Back in the days of film, our film negatives were what we processed our photographs from and to us they were like gold. Now that everything has gone digital, we have digital negatives instead. And the RAW files that our digital cameras produce nowadays are referred to as these digital negatives.
Some people still shoot only in JPG and not in RAW format though and for some people that works if the photos are simply of an editorial or illustrative nature and won’t be used for any artistic or commercial purposes. But in most cases it’s not a good idea to shoot in JPG because they are lossy/compressed image files where some of the dynamic range and gamut of both color and detail information has been clipped. JPG files also offer a lot less ability to manipulate photos later on in the digital dark room. But as there are plenty of articles out there already that can easily explain all the reasons to shoot in RAW versus JPG, I decided I am not going to continue on this point. So let’s get back to why we should never delete our RAW files.
Often I hear of people discarding their RAW files after they have finished processing them and have output them to either JPG, TIF, PNG, or GIF. The reason some people do this seems to be because they feel they may never need them again and thus, they would simply like to reduce the amount of space being taken up on their hard drive by removing them. Fair enough.
But going back again to the days of film, did we normally throw away our film negatives after we made our prints from them? No, almost never. We always kept them in case, for the simple reason, we ever wanted to make more prints from them again. So why should it be any different now?
If you consider a RAW file as your negative in digital form then your approach to the preservation of your RAW files should be exactly the same as it was with film. One reason is because you may want to redevelop your photos again in the future for another purpose. Now people will ask why do we need to keep the RAW files when a digital file, like a JPG, which has been created from the RAW file, can be copied and printed over and over again without limitations.
This is all true, but here is the rub. Once you have a digital file outputted from a RAW file you can continue to use that outputted file forever as I mentioned, but what if you want to go back and develop the RAW file again in different ways and with different tones or levels of exposure? Then you can’t do that again if you have already deleted the RAW file.
What many people also never consider is that, at any given time, the software that is out there at that moment, and being used to develop our RAW files of today, is always evolving and improving. Image processing software developers always continue to discover new ways to pull more information and dynamic range out of our RAW files than before. So even though you might have already developed a RAW file as good as you feel you could have done it today with current RAW file processing software, 3 years from now you might find that there are more new ways to make even more out of that same RAW file and in ways that you couldn’t have even imagined before.
Because of this, I often find myself going back to my old RAW files from many years ago and redeveloping them with the latest RAW file processing software in order to improve various elements of the photograph. Not only that, but as photographers, our post processing skills are always improving too, which means we might be able to develop a better digital negative today than we could have 5 years ago. Here is a photo I shot back in 2004 with a Canon 10D, which was only a 6MP camera and processed with the limited RAW file processing capabilities that were available at that time:
The other thing is that these RAW file converters are always adding new ways to make added adjustments to the RAW files before they are output into a JPG or a TIF. That is great because any adjustments made to the RAW file using the unprocessed RAW data means that there is much more you can do with the pixels when they are still in their RAW form. Once the RAW files has been processed, and you have output the data into an image processing program, then some clipping has already occurred to the information contained in the original RAW image file and the ability to push and pull in order to continue to manipulate the pixels has already been greatly diminished.
Nowadays the RAW file converters have functions like an exposure brush to isolate and adjust the exposure in small parts of a photo, are able to apply lens profiles to fix any known barrel distortion from a particular lens model, and a myriad of other invaluable functions we never dreamed of or had before like the ability to recover blown out highlights. So we can also make lots more adjustments to our RAW files today than we could have 5 or 10 years ago.
In addition, hard drive storage capacities have gotten so massive now, as well as very inexpensive, that the argument that you can’t really afford to store all of your RAW files has very little validity anymore. At the moment you can buy a 3TB hard drive for right around $100. And with hard drive capacities already reaching 6TB, and with most new desktop computers offering SATA connections for up to 6-10 internal hard drives, there is hardly any argument for discussing storage limitations as a reason to delete RAW files nowadays.
One of the biggest mistakes people have also made recently is they sometimes convert all of their original RAW files to the Adobe DNG propriety RAW file format thinking that the DNG file format from Adobe will eventually become the world standard. Well, so far the jury is still out on that, but the one definite downside already discovered about converting to DNG and deleting your original RAW files is that some RAW file converters won’t read DNG files because of the fact the file format was created by Adobe and not a camera company. This is particularly true with the image processing program from Capture One known as Capture One Pro, which does not support the Adobe DNG RAW file format but in some ways is known to produce better RAW file processing output results than Adobe.
So all points considered, there are a number of very valid reasons never to delete your original RAW files and almost no reason to support the notion for deleting them to conserve storage space anymore. And if you like working in DNG then you can still do that, but in that case still hold onto your original RAW files for the future because one never knows what you might want them for later.
Lastly, and getting back to my original point about being able to reprocess images from the same RAW files years later with new RAW file converters to get even better results, here is the above image shot 11 years ago, but reprocessed today with all the great new RAW file conversion capabilities of today’s latest Adobe Camera Raw software. A significant improvement I would say. More vibrant, less noise in the shadows, better color balancing, no blown out highlight detail, better color luminosity, improved and more balanced hues, increased exposure in some of the darker areas, barrel distortion correction, etc.
I am just imagining what I might be able to do with this same RAW file again in another 10 years from now. So I will be keeping mine.
Also, if you would like to see the difference between the two above images side by side then you can put your mouse on top of the image below and it will automatically toggle back and forth between the two images for easy comparison:
Nice article, A little old but I still want to comment.
While I agree with all that you said I’m not so sure that I agree with the processing of the photo though. Most people would like it so that’s just me. I am just wondering though if you could have achieved the same look (minus the lens correction) with the old software? Could it have been personal preference at the time that let you choose those colours or was it really the limitations of the software?
I’m going through a “delete them all” moment myself.
Thank you for your comments Wilton. To answer your question, the older versions of Camera Adobe RAW from 2004 didn’t have as many options to process and work on RAW files with. One of the main things that was missing at the time was the Exposure Brush tool, which allows one to adjust exposure within isolated areas of an image, rather than only being able to make global exposure adjustments to an image using the exposure sliders.
As for the color tones, I could have achieved comparable color tones in 2004 as I did in 2015, but computer monitor technology has improved tremendously in the last 10 years and it is much easier now to clearly see the kinds of colors you are actually getting now. Unfortunately this wasn’t as easy to do back then.