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Why We Shoot RAW at SI

Since I began shooting digital for SI in 2002, almost everything I’ve shot has been in the RAW format. This has been the policy of the magazine, and although it has proven frustrating from time to time, all in all it is a good strategy.

When you shoot a RAW file (a “CR2” file on a Canon camera), you can use all the image information that has been recorded by the camera’s sensor. This gives you the most possible information from which to produce your final photo. When you shoot a JPEG file, at the very least it will be compressed. In addition, your camera will add a white balance (either one you select or an auto white balance), and it may sharpen the image, adjust the contrast, or apply noise reduction. Although these adjustments are convenient and they make producing a decent-looking image quicker and easier, they all reduce your ability to control the final image.

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This image from a 2003 Steelers/Broncos game in Denver illustrates the power of RAW processing in recovering improperly exposed images. This was my first season shooting digital, and I had not yet learned to trust my camera’s auto-exposure; so when this play headed into the shadowed area of the field, my exposure was a little dark. However, with a RAW file, bringing up the exposure in post-processing later was no problem.

Canon EOS-1D, EF Canon 500mm f/4L lens, f4 @ 1/2000, ISO 200.

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This shot of the Giants’ defense smothering Dallas RB Marion Barber in a 2008 playoff game is an example of SI editors spotting a potential “Leading Off” shot and SI’s imaging department making it happen.

EOS-1D Mk III, Canon EF 600mm f/4L lens, f4 @ 1/1000, ISO 2000.

  • The trick to shooting RAW is in knowing when to shoot and when to save your bullets—and that comes from experience, practice, and knowing the game and its players.

Skilled imaging technicians (like those at SI) can produce amazing images from a RAW file. Not only does working directly from a RAW file allow correction for underexposure and overexposure through a five-stop range (two-and-a-half stops in either direction), but SI’s techs also do a terrific job with noise reduction and cropping. Many of the two-page spreads and “Leading Off” images in SI are cropped from less than one third the area of an image—often an image shot at high ISO.

Although SI’s imaging folks tend to be a bit tight-lipped when a mere mortal asks them about their technique, there are lots of powerful software tools available to correct exposure, reduce noise, sharpen, and generally enhance images. The most important thing to remember about using any image enhancement software is not to overuse it! Oversharpening, too much noise reduction, and other “enhancements” (no HDR—please!) almost never benefit a sports photograph.

There are, however, several downsides to shooting RAW. The files are big—more than 50 MB in the Canon 1D X. As a consequence, they will fill your memory card quickly. In addition, the larger RAW files require more storage space (usually in the form of external hard drives) and powerful post-processing software—usually Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture—that is capable of opening and processing RAW files, and is compatible with your current camera.

If you’re not shooting RAW, most modern DSLR cameras these days will pretty much shoot the whole memory card on continuous “burst” mode without stopping, even if you’re shooting large JPEGs at the highest setting. Having those extra frames can make a big difference when you’re shooting a play that involves a long run that ends in a fumble, followed by a fumble return for a touchdown, followed by jubilation, and so on. So if your main concern is getting every bit of the action, shooting JPEGs rather than RAW files is probably the way to go. However, if you’re striving for the highest possible quality and the ability to control your final image, shooting RAW files is for you. The trick to shooting RAW is in knowing when to shoot and when to save your bullets—and that comes from experience, practice, and knowing the game and its players.

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