Apr 23, 2005

OPENRAW Launches Web Site

Digital Image Preservation Through Open Documentation announces the launch of a new web site advocating the open documentation of digital camera RAW files. The website is hosted and maintained by Juergen Specht for The OpenRAW Initiative. Juergen also maintains the OpenRAW mailing list to promote openly documented RAW formats as well as discussion lists dedicated to Nikon Discussions and Canon Discussions.

The OpenRAW Initiative describes The RAW Problem (from their web site):
Most camera manufacturers use a proprietary file format to store the raw data from their digital cameras. In the short history of digital photography, manufacturers have dropped support for asset management applications, abandoned settings from older RAW processor versions and changed the methods of storing basic camera settings without documentation. The undocumented changes in RAW file formats have already cost users of RAW images time and money.

What is RAW and Why is it Important?
A RAW file is a proprietary file format created by a manufacturer to contain the raw data from a digital camera. Each manufacturer’s format is different and typically has multiple variations for different camera models. RAW files are becoming a popular choice for many photographers. Some advantages of RAW file formats include:

* Preserving the maximum amount of original image data.

* Greater creative control with digital images.

* Enabling the highest possible image quality from each file.

* Flexibility with settings such as exposure and white balance after the exposure is made.

* Removing the limitations of fixed in-camera processing.

* Improving image quality over time as RAW processing software capabilities advance.

* Providing an archival image format that could potentially rival the usefulness and longevity of film.

While RAW file use is increasing, the problems created by their closed, proprietary format are becoming more evident.

The Problem with Proprietary RAW files
Closed, proprietary, RAW file formats present many immediate and future challenges for photographers and anyone who uses digital images. These problems include:

* Limiting photographers processing choices and creative freedom.

Access to the raw image data provides a photographer with more control over the process of creating a final image. Public documentation of RAW file formats makes it easier for alternative processing software to be developed. This will give photographers more options to realize their creative vision.

* Reducing photographers’ choices for software that matches their workflow needs.

Most image processing software is tailored to one type of workflow, but the needs of photographers vary widely. News photographers may need to batch process a large number of images in a short time while fine art photographers may spend hours with each photo fine tuning incredible details. Only open RAW file formats allow 3rd party developers to create the wide variety of image processing software necessary to allow all photographers to work effectively.

* Increased probability that as time passes a RAW file will be unreadable or cannot be used to reproduce the photographer’s original interpretation.

Many photographers already have extensive archives of RAW files but are just now realizing the risk of using RAW formats as their primary archival storage. No one can predict how long a particular RAW file will be supported by a camera manufacturer (not even the company itself). If the format of a RAW file is not documented publicly, how can the owner of the file be assured of its long term value and usability? Open documentation of RAW file formats does not guarantee that software will be available to process the RAW files of the past, but it makes it more likely. Open documentation will encourage the creation of backwards-compatible software even after official support is dropped or the camera manufacturer ceases business.

* Increase the costs of image software development (and purchase).

With over 100 RAW format types, reverse-engineering every type has become a daunting task. To catalog, archive and process RAW files, developers of software are required to spend valuable resources decoding and interpreting the proprietary formats, if they can do so at all. This wasted effort must be repeated for every file format change a manufacturer makes. Photo asset management and cataloging software developers face problems with RAW files beyond viewing and processing for final output. Most image file formats allow for data about an image to be stored embedded in the image file. This additional data is used to organize and describe images and is critical for efficient workflow in many sectors of the photography business. The current state of RAW file documentation has led many developers to not allow, or allow with strict warnings, the image attributes to be written with their software because of the real risk of making the file unreadable.

The OpenRAW Solution
We want camera manufacturers to publicly document their RAW image formats — past, present, and future. The goal of OpenRAW is to encourage image preservation and give creative choice of how images are processed to the creators of the images. To this end, we advocate open documentation of information about the how the raw data is stored and the camera settings selected by the photographer.

Many have suggested (and Adobe has created) a common, open file format for RAW image files for all camera makers to use as a solution to the RAW problem. OpenRAW is not advocating a common file format as the solution, though a common, openly documented RAW format could solve the problems of proprietary RAW image files. OpenRAW is not demanding that manufacturers release details of camera sensor design or their proprietary processing techniques to the public.

Openly documented RAW formats will not ensure preservation or accessibility of RAW files. Not having documented formats, however, makes it much harder if not impossible. Future readability will become nearly impossible if current trends of hiding how a RAW format is structured and where the image and camera settings are stored continue.

Juergen Specht describes himself as a German photographer living in Tokyo, Japan.

Additional site credits:
* Larry Strunk for texts, testing and overall help creating the site.
* Rob Greer for the web design draft and additions to the logo.
* Bernd Gruber for the logo design.
* Nick Adams for the glossary, feedback and support while creating the site
* Mario Westphal for the first official post to the site.

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