RAW Files Are NOT Like Color Negatives

It is commonly accepted that digital RAW files are equivalent to a photographic film color negative. Here’s the rationale… A color negative is a physical record of how light is recorded onto the individual red, green, and blue emulsion layers of silver-based film, such as Agfa’s Agfacolor, Fuji’s Velvia, and Kodak’s Professional Portra.

Once the film is developed, it is placed in a photographic enlarger and projected onto light-sensitive, three-emulsion layers of photographic paper, each layer sensitive to red, green, and blue light. After the print is developed, the resulting image reveals a full range of colors and tones captured by the film.

From this description, the digital RAW image to color film analogy seems accurate. The color negative contains all the spectral and luminance information from the scene and the combination of various color filters and exposure times are able to produce a variety of differing versions of that scene. The same is true of RAW files.

At first blush, that makes sense. I bought into this analogy when it was first proclaimed  twenty-five years ago. But through all these years, something about this analogy never quite added up, but I didn’t know why. Until now.

Here’s where the color negative analogy breaks down. While color prints were processed from color negatives, publications and coffee table books were always reproduced from (positive, or color reversal) transparencies or slides, such as Kodachrome and Ektachrome, Fujichrome, and Agfachrome.

Color prints were second-generation copies; each print produced on paper from a projected negative source (basically a picture of a picture). The (lithographic) quality of a color print was technically inferior in depth, sharpness and saturation to a color transparency. Images scanned by color separators directly from slides and transparencies were first-generation, and contained all the purist elements of the original photo, and therefor, the very sharpest printed images were reproduced from photographic transparencies.

Herbiology One: The digital data gathered and recorded as a RAW file more accurately parallels a film color positive (transparency) or slide than a color negative. Henceforth, RAW images should be the digital equivalent of color slides.

Herbiology Two: JPEG images are like dehydrated photographs reduced to an irreducible minimum of color and tonal information. Because these images contain significantly-reduced dynamic range and spectral data, JPEG images are more like Polaroid prints than full-bodied photographs.

Herbiology Three: Technically speaking, digital images are not photographs. That word was coined by Sir John Herschel from photo “light” and graph “instrument for recording” and describes a tangible photo record of an event. Digital images are not actually tangible until they are printed. This is why we call the digital recording an “image.”

That’s the way I sees it. If you have an argument with this position, take it to a higher court! In the mean time, sign up (above right) to get personal notices of future posts.

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About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook Digital Color Photography from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color video series at Gotta Know Videos.com.
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3 Responses to RAW Files Are NOT Like Color Negatives

  1. Rick Redfern says:

    Which is why I refer to the product from a digital camera as an image, as opposed to a photograph. For instance, this summer Lynette and I will be traveling north of Norway on a boat to go out on the ice and image polar bears, while we still have them.

  2. Birdie says:

    Makes good sense! So what we see on our computer screen are images, whether RAW or jpegs, that can be changed, not photographs. Photographs are what we see on our walls after printing. Have I interpreted this correctly?

    • Herb Paynter says:

      That’s it. Any form of digital image only becomes a “graphic” when we put it on paper, until then it remains an image. Just as a film capture is only a “latent” image until the film is developed, and the film negative is only a negative image until it is printed.

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