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Monday, June 18, 2007

The Digital Negative Format

Adobe's proposed standard RAW file format could be the key for the long-term protection and viability of image files

The Digital Negative Format Adobe Systems, Inc., has announced a standard RAW file format initiative called Digital Negative (DNG). Since Photokina and Photo Plus Expo last fall, there has been much discussion regarding DNG with a certain degree of skepticism exhibited by photographers, camera companies and the photography industry in general. Why did Adobe, a software company, introduce a standard RAW file format and what are its motives? Are camera companies going to adopt the standard? The most important question to many photographers is, Why should we care one way or another?

The Role Of The Camera

DNG is a major step forward in the development, acceptance and adoption of high-end digital photography. It marks the maturation of the digital photography industry going from the bleeding edge of chaotic revolution to the mass-market adoption of a refined technology. It isn't a question of if DNG will receive industry-wide acceptance; it's a question of when the acceptance occurs. And make no mistake, it will occur. Every major technological advance in every major industry suffers an initial period of the “Wild West Syndrome,” when radical changes outstrip an industry's ability to manage the progress. But for that progress to mature and find broad acceptance, the Wild West needs to be tamed. To understand why the recognition of DNG will occur, we need to examine how this revolution was born.

In the film age, camera manufacturers were responsible for creating cameras whose sole responsibility was to form the image and expose the film. With the notable exception of Polaroid Land cameras, no camera was ever designed to also process the film the camera carried. Once the camera produced an exposure, its role—aside from maintaining a light-tight environment—had ended. In the digital age, this is no longer true. Camera companies now are faced with a new role because digital cameras are expected to not only capture the image, but process it as well. This is a fundamental change in responsibility and a significant challenge for camera companies.

Almost every digital camera is capable of shooting in JPEG or TIFF formats and providing a fully processed digital image. The camera applies white balance, tone and color adjustments, plus additional processing, to achieve this image. While the proficiencies of today's cameras are remarkable, on-board camera processing takes the raw camera sensor data and irrevocably alters the original raw image data. Remember, even if shooting in JPEG, the camera always is capturing the raw sensor data—it's the camera processing that turns it into a rendered JPEG image.

For many, this on-board processing is sufficient. However, a digital camera-processed file is “locked in” to the camera company's interpretation of what an image should look like. This locked-in look as well as the inherent limitations of JPEG has led many photographers—pro and amateurs alike—to adopt a RAW capture workflow.



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