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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

RAW vs. JPEG


Should you be using one, the other or both?

This Article Features Photo Zoom

JPEG ISO 200

JPEG ISO 1600
As you probably know, when you're shooting a lot of fine detail, higher ISOs can lead to a significant loss of that detail. When you add JPEG compression and processing into the mix, the problems are compounded. Notice the fine needles at the top and on the right side of this image. At ISO 1600, many of the individual needles are lost and the areas look more like clumps. RAW files shot at higher ISOs reduce the loss of detail.
In fact, that's a good plan that leaves you the most options down the road, but it's not necessarily the best course of action for most nature photographers. Before you just go and set up the camera to record two versions of every image, it's a good idea to fully understand what you're getting and the best ways to use each file so you can use your storage capacity and your computer time most efficiently.

We've mentioned some of the key benefits of RAW files. Overall, you get a finer degree of control over the image than you can with JPEGs. You can adjust exposure to some degree, although it's a common misconception to think that you can make large adjustments to the exposure without losing detail. RAW files don't magically give you more latitude. RAW files, however, give you much more control over the color balance and contrast in the image. So what's the catch? The downside is that every RAW file needs to be processed, which can be time-consuming. In this regard, shooting RAW vs. JPEG is analogous to shooting black-and-while vs. color transparency film. A color transparency, once the exposure is made, is essentially done. It gets processed in a prescribed blend of chemicals, and it's done. Black-and-white film, on the other hand, barely begins its journey to a final print when the original exposure is made. And just like black-and-white film, you can exercise a lot of control or a minimal amount, but you have to do some work to get from a latent image to a useable one. That's the same as RAW files.

So a clear advantage of JPEG files, even today, is that you spend less time processing at the computer, which frees you up to spend more time shooting. JPEG files are shot and processed in an instant and once you import them into the computer, they can be easily emailed to friends or posted to online galleries. In short, the format lends itself to efficiency, if not control.

Earlier in this article, we wrote that the RAW + JPEG is probably the best way to cover all of your bets. It gives you the best of all worlds, although there are still some pitfalls (see the sidebar "Why Not Just Shoot RAW + JPEG All The Time?"). If you have both a RAW and a JPEG of the same image, you can use each file for its particular strengths.

Why Not Just Shoot RAW + JPEG All The Time?
Sure, RAW + JPEG keeps all of your options open, but it also takes up your memory card faster than shooting one or the other, and it can make things challenging down the road when you're organizing and working on images in the computer. Having multiple copies of the same file leads to all sorts of confusion if you're not careful and meticulous in your workflow and especially in your backup plans. For example, you might work on a JPEG, then save it as a TIFF so as not to overly compress the file. Later, you might work on the RAW file of the same image because you want to take advantage of the exposure latitude and you'll save that as a TIFF. If you don't keep track of all the files very well, you'll quickly become pretty lost between the multitudes of files. This isn't a problem unique to RAW + JPEG shooting, but it's easier to get confused when you're shooting RAW + JPEG.



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