RAW VS RAW!
Soon after Sony released the A7r Mark II it happened. Just like every other camera that gets released these days. Within a few days of release there is an outcry. Someone somewhere finds an issue and the internet forums cry bloody murder. So the A7r2 is "plagued" with hot pixels, overheating when recording 4K video and just like it's predecessors has compressed RAW files. Fuck me sideways.....compressed RAW files? You're telling me for the past two years I haven't been getting all the 1's and 0's in my RAW files with my Sony A7r? I start looking back in my Lightroom catalog at my pictures of 2014 and 2015 I shot with my Sony A7r. I'm looking at prints large and small. I start playing around with the exposure and shadows thinking to myself....how could I have been wronged so badly by Sony? What have I ever done to you Sony?!? This is how you treat your customers?
Well a few days later Sony responds with a firmware update. And not a moment too soon. I heard stories of some Sony A7's being lynched and dragged thru the streets and hanged in the town center. There was even rumor that a few A7r's and A7R2's had barricaded themselves in an old Army depot in fear of their lives. Word from the elders is there is a brave A7R2 who built a safe haven for all Sony cameras with their inferior (and possibly dangerous) compressed RAW files somewhere deep in the mountains.
So after the announcement I head over to Sony support site and download the brand spanking new firmware for the loaner A7r2 I have (14-bit uncompressed RAW support is not available for A7 models). I'm so fucking stoked! I cannot wait to see what my photos have been missing this whole time. The amount of detail will be insane. I'll be able to bring up my shadows many more stops. No blown out highlight will be safe from recovery. I might not even need to focus....who knows. Will Lightroom now be able to include a CSI-esque "enhance" button and I can zoom in 3000% and see a fingerprint on a wine bottle, in the reflection of someone's watch, at ISO 1,000,000? Sign me up right? Ok ok...enough is enough....bring on our new RAW overlords! I hook up the USB cable, run the firmware software and follow the directions. A few minutes later, I am ready! My visual cortex ready to be blown away!
So first thing you need to keep in mind is that as the name hints...uncompressed (that means NOT compressed) files are larger than compressed files. How much larger? Well....about twice as large. This alone can be pretty significant for some folks. This of course like all problems, can be fixed with money. And while I understand that some people may not be able to afford a bigger harddrive...I also ask those people what their doing buying a $3000 camera if you can't afford a 6TB hardrive for ~$200.
Double the file size? That must mean double the data! My photos are going to be twice as good!
So I slap on my trusty 55mm/1.8 Sony FE lens. Setup some crap. Set the camera for f/11 and take a picture in both modes. Lets have a look:
Well...nothing really sticks out. Ah...it must be in the details. Twice as many details right? Lets zoom in to 200% and compare the two RAW files
Huh...well that can't be right. Lets...umm....lets zoom in more (400%)
Well cock. There's no difference. How can this be. The internet people said we were served such an injustice by Sony and how much better Canon and Nikon were because their RAW files were loss less. Wait...lets check the brush...it's hairs are fine so I'm sure we'll see a difference there.
Well it seems like my excitement was pre-mature. Every part of these two images looks identical. Lets take it to the next level shall we?
Here we have the same deal shot two stops over-exposed (and probably close to 3 on the camera right side)
Nothing else gets changed on the images. I just bring exposure down 3 stops and here is the result.
These are 200% crops and I don't know about you...but I don't see a difference. Both are getting some purple artifacts on the eyeball (maybe starting to clip?), the right side looks the same on each and the threads on the teeth are clearly visible again on both examples.
I know....the shadows...must be in the shadow recovery no? (at least that's what i heard today) Let's give it a try...So I under exposed this by three stops. Here is the out of camera untouched RAWs
First +3 Exposure
Hmmm....now lets try +4 Exposure and +100 shadows with the same two underexposed files.
