The RAW Problem

In the short history of digital photography, manufacturers have released numerous cameras with constantly evolving RAW formats. This has lead to the existence of a vast number of RAW "dialects," even within each major brand, that store image and camera setting data in a different manner.

In some cases manufacturers have even encrypted the data within newer RAW files. Intentionally or not this encryption has placed full access to the images stored in these files out of reach of the photographers that took them. Unless, of course, they limit themselves to tools sold by the camera manufacturer.

To date, this vast number of RAW formats has been hidden by the transparent support offered in RAW converter software, provided by both the camera manufacturer and various third parties. At the time of writing, the open source dcraw converter currently supports more than 200 formats. However, as manufacturers lose interest in their discontinued products, and drop support for them, the true impact of all of these "dialects" will be felt.

Photographers will find their older images inaccessible, as future software versions lose support for older cameras. In the worst cases, entire brands may disappear, as has already happened with Contax.

What is RAW and Why it is Important

A RAW file is a file format created by a manufacturer to contain the (actual) raw data from a digital camera. Currently each manufacturer's format is proprietary, different and typically has multiple variations for different camera models. RAW files are becoming a popular choice for many photographers. Some advantages of RAW file formats include:

  • Preserving the maximum amount of original image data.
  • Greater creative control with digital images.
  • Enabling the highest possible image quality from each file.
  • Flexibility with settings such as exposure and white balance after the exposure is made.
  • Removing the limitations of fixed in-camera processing.
  • Improving image quality over time as RAW processing software capabilities advance.
  • Providing an archival image format that could potentially rival the usefulness and longevity of film.

While RAW file use is increasing, the problems created by their closed, proprietary format are becoming more evident.

The Problem with Proprietary RAW files

Closed, proprietary, RAW file formats present many immediate and future challenges for photographers and anyone who uses digital images. These problems include:

  • Limiting processing choices and creative freedom.

    Access to the raw image data provides more control over the process of creating a final image. Public documentation of RAW file formats makes it easier for alternative processing software to be developed. This will give photographers more options to realize their creative vision

  • Reducing choices for software that matches workflow needs.

    Most image processing software is tailored to one type of workflow, but the needs of photographers vary widely. News photographers may need to batch process a large number of images in a short time while fine art photographers may spend hours with each photo fine tuning incredible details. Only open RAW file formats allow 3rd party developers to create the wide variety of image processing software necessary to allow all photographers to work effectively.

  • Increased probability that as time passes a RAW file will be unreadable or cannot be used to reproduce the photographer's original interpretation.

    Many photographers already have extensive archives of RAW files but are just now realizing the risk of using RAW formats as their primary archival storage. No one can predict how long a particular RAW file will be supported by a camera manufacturer (not even the company itself). If the format of a RAW file is not documented publicly, how can the owner of the file be assured of its long term value and usability? Open documentation of RAW file formats does not guarantee that software will be available to process the RAW files of the past, but it makes it more likely. Open documentation will encourage the creation of backwards-compatible software even after official support is dropped or the camera manufacturer ceases business.

  • Increased costs and slowed development of image processing software.

    With over 200 RAW format types, reverse-engineering every type has become a daunting task. Developers of cataloging, archiving and processing software are required to spend valuable resources decoding and interpreting the proprietary formats. Additionally, most image file formats allow for extra data that can be used to organize and describe images. This data is critical for efficient workflow in many sectors of the photography business. Due to lack of documentation, however, many developers restrict the addition of extra data by their software because of the real risk of making the file unreadable.

The OpenRAW Solution

We want camera manufacturers to publicly document their RAW image formats — past, present, and future.

The goal of OpenRAW is to encourage image preservation and give creative choice of how images are processed to the creators of the images. To this end, we advocate open documentation of information about the how the raw data is stored and the camera settings selected by the photographer.

If the current practice of hiding data and dropping support for older models of cameras continue countless images will be unreadable with no software to decode them. Only openly documented RAW formats will make it possible to decode RAW files in the future.

Many have suggested a common, open file format for RAW image files for all camera makers to use as a solution to the RAW problem. A common, openly documented RAW format would fulfill many of the goals of OpenRAW, but is likely to face significant resistance from manufacturers who feel their "creativity" and ability to innovate would be constrained. Open documentation of all RAW file formats by manufacturers is the quickest and most satisfactory way for OpenRAW's goals to be reached.

Larry Strunk – Sun, 2006/03/19 – 6:55pm