RAW Video is Worth It... When You Can Use It

Credit: Apple
RAW video is absolutely overrated, but that doesn't mean it isn't a power tool.

DPreview wrote up a pretty accurate takedown of RAW video that made some excellent points. RAW video today isn't going to give you the amazing boost in dynamic range compared to Log as it would have, say, 10 years ago. It also has plenty of workflow hurdles to figure out, and it can be a data hog too. But while we agree in some ways, we also believe RAW video is beneficial for filmmakers. Here's why. 

It's worth pointing out that DPreview is generally a photography-focused site, so the article may be intended for the majority of their readers which tend to lean toward photographers who also shoot video. As No Film School is a filmmaker-focused site, to us, RAW video is actually pretty darn amazing, and for the vast majority of projects, it's a format you should be recording whenever possible.

Credit: Apple

1. RAW video may only offer a bit more dynamic range, but it offers a whole host of color flexibility

One of the things that DPreview accurately points out is that dynamic range, the brightness range you can capture with a camera from darkest shadows to brightest highlights, is only slightly improved by RAW capture. While RAW was a big deal in 2008 when all other video was linear, its paltry 7 stops of latitude pale in comparison when we regularly can get 12-14 stops using Log encoding in cameras today. 

However, as we saw in our field test with the open ProRes RAW, it offers a ton of flexibility when it comes to color. There's simply more color information stored with RAW, and thus, you can push it further than you can traditional video formats. This means if the white balance isn't perfect, or if you want to do a heavy color look, you can do more of that correction in post, with less noise and artifacting compared to a normal Rec.709 shoot or with certain Log formats. 

If you're shooting an indie feature and some shots are dark or have weird white balance because of the local street lights, you'll be glad you captured RAW. But if you happen to have exposed perfectly with accurate tint and white balance and are doing a very "light" grade, RAW may not offer much benefit other than the ability to go back and heavily grade the footage later on.

Credit: Atomos

2. Post workflows are mainly worked out, with one major exception

The post workflows are much more robust for RAW than they were a decade ago, and while they aren't consistent between RAW formats, they do work. Final Cut Pro made the bold decision of not having a separate "RAW" tab, and instead, you have all your normal color controls, but with RAW shots they have more power. On the other hand, programs like DaVinci Resolve keep RAW controls separate so you can dial adjustments in before applying downstream effects. They're two different models, but both work. 

The one major remaining hurdle is that Blackmagic RAW doesn't work in FCP X, and ProRes RAW doesn't work in DaVinci Resolve. As these two formats grow in popularity, it's become a major frustration among creators. While there are great cameras like the Nikon Z7 II and Z6 II that support ProRes RAW and BRAW and the Sigma fp that supports three RAW formats (ProRes RAW, BRAW, DNG), that's rare. Most mirrorless cameras support ProRes RAW or have their own RAW format, like Canon and the Blackmagic cameras supporting BRAW. 

Maybe in the future, we'll see both non-linear editors support each other's RAW format. For now, you can find support for both with AVID or Premiere Pro

REDCODE RAWCredit: RED/YouTube

3. Big files are rarely a concern

For better or for worse, RAW video comes with "bigger" file sizes. This doesn't necessarily mean that the RAW file itself is bigger, since often it's not. REDCODE RAW compression is so good, you'll often have a smaller file size from your .R3D file than you will with a ProRes 4444 when shooting 4K. Both ProRes RAW and the less compressed ProRes RAW HQ have manageable file sizes too.

For perspective, 12-bit RAW is the same file size as 10-bit 4:2:2 ProRes. So your production workflow might save some money when it comes to storage. When it comes to post, it's a little different.

When it comes to the edit, you will need more storage, since you'll want to store both the RAW and transcoded video files somewhere. Also, when we suggest "bigger" we're referring to the processing power needed to edit the file. And yes, even in 2021 with many companies advertising that their software works in "RAW" natively, we recommend making transcoded dailies to edit from and only reconnecting back to your RAW for the final color grade. It still makes sense, and you are always glad you did.

While "bigger" files may seem like a problem, as filmmakers, they've always been our bag. Whether it was buying 35mm film back in the day, or early hard disk drives, or recent SSDs, filmmakers have always had larger file sizes to store. There are affordable ways to do this (we still like an OWC drive dock with bare SATA drives), but it's just part of being a filmmaker. Sculptors gotta buy marble, painters paint, and filmmakers gotta buy hard drives.

Two major caveats remain

Just because you can worry about things like ISO or white balance in post, you should absolutely try to get them right on set wherever possible.

I have a good friend who was the C camera on a major job in a sports stadium. Unfortunately, there were no walkies, so his white balance settings didn't match the A and B camera. This was easily fixable in the color grade since they shot RAW. His operating was amazing, beautiful footage, but the client hated it because "it didn't match" as well as A and B because the white balance wasn't perfect. That client never hired him again over something that would've taken 20 minutes to fix when setting up the dailies transcode, or if they had walkies from the start. 

Even when shooting RAW, it's important to stay on top of your menu settings, because the way your dailies look will affect how clients perceive the footage and your work.

RAW benefits aren't usually worth it on tight turnaround jobs. If you're shooting something Saturday that needs to be live on a billboard in Times Square Monday morning (this happened to me), the time spent processing RAW footage is likely not worth it, especially since the final display or projection may not be the highest resolution or highest-fidelity color screen. If that's the case it's better to focus on working with a format that can move through post with ease, like ProRes 4444.

Those thoughts aside, RAW is pretty useful for filmmakers, and in 2021, it's so accessible from so many cameras that it's absolutely something most filmmakers should be ready for.     

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RAW is powerful. It's cool. But it's not a format that I'll ever use - even in photography. Learn to white-balance and expose onset, use proper lighting, and try and get as much of the look in-camera as possible. If you're working with 8-bit internal, use a saturated boost Log profile to keep as much color information as possible. Everything else falls upon storytelling and pacing.

February 22, 2021 at 1:34PM

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D.L. Watson
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