Why Shoot in Raw Format?

Reader Question:

Do most National Geographic photographers shoot in raw format? Why?

My Answer: Yes, National Geographic photographers shoot exclusively in raw image format.

Shooting in raw format allows for more flexibility in making the pictures look their best in post-processing, particularly when it comes to correcting for white balance. If a photo is shot as a JPEG with the improper white balance, it’s almost impossible to fix.

But be aware, there is a danger in shooting raw with the mindset that you will just crank out the photos and fix problems later in the raw converter.

That being said, I would encourage beginning photographers to avoid shooting in raw. The JPEG engine in most newer cameras is very good and shooting JPEGs lets the photographer learn how the changes they make to their camera settings affect their photographic outcomes.

If you are just starting out as a photographer, I think it’s helpful to bracket different exposures and white balance settings, and to then look at those pictures with your computer immediately so you can see the different effects.

After you’ve spent some time learning how your camera works, you might want to shoot in raw so the pictures can be optimized after the fact. But don’t use shooting raw as a crutch to try and make bad pictures look good.

In this photo by Raymond Patrick from the June/July 2013 issue of Traveler you can see the difference between what a raw photo looks like at the default setting, and the final product that we published in the magazine.

Unless you are a computer it’s impossible to actually see a raw file because most viewing software will apply its own interpretation to the picture, but this is how a typical raw file will look: A little low in contrast and saturation.

Back in the days of film, National Geographic photographers used to carry around several types of film to impose a “look” on their pictures. Now we add that flavor to the pictures by choosing how to process the raw file. The biggest problem now is to resist the temptation to push the adjustment sliders too far.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.


  1. Aaron Cress
    Salisbury NC
    May 29, 2014, 1:07 am

    I do agree if the white balance is wrong it is hard to fix in post… but on that same note isn’t it better to get everything right in camera? I shoot jpeg and catch a lot flack about it from peer photographers but my clients love my work and I know how a jpeg will respond in print and on screen. Isn’t that a big plus for jpeg knowing how things will be rendered and that it is always view able? What happens to outdated RAW files or that type of file is no longer supported or needs extensions to work? Being lightweight in traveling is important why not being lightweight on editing and rendering images?

    I just don’t ever feel these conversation are fair to jpeg, I know my work style isn’t for everyone. I do feel I can dial my camera in faster to the right in camera setting because of the sheer volume of jpeg images I have shot with my camera and how well I know it responses in jpeg. I am not against post processing and know the advantages raw has in post and it can be a life saver for moment shots where the camera wasn’t dialed in, I see it also as a crutch for to many people to fix it later or tweak it later. Get your colors right while the color is in front of you just makes more sense to me and I can do that effectively with jpeg. Sorry if I sound like I have a bone to pick with the photographic community I just think jpeg deserves more credit that it gets.

  2. Eric Brown
    Bristol, England
    December 18, 2013, 6:57 am

    I find the whole aspect of RAW fascinating. I’ve not tried it yet but all the comments I have read have now inspired me to use it. I have always admired the high quality of National Geographic photography, from when I was young, so the comments by Dan Westergren are definitely worth following . Thanks

  3. Burcu Basar
    October 23, 2013, 1:38 am

    It took me about 10 years to move to RAW and I am glad I did but as you correctly stated JPEG is probably way to go for the beginner photographers as it makes you just focus on the moment without having the post editing possibilities in your mind right when shooting.

  4. Mike
    Jakarta, Indonesia
    September 14, 2013, 11:26 pm

    To add just a bit to Paul’s observation about JPEG being a compression format: Not only is the image compressed initially in the camera, it is compressed (even more) every time it is saved. The file continues to get smaller and smaller, and more information is lost. Note that this only happens when an image is saved, such as after making an adjustment. simply opening the image to view and closing it has no effect. The change each time the image is saved is small, but it is cumulative. Open the file, make an adjustment and save it once or twice and to my eye at least there is no difference. keep doing it however and eventually the image will visibly deteriorate.

  5. Kris Johnson
    Duvall, WA
    August 22, 2013, 5:42 pm

    @Ian Faulds- Gnu image manipulation program (GIMP). Its free and can do everything a non-professional photographer needs.

  6. Paul
    August 22, 2013, 1:49 pm

    One of the things missing in this discussion is a mention of one of the disadvantages of jpeg – compression. There is a reason jpeg images are smaller than raw. The data is compressed so you are not getting everything. You can compress a raw into jpeg but you can’t uncompress a jpeg. I have recently shifted from shooting raw and jpeg to raw only since my MAC will read and adjust my raw images getting rid of the jpegs has saved a lot of room.

