Lack of RAW Is Not DRM

November 24th, 2007  |  Published in pictures and photography  |  2 Comments

Free Software Foundation – Anti-Features:

“I was excited to find CHDK recently. In a nutshell, it is a free software firmware add-on for certain Canon digital cameras. I couldn’t help but notice that the top item on the CHDK feature list is the ability to shoot RAW.

“RAW is a sensor specific set of formats for digital cameras that, in many situations (but not all) boils down to a set of minimally processed readings off the sensor in the camera. RAW data is usually uncompressed. While RAW files are not usable without processing — they’re like negatives in that regard — I am told that professionals and most serious amateurs swear by them. RAW is one feature that camera companies use to differentiate their high-end and low-end cameras. Sensors, processors, and even lenses might be similar or identical in two cameras priced USD $100 apart. The difference frequently lies largely in the software, or firmware, that runs on the cameras. Expensive cameras have software that will produce RAW files. Low-end cameras will only give you the preprocessed, compressed, JPEGs.

“Now, what’s so interesting about RAW as a high-end feature is that the data often exists (almost unprocessed) in the camera’s memory for every single picture taken. In so far as RAW is raw sensor data, it exists every time the sensor is used. In high-end cameras, users are given the option to process that data and send it through a JPEG compressor. In low-end cameras, there’s no option; the data is processed and compressed and the raw data is thrown away.

“RAW is an example of an anti-feature. Anti-features are sold to customers as features but are fundamental or unavoidable aspects of systems that can only be removed or withheld through technological effort. Unlike real features, producers of anti-features charge customers for not inhibiting access to their products’ full functionality. Technological and legal barriers that keep anti-features away from the users of intentionally less featureful end up costing all users their freedom. It is more difficult for Canon to make cameras that output JPEGs than cameras that output RAW, and it’s not significantly more difficult to offer users a choice.”

I don’t know who’s more willing than me to complain bitterly about the way camera companies control features. On its face, RAW is a perfect example of something being kept from consumers for little more than a way to differentiate high-end point-and-shoots from even low-end dSLRs. It was very frustrating to see Canon insist on its exclusion for the PowerShot G7 and I would have preferred to see RAW in the S-series PowerShots.

But RAW is a problematic example, too:

On my Pentax k100d, which shoots at a relatively petite 6 megapixels, a RAW file consumes 11MB of storage space. The highest quality JPEG consumes 3.1MB.

Here’s one way those file sizes make a difference:

It takes a lot of time to write RAW out to storage. I can fire off three consecutive shots with RAW, then the camera stops responding as it writes to the SD card, and I’m lucky if I get a shot a second until it catches up. JPEGS might take more processing power on the image processing side, but they don’t tie up the storage bus. I can get five or six consecutive JPEGs, and the camera takes less time to recover from writing them out.

Here’s another:

When I shoot JPEGS, I can fit 167 images on a single 512MB SD card. It can even be a fairly crappy, off-brand card. I can only fit 46 RAW images on the same card and it needs to be a fast one or the camera becomes even slower.

RAW files come with expense, too. It takes software to process RAW photos once they’re off the camera. That software costs money to develop. Yes, Adobe Camera RAW probably processes just about any widely available RAW format on the market, but it isn’t free and there’s no guarantee any given customer has it. Yes, your camera manufacturer could license it, but there’s some expense, there, too.

And where Canon’s concerned, I’m not even sure I buy the idea that RAW is used as a huge price differentiator. MSRP for a PowerShot G9 is $499.99. MSRP for a PowerShot S5 IS is $499.99. One has RAW, one doesn’t. When people went bananas about the PowerShot G7 dropping RAW support, Canon put it back in for the G9.

Why was it out in the first place? Maybe to protect dSLR sales (I definitely believed that right up until it reappeared), or maybe because Canon didn’t think the demand was there to begin with.

While a lot of people like RAW (me included), many reviews (and plenty of gadget bloggers) decry RAW as a bit of gearhead fetishism that creates unnecessarily complex workflows for most peoples’ needs. Some of that is geek condescension, some of it is just true.

So we’ve got a file format that:

  1. Adds complexity to the workflow for a technology people are definitely embracing, but with some reservations about added complexity.

  2. Places extra and sometimes performance-hampering demand on system resources both in terms of space consumed and storage processing costs.

  3. Is scoffed at by even the enthusiast press at least half the time.

It’s not a shoo-in for an Industry Conspiracy Anti-Feature of the Year Award.

But we haven’t gotten to the whole “choice” thing. People should, in theory, be allowed to choose to deal with the added complexity, hampered performance and increased storage costs. I’d put myself in the set of people who’d prefer to make that decision for themselves.

At the same time, if I get a low-end point-and-shoot, see the option to toggle RAW and do so, I’m not going to complain about how the camera has too many menu options, eats SD cards like bonbons and takes extra time to process. I’m not sure the average point-and-shoot customer is going to be as forgiving and I’ve read enough utterly schizophrenic reviews from the likes of Popular Photography to know that choice is a liability to some reviewers, who will add “large files” to the “cons” column of a review if they can’t think of anything else to say.

So maybe RAW’s an anti-feature, maybe it’s a feature the camera manufacturers don’t perceive demand for, and maybe it’s something deliberately excluded in the name of “protecting the user experience.” That last irritates and frustrates me because I prefer to make my own tradeoffs. I don’t think, however, that most people do.

Lest I be accused of missing the larger point of the essay, which was about how DRM is bad … no I didn’t. I just don’t think leaving RAW out of consumer-grade cameras is at all like technologically circumventing fair use.

(found the link via ed)


  1. Ed Heil says:

    November 24th, 2007 at 10:27 pm (#)

    It seems like there should be some kind of sweet spot between “barely usable at all” (RAW) and “outright lossy” (JPEG). I don’t care about the raw input of the sensors blah blah, but it’d be nice to know there aren’t jpeg artifacts. (I know, you can crank it up to “fine” and it shouldn’t matter, but still… a lossy format is a lossy format)

    I want a camera that shoots PNGs. :)

  2. mph says:

    November 26th, 2007 at 1:00 am (#)

    I know what you mean. I think Microsoft has the answer this time around.

    Overall, I guess I’d prefer it if everyone would decide to get on board with DNG, too. There’s no advantage to manufacturers to proprietize their RAW formats … it’s not like Canon, Nikon and Pentax are in the software business, and they don’t show any interest in chasing Adobe down for reverse engineering their proprietary RAW formats on a monthly basis. So why not just embrace DNG and be done with it?

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