RAW on my Canon 5D Mark II.

RAW files allow for much greater wiggle room if you need to adjust anything after the fact, and they contain more data than JPGs, too. RAW files give you a lot more control.

But RAW files are not without flaws, minor as I think they are. The file sizes are quite massive, for example. So even though space isn’t as much of an issue as it once was, the files still fill up hard drives pretty quickly.

They also aren’t as polished as JPGs. Let me explain.

In-Camera Processing

RAW files aren’t like JPGs in that they pretty much have to be processed into another file type to really do much with them. RAW files will often end up as JPGs, anyway, but only after you – the photographer – make the changes you want to make so images look just right.

Camera manufacturers have built in special image processing techniques so that when you shoot a JPG, different settings like sharpening, saturation or white balance are automatically applied to the image. Some people prefer the camera to do this for them so once the image is taken, no more work really needs to be done. But if the camera makes a wrong decision you’re stuck with what you got.

RAW files don’t get pre-processed like JPGs so it allows you far more flexibility and creative control.


If you choose to shoot in your camera’s RAW format, then you might also want to consider adding a bit of pop to your images.

RAW files tend to be a bit on the duller side than JPGs right out of the camera. So don’t be too bummed if, when you first look at your RAW files, they look a bit blah.

Because it’s not uncommon for them to look a bit drab, these are a couple of things I typically like to do to enhance the images:

  • Auto Adjust – Quite often I like to start out by clicking the “Auto” button in Lightroom’s Develop mode as it does a pretty good job. But if you try it and don’t like it, simply reset the image and make your own adjustments.
  • Adjust the Exposure, Highlights/Brights, Darks/Shadows and Contrast
  • Add a touch of Vibrance or Saturation

And before you think you don’t want to waste too much time editing, spending even 1 minute on your image could significantly improve it. If you’re still short on time, just pick your favorite adjustments and do only those.

Here’s an untouched RAW file – the only thing I’ve done is make it web-sized (shrunk it from 25MB to 56KB).

Puppy dog RAW file no edits

And here’s the processed file after I made the adjustments I mentioned above in Lightroom. Not a bad improvement, eh?

Puppy dog with minor Lightroom edits

I wouldn’t consider this a finished image, but overall it’s not bad for a quick edit.

Time it took: 20 seconds

Clean Up

When you’re out making your images, it’s always best to do everything you can to achieve the look you want in camera, meaning you want to zoom in to frame it as you want it or use the correct aperture to achieve the right amount of depth of field, etc.

But that said, you can’t always do everything just right, especially if you have to shoot quickly.

Rarely do I shoot an image I’m so happy with that I don’t feel like I need to do anything to. Part of that is because RAWs are kinda blah and part of it is I’m on the move a lot and don’t always have time to frame perfectly.

That’s ok if you feel the same way. It’s not a big deal if you want to do some post production edits to your files.

Here are a few common mini-edits that you could do to some of your images to improve them:

  • Crop – sometimes you may want to do a little cropping or rotating after the fact
  • Dust or spot removal – these little buggers can be visually distracting and helpful to remove
  • Convert to B&W or Sepia – I don’t do this often, but some people prefer certain images to be black and white or sepia
  • Vignetting – there are times when you want the viewer’s eye to gravitate towards your subject, so a nice vignette draws the eye inwards

I don’t normally like to go crazy with my edits and luckily Maui is so cute he doesn’t need much done. But for most photos I usually like to straighten out the horizon (if it’s crooked), remove distracting items (like dust and eye goop) and do a little vignette.

Puppy dog final image

Time to polish: 60 seconds.


RAW images tend to be a bit softer straight out of the camera. When working in your image-editing program and you zoom in to 100%, you can see that the edges just aren’t quite as crisp or defined as they could be.

That’s why it’s not uncommon to do a little bit of editing to sharpen up your image before you do anything else with it, like print.

And remember, when you do sharpen, most photographers recommend you do it as your very last post-processing step before saving or exporting.

Here’s the unsharpened version of our little puppy model, Maui:

Puppy dog photo unsharpened

And here’s the sharpened version:

Puppy dog photo sharpened

I oversharpened a bit just to exaggerate the effect, but you can definitely see an improvement in the latter.

Time it took: 20 seconds.

And voilà! You’re done!

Total Edit Time: 1 minutes 40 seconds

In the End

At the end of the day, RAW files give you far more leeway and artistic license to transform the image into the way you see it and how you want to share it with the world. And even though RAWs may take a bit longer to edit after the initial capture, I think it’s worth it. Choosing the right tools for what you want is a big part of getting the end result you envision.

But what you do to your images and how much will vary from one photographer to the next. Photo making is a very personal and artistic thing and only you can make the final decision as to whether an image needs anything I mentioned above or nothing at all.

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