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When should you use raw - and when should you avoid it? This is the definitive answer

14 minute read

Here's another chance to read Peter Haas's epic article on when you should use raw. (It's over a year old, so you may find some of the references outdated, but it's still an important read).

RedShark readers have been asking us for a guide to help them decide whether raw is for them or not. We promised we would write one, so, here it is!

Shooting raw video seems to be a very loud and persistent buzz from the filmmaking and shooter forums these days, especially so since Magic Lantern announced they had successfully hacked Canon DSLRs to shoot 24 frames per second (fps) in the raw image format.  While there is a lot of information out there about technical side (what memory cards to use, how to install the firmware, etc.) there is another whole side to adopting raw image formats because this migration is going to completely change how you shoot.

Simply put, a raw image file is a format that when recorded, doesn't get heavily processed by the camera's computer. This leaves you with a very malleable image that you later choose how to process (and you will have to process it).

There is going to be more detail and color information in your raw recordings than your final product, but the fact that you have access to that data makes the format very appealing for professionals. With the advancement of technologies such as Magic Lantern's raw video hack, the format has also become increasingly attractive to the so called "pro-sumer" shooters as well.

The Technology Landscape Is Changing 

For a long while most digital motion picture cameras capable of handling raw recording have fallen in the strictly professional price range.  Technology has advanced greatly in the last two years.  Camera makers have begun to release moderately affordable high-resolution cameras that are also capable of recording raw image files.  Great examples of this would be Black Magic Cinema Camera, Ikonoskop, the upcoming Digital Bolex D16, and most recently the addition of raw recording to Black Magic's Pocket Camera.

These cameras have become very important steps in introducing raw motion picture recording to the masses.  Then something happened in the world of DSLR cameras.  An open-source project called Magic Lantern suddenly announced that they had developed a set of hacked firmware that allowed the owners of various Canon cameras to shoot 24 fps raw video.

Before we jump too far into talking about how shooting raw is going to change your workflow, I think it is important to talk about this popular firmware.

What Exactly IS Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern is a specialized, open-source firmware, developed by a crack team of hackers and programmers that adds features and options to your camera outside its native functionality.

For a long while this included additional frame rates, on screen displays such as audio audiometers, gain control, etc. The most buzz-generating modification as of late has been the break through hack that allows the popular 5D mkIII and a wide assortment of Canon cameras to bypass H.264 compression and record raw video.


What Does this mean for your Picture?

There are huge advantages to taking to leap to raw.

One of the easiest ways to wrap your head around the raw image files you record is to think of them as digital negatives, in fact many post-production supervisors and camera assistants prefer to straight up refer to them in this manner.  If recorded correctly, both celluloid and digital negatives contain a lot of visual information and neither of them are very useable right away.  I bring up film here, because as you will see, a majority of the workflows that deal with raw are very similar to the "old days" of processing film.

Another thing that motion picture film and raw images have in common is a certain je ne sasis quoi.  I'm not sure how else to put it other than, a well exposed raw motion picture just looks beautiful and cinematic.  I've always believed that film functions in this realm of (very unscientific) visual magic.  In the same way that we have this sort of "Uncanny Valley" with animation, film seems to fill that comfortable little spot of giving you just enough detail to prevent your brain from having to fill in too much information while at the same time not forcing some impossible hyper-reality upon your psyche.

It's easy to see why after witnessing raw that you suddenly want to shoot everything on it.  Luckily there have been major leaps in technology that have made shooting raw a reality for more productions and not locked into the realm of expensive studio cameras.

What To Expect When Shooting Raw

When you shoot in raw, the files are going to be big and your flash card / storage media is going to fill up a lot faster than you're used to.  A 64 GB card shooting Magic Lantern (HD) raw will hold around 15 minutes of footage.   This is a huge contraction of the current record time of the Canon 5D when shooting H.264, which clocks in at around 193 minutes on the same card.

Unless you have the extra cash sitting around to invest in a palette of CF cards, this massive change in recording times is likely going to change your shooting ratio (the ratio between what you shoot and use, and what you throw away).  For more structured productions (if you're working on a narrative or TV commercial) you can easily plan around this by having a laptop and hard drive on set and schedule around the transfer times.  If you're working in nature photography or documentary this becomes more tenuous and will require heavy consideration before you begin shooting.

From personal experience, when you start shooting raw images, you find that your shooting ratio goes from modern standards, say 30 or 40:1, to a much more traditional (ie: filmic) shooting ratio of around 10-15:1.  A big question for many raw shooters in this case is "can I still achieve what I want to do while still shooting raw?"  If your production can benefit from the image quality and won't be affected by the changes you make in your shooting style, then raw might be the way to go!

