OpenRAW – Fighting to Preserve Digital Photographs

I’ve been using my Nikon D-100 for a while and occasionally I use RAW mode when I’m taking photos of things like Donna’s paintings which will have prints made of them for sale because they’re lossless and retain much more information from the CCD than other image formats. The rest of the time I shoot in JPEG as they’re holiday snaps and it just works.

However, RAW formats are proprietary – each vendor will have many different versions as their cameras evolve and they want to add all that new shiny information into them. These undocumented formats then need to be reverse engineered by the open source community to make them usable outside of proprietary information silos – for instance Dave Coffins dcraw program supports over 208 cameras so far – but because the formats are completely undocumented there’s no guarantee of a complete implementation!

So, this brings us to OpenRAW billing themselves as “Digital Image Preservation Through Open Documentation”. Why should we worry ? Well, how about this :

Photographers will find their older images inaccessible, as future software versions lose support for older cameras. In the worst cases, entire brands may disappear, as has already happened with Contax.


In some cases manufacturers have even encrypted the data within newer RAW files. Intentionally or not this encryption has placed full access to the images stored in these files out of reach of the photographers that took them. Unless, of course, they limit themselves to tools sold by the camera manufacturer.

So it’s the same issue as it is for proprietary document formats, once the vendor moves on and looses interest in the older formats you may find that you have problems properly accessing (or even accessing at all) the contents of those proprietary files. Simply put, the photographer does not fully own his photograph in this format.

OpenRAW argue (correctly, in my opinion) that camera makers will not consent to use a single, standardised, RAW format, but their solution is pretty simple:

We want camera manufacturers to publicly document their RAW image formats — past, present, and future.

Personally I’ve got to agree, can you imagine being an archivist 100 years from now trying to access RAW photos made by a company that may not exist & written by people who are dead when you have no access to the source code or documentation ?