DigitalCameraReview.com
Round Up: RAW Deal
by David Rasnake -  8/9/2008

In conjunction with the release of their Coolpix P6000 on Thursday, Nikon rolled out yet another RAW file format this week. For me, this is the last straw: I'm done. Finished. Through.

Nikon Coolpix P6000

Up until now, we've held to the common editorial convention used above – that when discussing raw file types, the word "raw" gets uppercase treatment (i.e. RAW), the way that other acronymic file formats (i.e. JPEG) do.

It's never been true. RAW has never been an acronym, and moreover, there's never in the history of digital been a single, unified RAW standard like there is for JPEG or TIFF. But I've always felt that uppercase RAW was a marker of optimistic thinking: we'll get this format confusion worked out soon and move to a common, open-source raw file. Uppercase RAW was my subtle editorial expression of faith in the forward progress of the photographic community.

But the more I look around, the more it seems manufacturers are returning to proliferating, not standardizing, raw formats.

Hence, I'm done. No more "RAW" consideration for the camera manufacturers, as if they were all looking seriously at the idea of playing by the same rules, on this site. From this point forward, we're calling a spade a spade. Raw files are simply what they are – raw (common, lowercase adjective) image data – and in light of few prospects for consolidation out there on the horizon, I don't see that changing back anytime soon.

Part of the logic behind Nikon's new NRW raw format involved developing a system that was Windows Imaging Component (a.k.a. WIC) compatible. What this means in practice is that Windows will be able to display the files just as easily as it handles JPEGs or TIFFs. While it's a solution to one of the primary complaints leveled against raw format proliferation, WIC codecs are a compromise fix rather than an ultimate solution. The fact that NRW files aren't compatible with Nikon's high-end Capture raw conversion software complicates matters further: whatever Nikon's planning to do with NRW, it isn't likely to be their final answer in developing a WIC-ready format.

There are a few bright spots on the horizon for unified open-system raw imaging. In actively promoting their Digital Negative (DNG) format, Adobe's got the right idea, and the manufacturers that have embraced this concept deserve praise for their efforts to move in an open-source direction. Adobe is tired of dealing with a proliferation of file formats, and if a company with their resources is feeling the pinch to get converters out for new cameras in a timely fashion (Adobe's Olympus E-420 and E-520 converters were just released last week, in spite of the cameras having been on the market for months), imagine the stress smaller image editing software manufacturers face.

As a former graphic designer, I became intimately familiar with the fact that file types for the latest camera systems would sometimes outpace Adobe codecs by several months, making raw files difficult to work with consistently on the back end. The inability to easily share, view, or work with every file type in every software given the panoply of current raw formats doesn't present a single serious challenge, but rather a series of minor irritations that add up to something more nefarious.

If manufacturers aren't willing to adopt the standard that Adobe has set out, what's needed is a consortium approach – not unlike how Wi-Fi standards have been addressed – that equally weighs the unique requirements of software developers, memory manufacturers, and imaging companies in coming up with a viable, scalable format that can be logically updated as imaging technologies advance. We've admirably solved similar format consistency problems in the past, and the jealous guarding of proprietary raw file types is one more headache that professional and amateur photographers alike simply don't need.


Round Up is a regular editorial column published weekly on DigitalCameraReview.com.