(For more about raw storage see my article "Preparing To Shoot Raw")

Battery Life Reduction

Another common complaint new shooters have with raw format cameras is that battery life is severely reduced when using standard batteries.  This is only a small "gotcha."  The easiest way to get around this of course to make sure you have even more extra spare batteries on deck.

In addition to extra batteries you might want to consider a large external battery. These batteries can be easily clamped to a rig, mounted under the camera or hung off a belt. The cords that interface the battery with the camera are generally easy to swap out, so all your cameras can benefit from the extra juice.

Changes In Workflow

 The biggest change for many comes in post-production. These raw image "digital negatives" need to be processed before they can be used in any serious editing application*.

The professional workflow goes something like this, first you "process" / transcode a simple edit-friendly copy of the footage to work with. When you've completed your edit you then delete the low-quality footage, export the edit to finishing software and relink your timeline to the full resolution raw files for finishing.

If you're a pro-sumer / hobbyist shooter, this workflow might be overly complicated for what you are intending to do.  The only real alternative to a complicated offline workflow would be to pre-grade and transcode the footage into your final format.  You will take up more hard drive space doing it this way, but it will more resemble the workflow your are used to.

There are a few applications out there that can help you prepare your raw files for transcoding.

Black Magic offers a free ("Lite") version of Davinci Resolve, it's color correction and mastering software.  It runs on both Mac and Windows, and is great for making edit-friendly copies of your raw files.  The largest draw back to DaVinci Lite is the fact you are limited to HD exports, and the interface can appear complicated and difficult to master at times.

For Mac users a new piece of software co-developed by Pomfort and Digital Bolex called LightPost is a more streamlined solution.  Though it lacks the in-depth finishing and correction tools found in DaVinci, the software provides a simple user interface but still has powerful image correction tools and a number of export options.

On the Windows side of the spectrum there is a small, but effective application called EyeFrame Converter.  This will quickly help you transcode your footage from the raw format to edit-friendly formats.

A tool that you might already have on your desktop is Adobe After Effects.  From inside a new project, you can open your raw image file as an image sequence.  After Effects will begin by presenting you with some image correction tools.  After making the desired changes in the picture you can export to essentially any format you'd like.

If you are doing an offline/online workflow I highly suggest you use Davinci Lite or LightPost.  These applications support and maintain metadata that will be crutial to the relinking process.  If you're leaning towards a more hobbyist approach, then After Effects (especially if you're already familiar with it) is your best option.

Special Considerations for Magic Lantern

If you are using the Magic Lantern firmware there is going to be an extra step in the workflow.  Magic Lantern records in a .RAW format from which you need to extract the CinemaDNG files before you can open them in conventional transcoding software.

For more about this extraction process see this thread.

The bottom line when it comes to post-production is that you have to be prepared to wait for the dailies.  The processing time for raw footage is much greater than traditional DSLR footage.

* I have been hearing about new software / updates that might allow you to import formats like cinemaDNG or other raw image sequences into your timeline, but unless you literally have some kind of super computer, I highly recommend against this.


We can't close a discussion about raw post production without the subject of archiving.  One of the frequently talked about issues in working in an all digital world is how do we safely archive everything?

The problem persists that there is no sure-fire back up solution to all our information.  RAIDS, Clouds, Optical discs, and LTO are all great but also each have their own shortcomings.

Remember that you're planning a production in which 15 minutes takes up 64 GB with the raw digital negative alone.  How will you archive this material?  To be honest, this is still something we struggle with at our production company.  I don't have any straight answers, but it's definitely something to consider.

Complications Using Magic Lantern: Hardware

In order to provide a completely thorough and fair article I need to talk a little bit about why users need to be cautious about the firmware plug-in.

There is a lot spoken about the Magic Lantern Raw recording hack these days.  To many, this represents a massive achievement of the hackers over corporations, a final take down of the wall big companies like Canon put up between the user and the available technology.  As Magic Lantern's own website puts it, "[Magic Lantern is] Revolutionary: Get the most out of your camera."

At the risk of sounding unduely negative, I find it difficult to vouch or endorse these sorts of software/firmware camera hacks for a number of reasons.  Now, to be clear, I agree that the folks behind these hacks are indeed some very intelligent and smart cookies, but hear my out on my reasons.  These are all points you are going to want to consider before you jump on the Magic Lantern band wagon.

