If you’re new to this discussion about RAW formats read about The Raw Flaw on Luminous Landscape, or on OpenRAW.

I crave for a world in which there is only one free, open, documented RAW format to rule them all. However much I would like to see it, I don’t believe it.

Today, different camera models supporting RAW, combine to more than a hundred different proprietary, closed, and undocumented RAW formats, and as has often been said, not all are supported anymore. This situation is clearly untenable.

However, I also believe the argument misses two import points:

  1. A problem needs a certain size to merit a fix
  2. There are different formats, and there are variations of a format

Addressing the first point, how many are actually affected by this problem? Users are not evenly spread across the 100 formats, so a proportionally small portion of the 100 RAW formats, represents a significant amount of all RAW shooting users. Also, RAW is by and large a format used by users of SLR cameras, and until recently, that meant that just 2 manufacturers represented 95% of this space. Taken together, my totally unfounded belief is that Nikon and Canon RAW formats represent at least 80% of RAW images taken.

Compare that to text documents. Microsoft Word and OpenOffice probably represent 95% of all documents being written today - but there are literally hundreds of different text document formats in existence.

With regards to "different formats" I think it’s important to stress that there is a difference between "different" and "variation". It may be very difficult to support a different format, yet very easy to support a variation of an existing.

Am I advocating that there is no problem? No, but there is no problem yet, and we don’t know the size of the problem. And that is not even touching upon the, in IMHO, exceedingly naive idea of a file format that will endure for 10, 20, or more years.

The Outcome

I believe that the RAW format landscape will eventually change in the next 3-5 years, though not before then, and it will change for different reasons. To see this, it’s necessary to realize, that the problem is not the 100+ formats themselves, rather it’s the [lack of] guarantee that it will be possible to open view an image in say 10 years. There are many solutions to the actual problem, and a single RAW format or open RAW specifications are just two possible ones.

I’m split as to whether the change will be a convergence on a single output format - DNG seems to be the obvious choice - or whether it will simply converge on one or a few interchange formats. Though, without significant community pressure, I’m certain it’s going to be the latter.

From a camera manufacturer’s perspective, the changing RAW formats most likely also serve the purpose of reducing development costs, and keeping unit prices down. Some initiatives, including Nikon’s controversial white balance encryption, look mostly like attempts at vendor lock in, but others cater for new sensors, changed configurations etc. RAW photography is also a comparatively new discipline which is characterized by rapid development, and changing the RAW format is a cheap way of accommodating for changes - tailoring hardware is much more expensive.

Third party application developers are probably the ones most affected by the many RAW formats in existence, and their proprietary nature. They are forced to introduce support for new formats at time intervals that don’t fit with existing application development schedules. This quickly becomes a configuration and maintenance nightmare. This gives them a stronger incentive to offer good support for an independent format such as DNG. The specification is much more constant than RAW formats, and because success of this format would lower their development costs.

The Future

Good application support for an independent format like DNG, translating to improved workflow, combined with it’s functional advantages over other RAW formats, will drive it’s uptake as an interchange format - and I believe that will happen first. That leaves "the last mile" to the camera missing, and when and if we will see that I’m less certain.

Camera makers hold a tremendous advantage in controlling the RAW format, just like Adobe does with e.g. PSD, TIFF, PDF, and may also with DNG, and they no doubt look longingly at the increasing market of post production software. If Nikon Capture NX is any indication, at least Nikon may very well be maneuvering to position NEF as a direct competitor to DNG. Functionally, it may not look the part right now, but there is no reason Nikon couldn’t make the necessary changes to the NEF format to be a DNG competitor.

That would effectively make NEF a competitor to DNG as an interchange format, the only three differences being that NEF is owned by Nikon, is not an open specification, and it is already widely used. (I know it, that’s making a lot of assumptions about the format)

The [RAW shooting, dedicated amateur and up] world may be in uproar about closed RAW formats, but if [computer] history is any indication, openness has little impact on end user choice of format.

Ever considered how much long lasting information exist in proprietary formats - films, music, books….?

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11 June 2007