Controlling your RAW

There’s a small but growing murmur of folks who have been asking photographers for their RAW files locally. There are even more young photographers who seem, in an amazing turn, to be willing to hand over their in-camera originals without a thought.
Here’s why that’s a bad idea.

RAW files, as you might have gathered from previous entries on this blog and other resources on the Internet, are a very useful dump of the direct digital data captured by a professional or prosumer camera’s sensor.
This data is far more flexible than the baked in JPEG files that the cameras produce, but unlike JPEGs, they need work before they can be declared finished images.

There are artists and designers who have enough of an understanding of modern digital photography that they can make use of these files and maybe even use them effectively.
In my experience though, photographers have traditionally been best at handling photographic materials, despite the protestations that tend to come up at times like this.

In the good old days, negatives and transparencies would get lost or damaged and frustrated clients couldn’t seem to understand that they had managed to destroy their originals.
With infinite copies possible in a digital age that isn’t likely to be an issue, it’s not hard to imagine a client opening a folder of RAW files and not having any idea what to do with it.

In my own workflow, I spend a lot of time working on final image files to put my own stamp on them and on realising the vision I had for the image when I did the original photography. There’s still no reliable way to add those alterations back into the RAW image, so it’s most likely that such transforms, even embedded in Adobe’s DNG format, will be lost when they are opened.

There is, however, an alternative for clients who want a file with data headroom to work with.
A digital RAW file is essentially a special flavour of TIFF file with some custom additions designed by the camera manufacturer.
Most of the advantages of the format, plus the alterations you choose to make to the file in Photoshop after the fact, are supported by the TIFF format in 16-bit mode, the format I usually work with when working on the derivative files I usually label as “finals.”

For most clients who want unretouched TIFFs, I export 8-bit versions after making broad adjustments in Lightroom, but with a 16-bit TIFF, it’s possible to bake in important tags like metadata and some key adjustments and give a discerning designer enough data for even the most vigorous of digital transforms.
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