Will I lose access to today's RAW files tomorrow?


A reader of my work recently sent me this question, as noted in the title. He had been worried by an article suggesting that he could/would lose access to converting his existing RAW files at some point in the future, and was curious to know my thoughts on using JPEG and or TIFF as an independent archival methodology. I so appreciated the question, I decided to turn my response into a formal article.

I am sad to learn that the speculative fiction about future accessibility to one’s files is making another trip around the merry go round.  Perhaps a slow news week, or a demand for more clickbait.

Allow me, if you will, to explain.

You (the question poser) are correct in many of your assertions about the multiple RAW file formats.

  • All RAW formats are proprietary to the original manufacturer and to the camera writing them.  This does mean that while you shoot in NEF for your Nikon model, that RAW NEF is different from the RAW NEF from other Nikon cameras. This statement is accurate for all manufacturers.

  • RAW files are by definition, unprocessed and all RAW files require some level of post processing.  This is a choice for the shooter to make, knowing up front that all RAW images need additional work

  • RAW conversions, as provided by software such as Lightroom are incomplete.  The process only converts the RAW into a format that provides the capability for editing.

  • DNG is not an open standard.  It is an Adobe proprietary design where the source code is available to developers, whereas OEM RAW converters never make the source code available

  • OEMs could at any time, withdraw their proprietary RAW converters, however since no other independent RAW converters are dependent upon them, the probability of being locked out is very small indeed

  • A RAW file for which many RAW converters exist has a very low probability of being unreadable in the future, even if the OEM decides at some point to withdraw their closed source converters

  • JPEG is a cascading destructive compression algorithm.  On the first save in JPEG, an average of 71% of the original data (JPEF Fine) is gone forever and will be completely unrecoverable, despite assertions made by marketing liars representing JPEG to RAW converters.  JPEG cannot and will not ever be an archival option. JPEG Normal is destructive to over 90% of the original data on the first save. Even if one uses JPEG by choice, Normal is a poor choice if quality matters.

  • TIFF is an aged lossless format that is an open standard that has 100% data integrity but also takes up more space than any other file type.  TIFF is a viable archive option when one understands its limitations, but TIFF still is no more than 16 bits deep.  This is not an issue for most still shooters as even digital medium format is only 16 bit while higher end DSLRs and mirrorless are 14 bit. Some cameras offer 8 bit which is all JPEG can handle, but selecting 8 Bit with TIFF is defeating the purpose of TIFF in the first place.

  • DNG is implemented by many software makers, but mostly inconsistently, hence a Capture One DNG is different from an Adobe DNG.  This reality makes the viability of DNG questionable

  • Adobe is a business and only takes customer need into context when it benefits them

My proposal is to retain your original RAWs in some archived location and be comfortable that you will be able to convert them in the future.  There are many conversion options in the marketplace, at the operating system level, and at the application level that do not require anything from the OEM.  These are all mostly reverse engineered and all work very well, albeit differently with different conversion results based on assumptions and decisions made in the converter.  Some say that only OEM RAW converters are “accurate”  This is hyperbole, because even the OEM RAW converters have assumptions and decisions that the end user has no control over.

Shoot JPEG if you desire to not have to edit and you are comfortable with the data loss inherent in the mode.  If you accept that you will need to post process, RAW images will ALWAYS provide you more agility in your post processing.

Understand that all editing software uses some intermediary file format during editing.  For Adobe products this is Adobe DNG.  For Capture One, it is their DNG.  For Luminar, it is something that they have invented.  These editing states are not directly saveable in most cases, although exports to various formats are consistently available, of type both non-destructive (DNG / TIFF) and destructive (JPEG).

Storing images in the cloud has nothing to do with file formats and is offered as a means of offsite storage, but with a price tag attached.  Whether one uses the cloud (which is just someone else’s server) is an individual decision. Cloud storage whether used or not will have no impact on the usability of RAW files in the future, only potentially on being able to find the files. Cloud is a very good methodology for off-site backup.

Do you have an idea for an article, tutorial, video or podcast? Do you have an imaging question unrelated to this article? Send me an email directly at ross@thephotovideoguy.ca or post in the comments.  When you email your questions on any imaging topic, I will try to respond within a day.

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I'm Ross Chevalier, thanks for reading, watching and listening and until next time, peace.