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RAW, iPhoto, and Mac OS X
Pages: 1, 2

Managing RAW Files with iPhoto

As iPhoto users, we're quite spoiled when it comes to workflow. We take pictures, upload to iPhoto, play with them to our heart's content, and back them up to optical media. Pretty sweet.

iPhoto is an excellent digital shoebox to store your embedded JPEGs and processed RAW files exported as TIFFs or JPEGs.

We now need to add a few steps in order to incorporate RAW into this flow. First, if you're shooting with a camera that provides settings options for embedded JPEGs, I recommend that you record those JPEGs at the highest quality available. It doesn't add that much more data to the overall file size (RAW files are huge to begin with), but it does give you lots of output flexibility up the road.

When I connect my camera that's full of RAW files, or insert the memory card into the card reader, iPhoto springs to life thinking that I have new pictures for it. I don't. At least not for the moment, so I minimize iPhoto. I'll get back to it later.

Instead, I copy the files from the memory card to my Mac's hard drive. Then I open the Canon File Viewer Utility (or the comparable bundled software that came with the camera, if I were shooting with another brand), and navigate to the folder that contains the newly uploaded RAW files. They are viewable as thumbnails.

Once I see that everything is there, I usually return to the Finder and create a new folder titled something like, MyPhotoShoot Converted RAWs. This will be the destination folder for the JPEGs that I extract from the RAW files. I then return to File Viewer, select all of the thumbnails, and go to File -> Save File -> Extract and Save JPEG.

You can extract the embedded JPEGs for an entire folder at once in Canon File Viewer Utility. It's not as pretty as Photoshop CS, but the price is right.

I tell File Viewer to save all of those extracted images in the specified folder, and I don't modify their file names. I want to be able to correlate my extracted JPEGs with the original RAW files.

Now I return to iPhoto and drag the folder of extracted JPEGs into the Album pane of iPhoto (far left). iPhoto will import my images and create an album by the same name of their folder. I can now either discard those extracted JPEGs, or archive them. But I'm careful not to trash my original RAW files! I keep those safe and sound. In fact, now would be a good time for me to archive them on optical media or a second FireWire drive. I'll get back to them in a bit.

It's time to go back to iPhoto and review the embedded JPEGs I just imported. How do they look? Eh, not too bad. I like to assign ratings to the images via the slideshow so I can mark the winners in the batch. Sometimes I run a few test prints, export to web pages, make QuickTime movies, or just stare at them with great pleasure. Photos are fun, aren't they? For the most part, these images are just like the high quality JPEGs I normally capture with my digital camera -- with an exception or two.

The biggest difference I notice is that some metadata is missing or incorrect from these embedded JPEGs. On the 10D, much of the exposure information was stripped out. The embedded JPEGs from the Rebel suffered the same fate.

Tale of Two Metadata: These iPhoto metadata displays are from the same picture taken with a Canon 10D. On the left is the data from the embedded JPEG. (The shutter speed and aperture are wrong!) On the right is the display from the processed RAW file saved as a TIFF (everything is correct except for Flash: On, which it wasn't). All of the data would be correct if I shot in regular JPEG mode. And I do have the original RAW files to refer to for correct data.

Of course, I still have all of the metadata available in the original RAW files. And I noticed that when I actually processed an original RAW file and saved it as a JPEG or TIFF with Canon File Viewer, much more metadata was retained. To keep the most metadata during conversion, however, I had to use Photoshop CS with Camera Raw 2.2. I had problems retaining metadata with export from iView and Graphic Converter. So if metadata is important to you for your exported images, be sure to test the RAW conversion applications you have available.

Aside from the partial loss of metadata during extraction, I was very pleased with the quality of the embedded JPEGs, especially from the Canon 10D, where I had control over the size and the quality setting. Set at the highest quality setting, I got embedded JPEGs (3072 by 2048) ranging from 1.5MB to 3.8MB, depending on how much fine detail was in the shot. With the Rebel, where I had no control over quality settings, files typically ran between 650KB and 750KB for embedded images at 2048 by 1360 resolution.

How Big is Big?

When I say that RAW files fill up your camera's memory cards and computer's hard drives faster, I'm not kidding. Here is some file data for a RAW portrait I shot.

  • In camera lossless compressed RAW file (2048 by 3072): 7.1MB
  • RAW exported as TIFF from Photoshop (2048 by 3072): 18MB
  • RAW upsampled to 4096 by 2731 and saved as TIFF: 32MB
  • Embedded JPEG (2048 by 3072) saved at the highest quality setting: 1.5MB

To put things into print perspective, you can make a decent 8 by 10 inch print from the Rebel's embedded JPEGs, and a whopping 14 by 20 inch enlargement from the Canon 10D's embedded images. Chances are you will be working with the original RAW file for creating these enlargements -- that's why you have it in the first place! But this does help us understand the character of the embedded JPEGs with these two cameras. By the way: the original RAW files from these cameras are about 18MB when saved as TIFFs.