Interestingly enough...the green grain looks finer at the compressed file. I reset the images, re-did the settings just to make sure I didn't screw up (I set one and then sync the two files) However, the compressed does look slight flatter (less contrast) than the other.
For shits and grins lets try something else real quick
As you can see from the filenames. I just wanted to compare the compressed properly exposed file at +1 exposure and +100 shadows, to the 3 stop under exposed file at +3, +100 shadows (maybe it was +80, I just tried to get it even). Surprising that a less pushed file is cleaner than a more pushed file? Well, of course not.....just reminding you that no amount of post makes up for proper exposure. That being said...if these two files were exported at 1024px and posted to facebook or better yet Instagram would anyone be able to tell a difference? No....not at all.
What...about....6 stop? So we're gonna give the minion a rest. I took a few exposures of this shot and another with a candle. They are all available for download for personal use with the link on the bottom of the page. So what does six stops under look like?
Here's what a correct exposure would look like (note...I did change the white balance in LR on this one, but again, you can download the RAW files yourself below)
Lets just crank up the exposure 5 stops (LR's max)
Lets look somewhere else
AHHHH HA! A slight difference! About as much as we saw above with the minions glove.
How about a 4 stops over exposure brought down -4 in LR
Well...both are blown out and clip right around the same time. I'm a little curious at this point how a longer gradient would look. Lets say firing a strobe against a wall (parallel to the wall) over the course of a few feet. But I can tell you a 3 stop overexposure brought down 5 stops down in Lightroom...similar results
Where's my day and night difference? Where are my overlords? But most importantly, why am I not let down?
To be honest, from day 1 I told folks that the compressed files won't ever affect the OVERWHELMING majority of A7 series users. We're talking about a small fraction of a single percent. Just like how the A7r's infamous "SHUTTER SHOCK", shockingly, still doesn't affect most users. I've shot a few thousand frames with my A7r and can't think of a time where I experienced it. So what's the big deal then?
Well, for starters, there will be certain situations where a difference is clear. I think this will mainly be seen in big dark gradients like the night sky. You'll see less banding possibly. I have yet to try this with success however. Maybe with some long high dynamic range exposures you'll see some difference. Maybe if you do a lot of color grading you'll see some difference. Additionally, if you're spending >$3000 on a camera, you should at least have the option for 14-bit uncompressed RAW files. Maybe in the future, the software will catch up and allow you to fully exploit the files more. (And yes..I tried the above tests in Capture One 9 as well).
However, if someone is trying to lecture you on "HOW MUCH OF A HUGE" difference there is between Sony's compressed and uncompressed RAW files, take it with a grain of salt. Maybe they found that perfect combination of scene where the uncompressed really helps. I also have 60" prints taken with my compressed RAW equipped A7r. Most of the time even with the A7r2 I still shoot with the compressed files. One of other drawbacks of the larger files is they take longer to process (both by the camera and by the computer). If I was out shooting landscapes or cityscapes, admitedly I would probably shoot uncompressed. But I'm taking 10-20 pictures in a case like this. In most anything else I'll probably be just fine shooting compressed.
Now of course there's the argument of "Why not just always shoot uncompressed?". Look, if you have the hard drive space and volume of pictures that allows for this, by ALL means, shoot uncompressed to your hearts content. Like I said, if I'm doing a low volume shoot, I'd probably shoot uncompressed. If I plan on shooting any fast bursts or just a lot of photos, knowing there isn't any difference in the files...I'll stick to the small file size. Your call...this was all just to make a point to the people out there preaching the uncompressed gospil with the message being if you're doing it any other way, you're doing it wrong.
So as promised here is the link to the RAW files used above (less the minion). These are for non-commercial use, but have a try and see if you see something I'm not seeing.
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Edit: So I wasn't thrilled with the results. I honestly didn't expect much difference, as again I've been shooting some pretty good shots with my A7r and have printed them pretty large. Though I was really hoping to see SOMETHING. Cheers!