23 Mar 2015

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

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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.



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Peter Haas

... is an award winning Brooklyn-based filmmaker and writer whose first celluloid love was “Godzilla.” Since age 9, he’s been chasing monsters and men, camera in hand. His chief inspirations are classic German Expressionist cinema, the free-wheeling creativity of Terry Gilliam, and the fog-shrouded forests of his New Hampshire birthplace. Through his films, Peter strives to unlock the experience of "ecstatic cinema" -- a viewing experience that challenges, delights, and sweeps up the audience in equal measures.  His work has appeared in American Cinematographer, Red Shark News, various broadcast networks, and various festivals around the world.

Website: www.peterjhaas.com

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