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By Eric Friend

Shooting In Raw – Understanding Bit Depth and Dynamic Range

Let's discuss file formats, specifically RAW files and why you should or shouldn't use them. It's true that not every situation needs a RAW file but you should know what you'll be missing if you shoot with a compressed file format such as Jpeg. Let's get into it!

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Shooting in Raw

Most people will agree that photographing using a Raw file format is important for photographers. If you’re like me, I want to understand why I should be doing something rather than just blindly following advice. Understanding why will also help you determine if the benefits will apply to your photography workflow.

Let’s dive into the two major aspects of what makes these files different in the first place. Dynamic Range and Bit Depth. After we go through the technicalities, we will get into the visual differences showing how this affects your photos.

Bit Depth

In digital photography, bit depth refers to the amount of color information that can be stored for each pixel in an image. It’s often described in terms of the number of bits used to represent each of the red, green, and blue channels of a pixel. A higher bit depth allows for more possible colors and thus more detail and subtlety in color transitions.

For example:

  •  An 8-bit image allows for 256 levels of brightness for each color channel, resulting in about 16.7 million possible colors. 
  • Meanwhile, something like a 16-bit image allows for 65,536 levels of brightness for each color channel, resulting in Trillions of possible colors.

Jpeg

8 bits for color

~16 million Colors

vs

Raw

Between 14 – 15 bits

~Trillions of Colors

Dynamic Range

Dynamic range in photography refers to the ratio between the maximum and minimum measurable light intensities (Brightness and Shadows). In other words, it’s the range of tones from the darkest to the brightest that a camera can capture in a single shot. The higher the dynamic range, the more detail the camera can capture in both the shadows and highlights.

The dynamic range of the human eye is arguable because our eyes have the ability to adjust to lighter and darker situations as our surroundings change. Most people agree to call it somewhere between 25 – 30 stops of light. Camera’s will capture a small range in comparison. 

Jpeg

8 stops of light 

vs

Raw

Up to 15 stops

Relationship and Differences

While both bit depth and dynamic range deal with the detail that a digital camera can capture, they do so in different ways. In simpler terms this is what you can remember for each:

Bit Depth

A higher bit depth allows for smoother gradients and more subtle color variations, reducing the risk of banding and other color artifacts in your photos.

Dynamic Range

A higher dynamic range means the camera can capture more detail in both very bright and very dark areas, reducing the risk of blown-out highlights or crushed blacks.

The two are related in that a higher bit depth can help to better represent the increased detail captured by a high dynamic range.

For example, a camera with a high dynamic range might capture a lot of detail in the shadows and highlights, but if the bit depth were too low, the image might not be able to accurately represent those details, leading to banding or posterization. 

When understanding your own camera,  remember that these two things are distinct. A camera could have a high bit depth but a low dynamic range, or vice versa. 

  • The bit depth is a property of the image file and the way the color information is stored.
  • The dynamic range is a property of the camera’s sensor and its ability to capture light.
 
Many cameras also have the ability to capture different types of files. You should always check your camera settings to see what options you have and decide where to go from there. 

Visual Differences!

I hope I haven’t bored you too much, I know this may all sound technical and a bit tedious to read about. I’m a visual learner, so let’s look at some visual examples to help you understand how this will affect the look of your pictures.

RAW

Jpeg

At first glance, these untouched files really don’t look that different. If you plan to not touch your photos after you take them, you may even say that the jpeg looks better. The biggest difference will come in when you start to edit! 

Dynamic Range While Editing

If you start playing with change the exposure or light details in your picture, you will quickly notice how much more data is kept in the RAW file. 

The following photos are both at +4 stop exposure and you can see how much more detail is kept in the RAW file. Our once lovely jpeg file has been completely blown out.

RAW

Jpeg

You may think, “well, I’m ever going to raise the exposure that much…”

In the real world, no one is perfect and many lighting situations will have a greater dynamic range than the dynamic range capable of being held in a jpeg file. This will result in shadows that have lost all their details and can’t be brightened up, or you may completely clip your whites, causing you to lose the color pixels in that area. 

Once you have lost data, there is no getting it back. So if you don’t perfectly expose your photo, or if the dynamic range in your specific lighting situation is greater than what your jpeg can handle, you will regret not shooting that photo in RAW. 

Bit Depth While Editing

Now looking at a visual example for bit depth. 

These two photos have the exact same edit and you can see the result of both Dynamic Range and Bit Depth in this example. Notice the following: 

  • The shadows and highlights in the RAW file give the photo a greater sense of depth and realism
  • The colors transition more smoothly in the RAW
  • We have lost some detail in the sky of the Jpeg 
  • The Raw file has more colors in general, once again, giving it a greater sense of realism and vibrance

RAW

Jpeg

Things to know and tips!

Now, I know I’ve spent a lot of time going through the differences between shooting in RAW vs Jpeg. Here are some other things that are good to know!

  • If you’re lightly editing photos to post on platforms where they will be small, such as Instagram. You may prefer Jpeg.
  • All of my instagram photos were shot in RAW and edited RAW. After the edit, I then exported as a Jpeg and upload to social media.
  • After the photo is edited, you are pretty safe to export to Jpeg but I recommend keeping the Raw file safe on an external HD.
  • If you plan to print your photos, I prefer to export in Tiff. 
  • If you shoot in RAW this file format will take up a lot of space so you will need to keep that in mind when thinking about storage. Again, if you do not edit your photos, you may find that the file size isn’t worth it.

Conclusion

There’s no one “right” way to do things but I hope this has given you some things to think about for your own workflows. I’ve found that shooting in RAW has completely changed my editing capabilities so I would encourage you to test it to see if it does the same for you. Thanks for reading and keep snapping photos! 

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