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RAW, iPhoto, and Mac OS X

by Derrick Story, coauthor of iPhoto 4: The Missing Manual

iPhoto does an excellent job of breaking digital photography's chain of pain -- that is, as long as the independent links are JPEG, TIFF, Photoshop, PNG, or a handful of other formats. But RAW files are tugging at our easygoing workflow. As you probably know, iPhoto doesn't support RAW files, at least not directly. So at first glance, it appears that the pain is returning once again.

Fun-loving shooters everywhere need not worry. By definition, RAW files are unprocessed images. To manage them, you simply need to add a few easy steps to your existing workflow to keep misery at bay. And I'm going to show you how to do that today.

These techniques are not for high-volume professional environments (where pain is an inevitable side effect of production cycles and deadlines). Rather, these steps are designed to get the serious hobbyist's feet wet with RAW without destroying his or her comfortable workflow -- all while staying within a reasonable budget.

Why RAW?

Related Reading

iPhoto 4: The Missing Manual
By David Pogue, Derrick Story

Not all cameras can capture images using the RAW format. Normally, you'll find RAW offered on advanced amateur and pro models. You can check your camera by going to its menu of options and seeing if RAW is listed along with the various JPEG selections under Image Resolution.

RAW is not a standardized format (and oddly enough, RAW doesn't even stand for anything). Each camera manufacturer offers their own version of it, and they even give it a unique extension. Canon denotes RAW files as CRW, Nikon calls them NEF, Olympus refers to them as ORF, Fuji labels them as RAF, and so on down the line. This creates a tricky situation for developers trying to support this functionality in their software packages.

While I was researching this article, I contacted Thorsten Lemke, who is the creator of Graphic Converter. I had a few questions for him about GC's support of RAW files. During the exchange, he remarked:

"The RAW format presents some difficulties for the independent developer such as myself. Each manufacturer has its own version, and none of them publish much in the way of the format details. I spend a lot of time guessing what's in there."

One thing that all of these files do have in common is that they're essentially unprocessed images until you load them into your computer and do something to them. Unlike JPEGs, where your camera settings are applied to the image data in-camera, RAW files enable you to fine-tune characteristics, such as white balance, later on the Mac, and without image degradation penalties.

This is both the great advantage and disadvantage to RAW. As a photographer, you don't have to select the perfect white balance setting when you make the exposure, because you can adjust the white balance any way you want later, while looking at an enlargement on your laptop. So why not leave your camera set on auto white balance when shooting RAW? Your images will be in the ball park, and if you need more correction, do it later on the computer. The bad news is, you can't just connect your camera, upload the day's shoot into iPhoto, and enjoy your images right away. You have to add another step or two. Of course for some people, this kind image manipulation is the fun part!

RAW files take full advantage of your camera's image sensor, allowing you to retain more data. This is especially handy in tricky lighting situations that often overpower digital cameras.

In fact, many photographers will insist that you shoot RAW all of the time. I don't quite see it that way. To me, that's like saying, "Shoot print film all the time and never use slides."

But if your camera does have RAW capability, I recommend that you peruse this article and become familiar the basic ins and outs. There are times when RAW is the smart way to go: in tricky lighting conditions, or when you need to squeeze every drop of quality out of your camera. Here's a handy reference table that provides you with a few pros and cons of RAW and JPEG.

Pros Cons
  • Lots of control over image processing using your Mac instead of the camera.
  • Efficient use of image sensor data, often captures 12 bits per channel.
  • Lossless compression in camera.
  • High image quality.
  • Large files impact memory cards, hard drives, and processors.
  • More complicated work flow.
  • Some knowledge of image adjustment techniques helpful.
  • Specialized software required.
Pros Cons
  • Camera handles processing for you. Image ready to use right away.
  • Control file size in camera via resolution and quality settings.
  • Good quality/convenience ratio.
  • Easy on memory cards and hard drives.
  • Don't need specialized software to handle.
  • Need to set camera exposure and white balance accurately for optimum quality.
  • Some image data loss regardless of settings.
  • In-camera processing samples down to eight bits per channel.
  • Less shadow and highlight detail, generally speaking.
  • Not as "photographic" in difficult lighting settings.

Camera Examples for RAW Capture

I'm working with Canon cameras for this article, and will use the PowerShot G2, Digital Rebel, and EOS 10D as my examples for RAW image capture options. Nikon, Olympus, Fuji, Contax, Kodak and others also provide excellent models with their support for their versions of RAW. So even if you're not shooting Canon, this discussion will help you understand what your existing camera may have to offer, and what you might want to look for in your next purchase.

  • Canon EOS 10D: Of the three models listed above, the Canon 10D provides the most flexibility for RAW capture. The image quality is outstanding, and it enables you to embed a JPEG within each RAW file. As you will see later, this accelerates the workflow considerably. Plus, under the Custom Menu option, you can even select the quality setting for the embedded JPEG. I really like this option and use the highest quality settings for my embedded images.