First off, you need to remember that the people creating this hacked firmware are not the original developers of the camera.  They are a group of open source developers who have taken on a bold task of understanding a piece of hardware and how to re-program it.  They surely lack possible intimate knowledge of the existing firmware / hardware relationships that might be undocumented or under-documented.  Like I said, these guys (and gals) are very intelligent and passionate individuals, but they are in no way responsible for what happens to your camera.

If say, Canon releases a firmware update that breaks / bricks (this is engineer terminology for "turning your electronic device into a very expensive paper weight") they are very likely going to do something to fix it very quickly before the blow back sets in.  On the flip side, if you brick your camera while installing Magic Lantern, they are not going to send you a new one.  There might be some online support in their forums, but you can be sure that Canon themselves will not come to your aid.

On the positive side, Magic Lantern is booted from a CF card - you don't actually "install" it on your camera or replace the existing firmware; but the downsides mentioned above remain and should be considered before you embark on a serious production.


On a technology level, the reason I'm unable to stand behind these sorts of firmware hacks (be they Magic Lantern or the Panasonic GH2 hacks) is the fact that the cameras were never designed to operate under these recording conditions.  When a company such as Canon does quality control tests on say the 5D, they are not testing the camera while it's recording raw.  Since these firmware hacks are so new there is no way of knowing exactly how they will affect the camera in the long run.

Okay.  Let the well-intentioned flame-mail begin.  But before you hit "post" on those comments, let me say this: though I personally don't advocate for these hacks, doesn't mean you shouldn't use them.  I'm simply stating that as a filmmaker and creative professional I would never use a camera that has been modified in this way.

Ultimately, I'm probably wrong in not using this hack, and here is why.  For a long time large corporations have had the ability to shield users from benefiting from progressing technology.  There are many cases in which companies have used a "trickle-out" method to make sure that new features and advancements reach the consumers at a different rate than professionals.  This is something that became very frustrating with the development of the 'pro-sumer' technology.  Who has the right to say that manual controls and high quality image format are strictly limited to high-end pricy "professional" equipment, especially in an age of fancy "space-phones" and Ultra-HD?

Hacks like Magic Lantern are very important to the camera echo system because they send a message to the companies that are producing cameras that "these are the features what we want, now please make something that lives up to our needs!"  While people are waiting for things to change, firmware like Magic Lantern helps those who are willing to take the risk and use a hacked camera gain those required 'pro'-features before the parent camera company is willing to bestow them upon their users.

I have to heavily agree with David's article "Can You Do Serious Work With Magic Lantern?"

"... it's expense versus risk.  It's as simple as that."



Magic-Lantern Cost vs. Functionality

The cost of Magic Lantern is free, but the camera you shoot it on isn't.  The Canon 5D MKiii costs around $3400 USD without a lens or extra battery.  After buying the camera you then have to run a hacked firmware, which depending on your level of tech-savvy, could go well or brick the camera.

Next, you're going to have to go get more batteries, an audio recorder (because the Canon cameras still don't have professional sound built into the hardware) and probably some sort of stabilization rig. This could easily bring the cost of a 5D MKii rig to over $5,000.

If you already own a Canon camera, this might be less of an issue, but if you don't, it is something that might seriously make you want to take another approach. Another thing too is the emerging abundance of cameras that are beginning to shoot raw. These are cameras that are designed to shoot motion pictures in this format. Here is a break down of the "small market" cameras that shoot raw.

The Breakdown 


RED Scarlet
Cost: around $16,000-$20,000 for a working kit
Pro: professionally recognized brand, many post houses have mastered the workflow

Cons: cost, compressed raw format (proprietary), the company is reported to be occasionally stand-offish with small clients. Mixed reports of the quality of technical support.


Cost: around $13,000-16,000 for a working
Pro: Uses CCD chips which create a more pleasing, 'organic' look, open image format, great form factor
Con: Proprietary recording media, company is currently not offering the cameras during a process of restructuring


Digital Bolex
Cost: around $3,400-4200 for a working kit
Pros: Uses CCD chips, compact design, sensor crop matches super 16mm & 16mm
Cons: Camera not officially released yet, so there are many unknowns


Black Magic Cinema Camera
Cost: around $2500 for a working kit
Pros: Records raw and Apple ProRes, produces a great image for low cost
Cons: Odd crop factor that makes choosing lenses difficult, Form factor is makes it difficult in the field, with newer cameras taking center stage, many BMCC users have complained that they feel left beyond on support and updates


Black Magic Pocket Camera
Cost: around $1300-2300 for working kit
Pros: the camera body alone costs $999, it's small, active lens mount, crop is similar to super 16mm film.
Cons: the body needs rigging to correct form factor. There are many complaints regarding battery life

The Summary

If you ignore the higher end cameras such as Scarlet and Ikonoskop, you will see that the cost of cameras that are designed to shoot raw aren't that different from a 5D Mkiii. If you're serious about shooting raw video it might be worth selling off the DSLR and jumping to another camera where raw recording is the native function.

