RAW Deals

Red Panda curled up in tree

I’m pretty paranoid about my RAW photos. I keep them (and a lot of other stuff) backed up locally (albeit in desultory fashion) and in the cloud via Crashplan. My initial backup took nearly three months, but once I got over that hump it’s pretty much seamless and my computers are usually only an hour or two ahead of backups (unless I leave them in sleep mode for days, which I do — but it’s not like data are being created while they’re asleep).

Flower Chloe Loewald — Tornado Survivor

My own history of failure

Three years ago I worked with some former colleagues and friends on a startup called Photozen and later PurePhoto. The domain still exists, but it’s become a online photo art dealership (I was also involved in that pivot — I implemented the initial data migration by building a hack tool for consuming PurePhoto’s data from specific photographers’ accounts and pushing it to Shopify.)

But, at the time, we avoided dealing with RAWs despite the fact that, in my opinion, that’s where the real opportunity lies. There’s a lot of mythology surrounding RAW files — I’ve just had an email exchange with the redoubtable Thom Hogan (a very smart guy who, after an illustrious career in hi-tech, is making a good living as a pro photographer, which is no mean feat) over the importance of knowing how to set white balance on your high-end digital camera.

Acorn's UI wrapped around Apple's RAW converter — see that temperature slide?
Acorn’s UI wrapped around Apple’s RAW converter — see that temperature slider?

In my opinion as a RAW shooter there is almost no importance in memorizing this operation — I can second-guess the Auto-WB setting later. On the rare occasion when I need to shoot JPEG (e.g. to optimize my use of the continuous shooting buffer) I can figure it out, but it’s not that common. Thom is under the impression that white balance drives the exposure meter which determines the quality of RAW capture. I can’t verify this experimentally (my experiments indicate otherwise) and it doesn’t make sense to me (as I understand it, Nikon polls an RGB sensor array and then fuzzy-matches the result to an image database to calculate exposure meters — why you’d want to put a white balance calculation in the middle of that escapes me).

Of course Nikon doesn’t help us by using a proprietary and encrypted RAW file format (the actual image data is accessible, but the metadata — which bears directly on a discussion like this — is encrypted). In any event, there’s this mystical attachment to the original RAW file, as though it contains secret sauce, when in fact it’s just a bunch of floating point values that can be “losslessly” converted into some other format (e.g. DNG) or quasi-losslessly converted into — say — lower resolution pixel-binned images (suppose you want to keep dynamic range, but don’t need resolution). As far as I can tell, demand for tools that deal with RAW files intelligently is so low that such tools do not exist, but they’re perfectly doable.



So along comes a really neat looking startup called Everpix which promises to solve every photographer’s most annoying workflow problem — unifying all those different silos of photos under one management umbrella. Upload a photo to your iPad, snap a photo on your iPhone, dock your camera to your Mac Pro, every device you own can access every photo.

And they even promise to do things like figure out which shots are in near-identical sequences and automagically pick the best one, and automatically detect incorrect exposures and blurry shots so you don’t need to sort them out.

Of couse it only does this with JPEGs. Grrrr.

Aside: after writing this post, I discovered that — apparently — Everpix can’t upload from my main Aperture library. I also did some Googling to see if anyone else has figured this out — Adobe Revel makes no mention of RAW files even in its FAQ (seriously, no-one wonders about RAW backup to the cloud?) and SugarSync (which looks very similar to Everpix) also makes no mention of RAW support anywhere. My guess, if you’re studiously not mentioning it anywhere on your website, you aren’t dealing with it.

Look guys. You’ve gotten me to install your software on every machine I own. You can see the darn files. How about (a) figuring out which images are blurred or underexposed before you upload them, or (b) using the metadata I’ve provided (e.g. which photos I’ve given star ratings or bothered to fine-tune). This will help filter signal from noise and with the insane amounts of bandwidth you save you can upload the damn RAW files.

Note that I proposed this exact idea to my colleagues working on PurePhoto and it was set aside for after release. (Release never really happened.) Here’s the thing — I don’t need a better image editor. I don’t need a tool for sorting my pictures into folders. I really don’t care about JPEGs because those are “prints”. I can replace them. I need to deal with baggigabytes of photos, 90% of them crap, and I need it to be seamless and handle RAW.

A typical RAW file is three times larger than the corresponding “fine” JPEG. So, support RAW files and figure out a way to avoid uploading 70% of the images and you’re ahead. You’re way ahead because now you’re doing something useful.

Here’s another way of looking at it: if you save 100% of my JPEGs you’ve done nothing useful. If you save 90% of the RAW files I care about (missing 10% because your filter algorithm is imperfect) you’ve done me a huge, huge service, and I can become smarter about finessing your algorithm and you can improve your algorithm over time.

Go forth and implement something useful.