  • Canon Digital Rebel: Rebel owners will be happy to read that this affordable digital SLR handles RAW files quite well, and provides outstanding quality. The Rebel also embeds a JPEG within the RAW file. The only limitation is that you don't have a Custom Menu option to set the JPEG's quality or resolution. Canon has preset these controls around "medium."

  • Canon PowerShot G2: I included this camera for those who own older models but are still interested in this workflow. The G2 captures RAW, but doesn't embed a JPEG. This definitely adds time to the management of these files. Plus the G2's RAW files aren't quite as spectacular as those produced by the Rebel and 10D. Of course, the G2 has a four-megapixel sensor using older technology.

The main thing I want to point out here is that the embedded JPEG option provides you with much-needed flexibility when working with RAW files. You'll see why later when I outline the actual workflow. The more I work with RAW files, the more important I think it is to have embedded JPEGs, and ideally, the ability to set options for them. The other thing I'd pay close attention to is the bundled software for managing RAW files. Make sure it's workable. To put things in context, here's an overview of some of the options available on Mac OS X, in addition to the software that comes with your camera.

A Selection of RAW Software for Mac OS X

Since I'm not gearing this article for the professional shooter who may use RAW much more often than hobbyists, the actual techniques I outline use software that keeps the price down for managing these files. That being said, I'm also listing a few high-end offerings, just in case you already own them or do have the budget to add them to your workflow. Here are some of my favorite applications for Mac OS X for managing RAW files.

The Photoshop CS Camera Raw plugin 2.2 is top drawer and great for processing RAW files. But it's pricy at $649.

  • Photoshop CS with Camera RAW Plug-in 2.2: Adobe has done a great job of incorporating RAW file management within the Photoshop workflow. You can look at an entire folder of RAW images with the File Browser, review all of the metadata, open a file and edit it with the Camera RAW plug-in, and save it to any format that's available in Photoshop. Outstanding software for these tasks. $649 (upgrade $169).

  • Extensis Portfolio 6.1.2: The current version of Portfolio is built from the ground up for Mac OS X and helps you manage your digital images via folder monitoring, database management, thumbnail previews, and streamlined cataloging. The current version supports RAW for selected cameras from Nikon, Olympus, Kodak, and Canon. Portfolio is robust and very professional. $199.

  • iView MediaPro 2.0.3: This venerable Mac app (now available for Windows, too) also enables the browsing of RAW files and includes some nice image-editing tools. The processed RAWs I produced with iView looked great. This app also provides excellent digital shoebox capability. And unlike iPhoto, iView lets you store your QuickTime files right alongside your JPEGs. Robust and professional. $160.

  • iPhoto 4.0.1: Even though you can't import RAW files directly with iPhoto, it complements your bundled RAW editor (every camera that offers RAW includes software to edit the files), or works nicely with Graphic Converter or Photoshop. The advantage to iPhoto is that it's convenient for how you shoot most of the time, and can adapt to handling RAW files, too (as I'll explain in a minute). I think iPhoto has some of the best output options, including direct uploading to .Mac web sites, exporting to QuickTime, online print ordering, and easy hard-bound book production. Included in the iLife suite. $49.

  • Graphic Converter 5.1: I'm impressed with the sheer variety of file types that GC can handle (it can import images in 175 formats), and the great selection of tools included. You can open and edit RAW files, and then save copies to just about any image format on the planet. You need to tweak the preferences to get the best results. Plus, Graphic Converter is optimized for Mac OS X and is AppleScriptable. It's an affordable, versatile editor for all formats, including RAW. $30 (for download version).

  • Canon File Viewer Utility 1.3.2 (Example of bundled software. Olympus, Nikon and others offer similar apps): The File Viewer allows you to view RAW thumbnails, process the images, and extract embedded JPEGs. One of the things I find handy about this app is that it lets me batch-extract JPEGs from a folder of RAW images. This really speeds up the workflow for RAWs. It isn't beautiful, but it's free, and it does work.

  • dcRAW-X 1.5.3: A shareware batch converter that Mac OS X photographers can use to post-process digital pictures shot in RAW format. Its interface is simple: you drag the RAW files to the open window and click the Convert button. dcRAW-X can process RAW files from a variety of cameras made by Canon, Nikon, Casio, Contax, Olympus, Pentax, Minolta, Fuji, Kodak, Rollei, Sony, and Sigma. It's simple to use and is efficient. $15.

Even though I really like high-end apps such as Photoshop CS and iView MediaPro, I'm going to now focus on using bundled software, Graphic Converter, and iPhoto for the rest of this article. The idea is how to add RAW files to your existing iPhoto workflow, and the most cost effective way to do so.

Again, this is not a procedure that Sports Illustrated photographers would use who manage thousands of RAWs. Rather this is for the predominately JPEG-based photographer who likes to shoot RAW in certain situations.

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