Every serious photographer I know who has shot film carefully safeguards their negatives or slides. No matter how good a print or scan made from one is, the actual piece of film is the reference standard. After all, it alone contains the complete information captured by the camera. For digital photographers, the raw file is at least as important, but its safety is currently far less assured. Allow me to elaborate, and suggest a way that you can help to improve this situation.
The OpenRAW initiative was started in the spring of 2005 as a working group of photographers concerned about the state of raw files and where things seemed to be headed. Canon had decided to drop support for raw files shot by their D30 digital SLR, and Nikon had taken the even more provocative step of encrypting some of the key data in the raw format for their new D2x DSLR. Needless to say, photographers were concerned.
In the old days, once a roll of film had been removed from the camera, it wasn't stable and had to be at least developed before it would be ready for long time storage. Perhaps if photographers could have, they would have archived undeveloped negatives, but such wasn't even possible. But with digital imaging, a raw file is essentially just that: an undeveloped negative. What it contains is the completely unprocessed raw data, straight from the camera's sensor accompanied only by a list of camera settings that were active at the time. It's not yet an image. It's just data. In order to become visible as an image at all, it needs a raw converter. If you can't read a raw file, you can't get at the image hidden within.
Maybe if Canon had dropped support for an older model but Nikon hadn't done what they did, or if Nikon had encrypted the raw data in their new camera but Canon hadn't made their move, there would be less concern. But taken together, these two developments should set off alarm bells for any digital photographer. I have a Nikon D2x, and they did for me at least. Intentional or not, Nikon's move was a de facto attempt to lock me into using only their software to convert my raw files, even though I preferred alternatives. But even more concerning was that if this move were allowed to remain unchallenged, there could come a day when Nikon might follow Canon's lead and drop support for D2x raw files, locking me out completely.
Camera makers are all just making business decisions they believe to be in their best interest — seeking competitive advantage or looking to lower support costs. But there is concern that in doing so they may well do things that are not in photographers best interests, and we are their customers. Photographs capture a moment in time, preserving it for posterity. Whether it is a historically significant moment or merely an esthetically pleasing one doesn't matter. If the digital negative of that moment can't be read at some point down the road, its future is uncertain. Some photographs may be seen as ephemeral, but the best should not be so limited solely by the whims of camera makers. We can do better. We owe it to future photographers and photography lovers to do better.
By advocating openly published information on raw file formats, OpenRAW hopes to increase awareness of the problem and take steps toward improving things.
In some discussions, there is confusion between "open raw" and "standardized raw." Adobe's DNG format is an attempt at standardizing raw formats across camera makes and models. But standardization isn't nearly as important as openness. Standardization may be nice, but could be seen as limiting innovation. Openness requires only that raw formats be documented and published so that third parties can develop software capable of reading them. Standardization may be one way to achieve openness, but isn't the only way. If Canon and Nikon would fully publish their existing formats, the future of our raw files would be much more assured.
Now for how you can help.
OpenRAW has developed a survey to gauge how raw files are used and to assess the full range of opinions on raw file issues. Whether you agree with my concerns herein or not, they want to here from you. The survey should take no more than 15 to 20 minutes to complete and they have stated that all answers will remain confidential and anonymous. By collating responses from a wide variety of digital photographers the results of this survey will be placed into the public domain and published on the OpenRAW website to help inform and guide the future of raw file formats. The survey is available now and will remain available until the end of March.
Please take a bit of time out from your day to lend a hand by filling out the survey and let your voice be heard. You can find the suvey here.