Why RAW isn’t like a film negative

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When I started into digital photography back in the mid 2000’s, every article I read was telling me I ought to be shooting in RAW. “A RAW file is like having a negative,” I was told. Ever since I got my first digital camera that could shoot RAW, I’ve been shooting RAW. In fact, one of the many reasons I went from shooting with a bridge camera (a camera that “Bridges” the gap between a DSLR and a point-and-shoot camera, offering many the benefits of each at a price point between the two) to my first DSLR, the Pentax K-x, was to be able to shoot RAW.

SilkyPix

The software that came with my K-x was Silkypix, and while it did let me edit my RAW images, I’m not going to candy coat it and pretend it was good software. It was difficult to use, and quite often, I found myself bringing my RAW images to what the camera’s own in-camera processing had done for my JPEG’s (I was shooting RAW+). It was seriously lacking in some important editing features, and I found myself using Shotwell and F-spot a lot more. Some of the arguments against JPEG’s didn’t make sense. For example, many were arguing that, every time the JPEG was edited, quality would be lost. This made sense if I was overwriting my original JPEG’s, but I knew enough to write protect any original and save copies, so any changes I made to an image was only ever a first generation copy and therefore degradation was not even noticeable.

LightZone

A few years ago, I learned about LightZone, an open source RAW photo editor that was intended to be a free open source alternative to Adobe Lightroom, and this really opened my eyes to the benefits of working with RAW images. I was able to develop a workflow where I was able to give each of my photographs my own unique touch, bringing them so much closer to my creative intent. I shot in RAW all the time after that. A while later, my K-x was having some age-related problems, and after inheriting a Spotmatic and S1a, I decided to start shooting and developing my own black and white film again. I developed a film scanning workflow and used LightZone for some final touches. Some of these photos were quite remarkable, and so I decided to start up my own photography business, Ageless Images, and wanted to place a watermark on them. LightZone had no such ability, which lead me to DarkTable. Having moved to DarkTable for nearly everything now related to post-processing both negatives and RAW, I have come to the conclusion that a RAW file is not like film: in fact, it is a vastly superior and completely different thing.

DarkTable

It turns out that a RAW image file is not an actual image. It is simply a representation, or model if you will, of all points of light data at the moment the photograph was taken. It would be slightly more accurate to call it an undeveloped negative (or slide). An undeveloped negative or slide can be pushed or pulled, or developed normally. Once a roll of film has been developed, you’ve locked those images in, and that film becomes the finished product. Every print or scan made after that is a copy of the original. You can still do some post-processing during the creation of a print, but no matter what, that print is a copy of what was on the film, and as such will not be of the same quality as the original. Because of this, I would consider a JPEG to be more like a film negative or slidefilm negative or slide, because it’s exposure and other values are “Locked in” and anything created after it becomes a copy. However, I go so so far as to state that the RAW image is still more than an undeveloped image on a roll of film, as you can go beyond what you could do in pushing or pulling a roll of film. The latitude offered by a RAW image file makes it as though you could, at any moment, move the image over to an entirely different type of film. In fact, a RAW image is more like a model of each photon of light captured in that moment to be stored indefinitely, providing the photographer to create an original as many times and in as many different ways as they see fit.

Cropped from a high resolution negative scan of 35mm film

It isn’t just about the light, though; it’s also about the detail. Arguments have been made back and forth about film exceeding the megapixel limitations of film, but I did a test early on when I got my 12 megapixel Pentax K-x and compared that to the last shot I took on film that year. The results were staggering. Although my test shot wasn’t scientific enough to be published anywhere, I maintained the same lighting, focal length, ISO rating, and shutter speed between the two cameras, and it was clear to me that any detail lost to the limits of the sensor resolution were nothing compared to the detail lost due to grain. There are some that might consider the “Resolution” of certain films to exceed digital, but I believe it has more to do with the fact that all elements of a RAW file are quantifiable (even though the numbers are unimaginably high), while the analog nature of film makes even each grain an un-quantifiable entity. Considering the added expense of shooting film (buying each roll, developing), I had not shot a single frame of film since that picture at the end of December of 2012 until January of 2020.

Cropped from a JPEG taken directly from my Pentax K-x, 12 megapixels

Film, to me, is an art medium, whereas the RAW digital file is simply a part of a process. The negative or slide itself is a finished product of its own respect to be admired; something that can be appreciated from the moment of its creation for perhaps hundreds of years to come, and something that copies are made from. A RAW file is the potential to become something of the same. Film cannot “Beat” digital in any measurable metric; today’s average 24 megapixel APS-C cameras compete with medium format for sharpness. It’s why I continue to shoot most of my work today in digital. However, digital also doesn’t “Beat” film any more than film “Beats” an oil painting. I still shoot film in black and white because I like the aesthetic of the photographs that are created through the classic hand-made process, but when I want to go for a new and different aesthetic, RAW gives me the latitude I need.

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