Raw files are large and a pain in the ass to backup, but there is good reason for keeping them – at least for your better pictures. In fact, I know of many photographers who only keep the raw files and their lightroom catalogs and in case a client wants pictures, they just export them to jpg on demand. My workflow is somewhere in the middle where I usually like to keep large, high quality JPG’s of my finished pictures and at least keep the better RAW files.
What’s the benefit? For one, the chances of needing to make copies of the better pictures is higher and with JPG’s each time I open the file and resave it, I loose a little detail. It may not be much loss especially if the original JPG was already processed to my liking, but it IS there and I know it. Because of that, I’d rather work with the original.
Another benefit is that post processing engines are always improving and giving you more options to make pictures better. Case in point, the release of Lightroom 4 gives photographers who aren’t photoshop masters the ability to selectively alter things like white balance, exposure, noise reduction, etc. This was not available before. Even functionality that was available before has improved like better noise reduction and sharpening. If you keep the RAW files, pictures you took 3 or 4 years ago are instantly better and you can correct things that you couldn’t correct before.
Now I know, there is always “I always get it right in the camera so you can keep your RAW files”. That’s a nice way of saying “I’m too lazy to learn how to use the tools, so I let the camera decide what image settings to apply to my pictures”. Kind of ironic really because the “I get it right in camera” is actually the one leaving things to chance. With some things, you can’t do in camera as is the example shown here:
I took this picture last year and originally had it processed with Lightroom 3.xx. I probably should have kept a copy of the older picture for comparison but I don’t have it anymore. The original picture was a struggle in white balance. I like having dark blue skies at night but the ugly colors of the street lights force me into keeping a warmer sky than I like. I can drag it down to cool but then it turns everything blue including the street lights and landscape which I don’t want.
One solution I discovered AFTER taking this picture is Lightroom 4’s ability to apply a gradient white balance. With that tool in my toolbox, I easily kept the sky a nice rich blue (instead of ugly yellow fog), and the bottom is nice and warm the way I want it to be. Can “I do everything in camera” guy do that? I’m going to say no…at least not without busting out hundreds of dollars worth of gradient color filters. Without keeping my raw file, it would be much more difficult to re-post-process a finished JPG this much without giving up detail.