Why Bit Depth and Shooting in Raw Are So Important for Your Images

We've all heard it hundreds of times: unless you're a journalist zooming off shots to an editor as the action happens, you should be shooting in raw. But why is it so vital to the quality of your images? Watch this video for a great explanation.

Coming to you from Nathaniel Dodson of tutvid, this video examines what bit depth is and why it makes shooting in raw so vital, particularly for those who edit their images heavily. It's true that an 8-bit JPEG has 2^8^3 (16,777,216) colors, which is more than the human eye can distinguish (about 10,000,000), so it might seem unnecessary to have any more beyond that in a file. However, the advantage comes not in the final product, but in the process of getting there, i.e. editing the image. Having a greater bit depth gives the computer far more information, which in turn gives you far more leeway to adjust the colors and exposure of your image without seeing the trademark consequence of too little information in an image: banding. It's similar to why you want to expose your images properly. Give the video a full watch to go more in depth and see some helpful examples, and make sure you're shooting in raw! 

Posted In: 
Log in or register to post comments

16 Comments

Simon Patterson's picture

This is a very good explanation. I used to edit everything in 16 bits until I realised it was overkill for most of my images.

The downside of 16 bit editing is the larger Photoshop files. Those files take sooo much longer to save!

Now I edit in 8 bit unless there's a particular reason to go up to 16 bit editing (eg an image I want to print big, or one where banding is obviously a problem with 8 bit editing).

Kyle Medina's picture

"Those files take sooo much longer to save".......You need a new computer

Files are twice as big, so it is at least twice as more time to compress and save them.

Simon Patterson's picture

I opened up the same raw file as 8 bit and 16 bit, each as a smart object in PS, and then saved as a PSD:

8 bit file : <1 second save time, 161 MB PSD file
16 bit file : 8 seconds save time, 269 MB PSD file

Go figure!

Then try to use surface blur on an 8 bit file vs 16 bit file. That becomes more like 5 seconds vs 5 minutes...

Simon Patterson's picture

"You need a new computer"........talk about using a sledgehammer to kill an ant!

A much quicker, easier, more convenient and infinitely cheaper solution for me is to edit in 8 bit space for the most part, changing to 16 bit when required.

Anonymous's picture

I always edit my photos in 16 bit ProPhoto because, while you don't always need 16 bit, you may not realize you needed it until you're well into your edits. Of course, when editing photos others have taken, I don't have a choice and often (but not always) lament the fact. It depends how accurate the original exposure was and, of course, the vagaries of the scene.

Simon Patterson's picture

Yeah, my solution is only for me - thankfully I don't edit others' photos, certainly not for anyone who would know the difference.

My workflow means I do the most pushing of the image early on, where banding tends to be obvious and I can easily go back and press a couple of buttons to change between 8 bit and 16 bit. Once cloning etc occurs, it is usually too late to go back without a major headache, but I make that my second-last step. Works for me, but, as always with processing, each to their own!

I do however edit in Adobe RGB and really should change to ProPhoto. Thanks for the prompt on that!

Anonymous's picture

For me, it's kind of odd you would be so open to editing in ProPhoto since the difference between Adobe and ProPhoto is much less obvious than 8-bit vs 16-bit. Of course, the difference has much less impact on file size.

Simon Patterson's picture

Exactly. The cost to me of going to Prophoto is negligible, so there's only an upside (or, at worst, no practical difference) to use it. The cost of always using 16 bit, however, is high. Ain't got no time for that!

Kyle Medina's picture

You don't need all those MP either...

Simon Patterson's picture

True. However, I can only choose a camera from the ones available! Apart from the Sony A7s and maybe one or two other niche offerings, decent digital cameras all seem to come with high MP.

Kyle Medina's picture

"decent digital cameras" lol. You're suggesting you have to buy the newest camera.

Simon Patterson's picture

Nah mate. Sony a6000, 24mp, a few years old now. Still going strong. I considered quite a few options when I bought it at the time, including the megapickles. https://fstoplounge.com/2015/07/the-best-travel-camera/

Campbell Sinclair's picture

I edit in raw for the dynamic range

Though I'm not too religious about working in 16 or 8 bit (8 bit is my choice in studio) there is major confusion which this video introduces. 8 bit for them means JPEG with lossy compression. Yes, 16bit converted to 8 bit, saved to lossy JPEG, opened in PS will give you noisy image full of artefacts. If you just use 8 bit TIFF/PSD conversion you won't see major difference on example image with a girl.

Anonymous's picture

I didn't think the video was confusing at all. He clearly differentiates between editing in 16-bit and then saving your finished image to 8-bit vs. editing in 8-bit. This is independent of compression which, of course, brings it's own problems.