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Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Should you be using one, the other or both?

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The differences between a RAW versus a JPEG file are immediately apparent when you open the images in the computer. Here, we've taken the same image in each format. At first blush, the JPEG is much more appealing. It has more contrast, richer color and more overall snap. Look at the insets, though. You can see that the RAW file preserves more fine detail in highlighted areas. Also, look carefully along the transition between the mountain ridge and the sky. The JPEG shows some slight artifacting compared to the RAW file. While it's clear that the RAW file preserves more detail, it's also a much duller image in its current state. You'll need to put in some time and effort in the computer to make the image look good.

Is there still a reason to discuss RAW versus JPEG? In the earlier days of digital there was a raging debate, but today memory cards are big enough so that you can shoot plenty of RAW files without feeling limited by your card's capacity, and computer processing power is so inexpensive that RAW file processing is no big deal. The advantages of JPEG—namely, you could shoot fast, file sizes were manageable, and the files didn't tax your computer and processing software—have been mitigated. So is there still a reason to discuss it? Absolutely!

Advocates of shooting JPEG fall into two camps. The first simply doesn't have any reason to shoot RAW. These photographers are happy to let the camera and its processing algorithms handle the image, and they like the results they get. They have no motivation to shoot RAW. The second camp doesn't buy into the advantages of RAW. These photographers feel like they get the exposure right when they push the shutter button. For these photographers, RAW is a crutch for sloppy camera work, and they don't need it because they aren't sloppy.

On the RAW side, advocates also fall into two camps. One wants the exposure, color and white-balance control that RAW files give. These photographers shudder at the thought of in-camera processors applying algorithms and compressing their precious image data. The second group is fundamentally concerned with the notion of having as much image data as possible. No one knows what the future will bring in terms of technology, and the RAW files offer the most potential to be ready for anything that can come, so images can have a longer life and they can be reworked to maximum benefit down the road.



RAW ISO 1600

In these four images, you can see what happens to bright colors in RAW vs. JPEG files. The red and orange hues, in particular, are difficult for any image sensor, and applying JPEG algorithms exacerbates the problems. Also, you can see the effect of a higher ISO combined with JPEG processing on bright colors. The petals in the ISO 1600 JPEG have lost most of their subtle texture.

Who's right? Well, all of these points of view have validity, and by now many readers will be asking a fundamental question: Since you can shoot RAW + JPEG without losing camera performance, why not just have the best of all worlds and forget the debate?


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