Which brings us back to the actual workflow. The idea here is to have the embedded JPEGs with the same file numbers as the original RAWs, neatly organized in iPhoto. Chances are these embedded images will satisfy most of your photo needs. When you need the highest quality for print output, refer to the file number of the embedded JPEG, and then open the original RAW file in your processor of choice.

This implies that you have all of your RAWs safely tucked away on a hard drive (and hopefully) archived on optical media, too). These are your master negatives! Take good care of them.

Once I've finished processing my favorite RAW files, I often export them to a lossless format, such as TIFF, or as a Photoshop file. That way, I can maintain the highest quality through the entire production process of the image. Typically, I only process a handful of RAWs from an entire shoot -- just my very favorites. For everything else, I work with the JPEGs neatly organized in iPhoto.

After I've made prints from my processed RAWs (probably saved as TIFFs), I store those TIFFs in iPhoto in a special album of processed RAW files. (This would be in addition to the master RAW image I have archived on optical media.)

By keeping my processed TIFFs in iPhoto, they are easily retrieved for additional printing or viewing on large monitors. The quality of these files can be absolutely amazing.

So to recap, here is the basic workflow I'm describing:

  • Capture images in RAW+JPEG mode. Record the embedded JPEGs at the highest quality setting possible, if you have that option.
  • Upload the files from the memory card to your hard drive.
  • Extract embedded JPEGs (via batch processing) and drag them into iPhoto. Be sure to maintain original file numbers on both the extracted files and the original RAWs so you can match them up later.
  • Review and evaluate the entire shoot in iPhoto using its extensive collection of tools.
  • Return to your RAW image processor for those special files you want to correct and ultimately print at the highest quality.
  • Export those corrected images as lossless files; TIFF is often a good way to go.
  • Store your corrected TIFFs in a special album in iPhoto for easy retrieval later.
  • Archive everything to optical media for safe storage.

Working with Older Cameras

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To be honest, this workflow bogs down a bit with older cameras that do not support embedded JPEGs. For example, with the Canon G2, I had to actually process all of the RAW files (in File Viewer Utility) to convert copies of them to JPEGs to add to iPhoto. I could do this en masse by selecting all of the thumbnails, then choosing "Convert and save in file..." in File Viewer, but the processing time was pretty long, even with my 1.33GHz G4 PowerBook.

Plus, after looking at the beautiful RAW conversions from the 10D and Digital Rebel, I found the RAWs from the G2 a little disappointing. They were still good images, just not as stellar as from the cameras with more modern electronics.

Generally speaking, I don't think working with RAW is practical with cameras that don't embed JPEGs. at least not for me. I recommend that either you invest in a new camera, or spend some money on more sophisticated software that enables you to browse and process RAWs without having to change applications. iView Media Pro is a good option at $160.

Final Thoughts

I am by no means a RAW fanatic. But I do appreciate the potential beauty and quality that this format can produce, especially with modern digital SLRs. And I think that we're just seeing the dawn of what's possible. For example, Sigma's SD 9 and SD 10 DSLRs support RAW using a Foveon X3 direct image sensor. Photoshop CS Camera RAW plugin 2.2 can process these files producing stunning image quality. And by no means is Canon, Nikon, Kodak, Fuji, Olympus, and others going to sit on their hands while these technologies move forward. It's a great time to be a photographer.

The RAW workflow I've outlined here is for those of you who like iPhoto and want to continue using it as your digital shoebox. You may be wondering, "Well, since Canon File Viewer Utility displays thumbnails, why not just work in it and forget iPhoto?" There are lots of reasons, speed being the primary one. Enlarging, rotating, and managing JPEGs in iPhoto is much faster than doing the same with RAWs in File Viewer, and that's with a fast computer. The few minutes you spend extracted the embedded JPEGs and dragging them into iPhoto will come back to you many times over in time savings. Not to mention all of the fun things you can do with the pictures once they're in iPhoto.

As you experiment with the RAW format, you may decide that you want to shoot in it more often -- be prepared to buy more storage cards, hard drive space, and a faster computer. But the control this format provides may be worth the extra expense for you. In that case, you probably should also look at some of the more robust software options.

In the meantime, I think these techniques will get your feet wet. For many of you, they might be all you need to shoot, manage, and display the RAW images you capture when quality and control are the overriding factors. I recommend that you give this format a try.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit

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