  7. Bill
    New Jersey
    August 22, 2013, 12:02 pm

    I really love these articles. These little tips really help. It has taken me 5+ years for me to get where I am today with photography skills but as always, there is plenty to learn. Sometimes, it is better to learn from someone with experience instead of trying to learn a technique from scratch.

  8. John de Jong
    August 8, 2013, 3:41 pm

    Set your camera to RAW + JPEG, and you may use the RAW when necessery. Most camera’s have these feature.

  9. Jorge Miglioli
    Esquel - Chubut -Argentina
    August 8, 2013, 10:38 am

    Like Aaron says, when shooting it’s always better to be a little on the underexposed side of the scale so as not to lose detail. I find it’s always easier to correct a somewhat dark photo than a burnt out one.

  10. Bill Burkholder
    Charlotte, NC
    August 8, 2013, 9:32 am

    This is one of the few balanced articles I’ve seen about RAW vs. JPEG capture. Usually, people get all bent out of shape about one or the other. In truth, both modes have their uses.

    Recording in-camera JPEGs is much like exposing slide film years ago. The tonal range is extremely limited, so exposures must be spot-on and white balance must be set accurately. In the days of slide film, we used gel filter holders over our lenses and added Kodak Wratten CC gel filters to balance the light source to the film. Now we just set a white balance.

    RAW recording gives you a much wider tonal range to work with in post-production, at the expense of the need for post-production. It is indeed worth having that range when you cannot control the lighting or white balance at the source.

    While most digital SLR cameras are still rather poor at achieving automatic white balance, mirror-less interchangeable lens cameras (and even smart phones) do a much better job. In particular, Sony NEX, Panasonic Lumix, and Fujifilm X series cameras do a great job with in-camera JPEG processing and their automation systems are top-notch.

    For best results, do the best job you can with both exposure and white balance at the camera. Then expose both RAW and JPEG images. If the resulting JPEG isn’t usable, you have a RAW image that is much more likely to be adjustable to your taste.

  11. Harry
    August 8, 2013, 9:24 am

    @Ian Faulds – Photoshop Elements is a very powerful photo editing program. Opens RAW files, etc. Cost is about $60.00

  12. Aaron Rimbey
    Austin, TX
    July 29, 2013, 8:15 pm

    Bracketing has always sounded like a good idea to me, but I’ve never found the need. In the RAW sample image above I would have used the blown highlight indicator on my camera’s display screen to tell me that the shirts are totally blown out. Then, because I wouldn’t want to change the nice bokeh, I would have decreased the iso or increased the shutter speed for a better exposure. The remaining highlights in the post processed image look unnatural because of how blown out they were to start. Are you guys hiring? @ Ian Lightroom is the way to go!

  13. Larry Christy
    Southern Illinois
    July 27, 2013, 10:10 am

    Your question on how to capture the moment, well I shoot nature, landscapes and things so I find the moment for these items do not change like people but one must spend the time looking for the subject and then choose the moment depending on if you are using natural or artificial lighting. Waiting for or returning to a inanimate subject to get just that right moment just means that you need to be able to see the subject and the composition of that subject and create or wait for the light.

  14. Larry Christy
    Zeigler, IL
    July 27, 2013, 10:04 am

    I shoot in RAW and jPG in Large File and yes of my 1.2 Million pics I have about 600000 pics of things and it does take lots of management and storage space, but if you forget to get an external drive to back them up then you too will pay over $3000 to recover them as I did. Now I back up to several external backup drives – each are 3 or 4TB in size.

  15. Tom Ferstl
    Belton, Texas, USA
    July 27, 2013, 8:43 am

    I shoot in RAW/JPEG and download both images. If it’s an image that I wish to print, I will post process the RAW Image. What most do not understand about the RAW, it creates a very huge file and will take up a lot of space on the computer, so they will need some organization to maintaining their files, regardless of JPEG or RAW!

  16. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, USA
    July 26, 2013, 3:27 pm

    Great advice. Its interesting to see the before and after RAW images at the top and know that a lot of post-processing does go into those famous National Geographic photos.
    I never modify my photos, partly due to lack of software and partly to force myself to take as good a picture as possible with just the cameras settings.
    That being said, do you have any suggestions for cheap, powerful post-processing programmes?

    Ian Faulds