Alternatives to Raw

I admit that raw is going to be an incredibly important part of the filmmaking future.  But, for low budget films, documentaries and TV shows the cost of storage technology has not caught up with the needs of these sorts of productions.

One has to ask themselves "Why am I shooting this project in raw?"  Is it an aesthetic reason?  Are you looking to retain that seemingly magical data extra information when you get into color correction?  When diving into a process that in many ways complicates the workflow, we have to make sure that the production is going to truly benefit from the technology change over.

There are many alternatives to shooting your production in raw.

A seemingly straight forward one (and one that I'm going to cover in a future article) involves selectively shooting raw and a compressed format.  This entails a lot of planning, but once you figure out the best uses for raw, you're going to have stunning results and there will be few if any viewer able to tell the difference.

One of the reasons many folks want to shoot raw comes from the exceptional dynamic range you get in color correction.  A great alternative could also be to select a compressed format that shoots in a wide dynamic range mode.  There are a few formats out there doing this right now, Black Magic's "film" setting (which can be applied to ProRes recordings), Canon's C-Log and Sony's S-Log to name a few.  These color spaces are specifically designed to capture as much information as possible and can be found on compressed image formats.  Wide Dynamic Range color-spaces on compressed formats won't guarentee the same flexibility as you have with raw files, but from personal experience it can be pretty close.

It's not about the Camera, it's about you 

Recently Red Shark ran my review of a piece of software that I love called Film Convert.

This software/plug-in combination uses advanced Look Up Tables (LUTS), real scanned film grains and other image data to beautifully transform your digitally recorded image to appear as though it had been shot on celluloid film. Many comments were made about my senseless nostalgia, the imperfection of film's image and color rendition. There seemed to be a plea for maintaining the New Aesthetic, and that technologies were going to leave imperfections behind.

Film convert

I believe one of the misinterpretations being made here is that my statements revolving around Film Convert is based in some nebulous ideology of superiority vs. inferiority. Though everyone, including myself have opinions as to what those words mean, software / plug-ins such as F.C. are important tools when it comes to creative and aesthetic choice. I bring all of this up in this article because I believe it plays into your choice of whether or not you should begin the journey of using raw recording such as the Magic Lantern hack on the Canon camera you already own.

When you step behind the lens it is your job to communicate your vision. You can have the most or least expensive camera body and lens combination in the world, but what you produce with your camera is all about you and what you have to say. If you are creative enough, and know how to manipulate the tools at hand you're going to succeed in capturing a good image.

Knowing the tools available to your and your project is important, but one of the trends that I find so incredibly disturbing is how much motion picture story-telling has resorted to a discussion of technology these days. Yes, understanding the basics of technology is important and when great progress has been made that makes our jobs easier there is much cause to get excited, my but here revolves around the fact that all too often I encounter 'creative professionals' who are more concerned with the amount of mega-pixels their camera has or how many K's of resolution it has. It's not about the camera, it's about you.

The film, television, and media industry is constantly in a state of technological change. If 'bleeding-edge' is the futuristic-perfect place we're all supposed to produce our work in, then based on the technology that's come out in the past few years we should all be shooting everything on stereoscopic (3D) raw, 4K, 60 fps on super-smart space-phones. I'm not suggesting this is exactly what folks were implying, but who among us has not been subjected to this conversation? I find each one of these conventions to be a story-telling device, a mechanism of communication. One could easily argue that the complex hyper-real image machine that folks like Cameron, Jackson and many others are chasing is almost a form of denying the inherent manipulation of cinema, but this is an argument best suited for a film theory class!

There is a place and choice to be made for each and every project, be it a project for yourself, a studio, or a client. When it comes to choosing whether or not shooting raw is right for you, you need to weigh the factors I've mentioned, and remember how much shooting a project on raw is a large commitment. It's important to first step back and ask yourself the question, "does shooting raw make sense for this project and why is that?" Then you should be asking "okay, so how do I make that happen?"















Tags: Technology