3 Reasons Why Your RAW Files Look Grainy

Have you ever viewed a RAW file, perhaps in your photo editor, and been less than thrilled with the results? If so, you’re not alone. It’s likely that every photographer or person taking a casual picture has discovered their RAW files appear grainy and wondered what caused this excess noise.

In this article, we will discuss the top three reasons why your RAW files may look grainy and how to solve the issue. As you read, you’ll learn what predominant camera settings and environmental factors contribute to this issue, so you can ensure your future RAW files appear with ideal clarity.

1. ISO Setting is Too High

While there are several reasons why your RAW files might appear grainy, the predominant one that is almost always responsible for this issue is shooting a photo when your ISO is set too high.

ISO stands for International Organization for Standardization and is a measure of your camera’s sensitivity to light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive it is to light and, consequentially, the less grain you’ll see in your RAW files.

Typically, your ISO is the last setting you choose before taking a photo because its overall purpose is to help you balance your exposure after selecting the ideal shutter speed and aperture. When doing so, you’ll likely want to choose an ISO between 100-500 to limit graininess as much as possible.

Once you enter the realm of ISO 3200 or above, the presence of grain in your RAW files will likely increase exponentially, especially if you’re shooting in a low-lighting setting. Additionally, as you lower your ISO setting, it would also be beneficial to lower your shutter speed to further reduce noise.

Another way to troubleshoot this issue in low-light settings would be to introduce more light into your environment, either using a flash or other light sources, so you don’t feel like you need to increase your ISO setting.

2. Camera Quality

Getting your ISO setting exactly right can be tricky and is a skill you need to practice considerably before you really master the combination of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture for the clearest RAW files possible.

However, sometimes you’ll see graininess in your RAW files despite the proper settings because your equipment isn’t up to the task.

It’s no secret that in the world of photography, cameras and their accessories vary significantly in their costs and quality. Unfortunately, if you’re using a cheap, low-quality camera, you’ll likely notice a more persistent presence of grain in your RAW files.

The reason for this is that high-quality cameras are usually made with larger image sensors that allow them to receive more light and effectively reduce grain.

Even if a high-quality camera’s sensor is the same size as a cheaper alternative, the former tends to have superior materials and design that allows it to perform better with less grain at relative ISO settings than the latter.

This is most noticeable when comparing a 6.17 x 4.55mm sensor size found on a Smartphone, for example, versus a 23.6 x 15.60 mm sensor you might find on a beginner photographer’s camera, and a 53.0 x 42.20 sensor you’d find on a professional photographer’s camera.

3. Excess Camera Movement

Another common cause of grain in RAW files that beginners, in particular, tend to struggle with is excess camera movement when the image is being taken.

By this, we mean that your camera is unsteady when the shutter is open, resulting in a blurry image that often looks quite grainy.

Typically, this is caused by photographers who prefer to hold their cameras and, therefore, introduce movement through the shakiness of their hands or the jarring motion of pressing the shutter button. However, there could be external elements at play, such as wind or fault equipment.

The best way to solve this problem would be to find a way to keep your camera as stable and static as possible. You can either do this by placing it on a flat, supported surface or using tools like tripods.

Final Thoughts

Creating a RAW file that has absolutely no grain is difficult but seeing excessive levels of noise in file after file can be quite frustrating.

The best way to minimize this noise issue is to understand and practice altering your ISO setting while limiting your camera’s movement and introducing as much light as possible. Eliminating grain from RAW files through editing is a challenge in itself, so you’re better off doing everything you can to prevent it in the first place.