“Cameras don’t take pictures, people do” is a well-known photo adage. However, you not only need a camera to take pictures and to get good exposures, but you need to know what your camera can and can’t do—especially when it comes to setting what image format to shoot with. For this image taken inside of a hot-air balloon (technically called the “envelope” by hot-air balloonists), I shot in the RAW mode rather than JPEG. For me, it’s sometimes a quality and exposure flexibility issue, but more than that, it’s a personal preference.
Many photographers think of RAW as a pro mode and that using JPEG is amateur. Some even promote RAW as the only mode to use, which isn’t true. I prefer RAW because it suits how I work and the level of control I want when it comes to editing my images.
For others, the extra control may be too time consuming for how they like to work. The benefits it offers me may not be seen as benefits at all for someone else. Both formats are capable of the highest-quality images, and each has its advantages.
RAW has a wider range of color and tonality, which offers greater flexibility when it comes to manipulating an exposure. JPEG has more limited flexibility, but doesn’t require conversion in RAW processing—which can be time consuming, especially when you shoot a lot and frequently come home with a couple hundred images. And a JPEG file created by an advanced processor like Canon’s DIGIC chip, for example, is essentially an automated RAW conversion.
So, which one is right for you?
Basically, when it comes to digital image capture, you have two choices: JPEG or RAW. JPEG files are compressed files. All digital cameras nowadays have processors that use advanced algorithms to convert the 12-bit data from the sensor to the 8-bit JPEG data recorded on the memory card. In that process, some information the processor interprets as “redundant” is discarded.
When you shoot RAW files, you retain all the data, and you never lose your original file, because you can’t save over it. With JPEG, there’s the danger that you could save over your original file, which will mean your original, captured data would be lost.
Some people call a RAW file a digital negative, but that’s not quite true. RAW files are composed of raw data. That data can be processed by a number of RAW-processing programs, and each program processes that data a bit differently, resulting in slight variations.
Because of their large size, RAW files take up more room on a memory card and hard drive than JPEG files. Some cameras offer variable settings for RAW image quality or RAW + JPEG, which gives you both the RAW file and a processed version as a JPEG image. Many photographers now shoot in this mode because they get the best of both formats—the increased flexibility of RAW when they need it and the option to work quickly with JPEG files when that suits their needs.
JPEG Quality Choices
When shooting JPEG files, you have a choice of JPEG settings, which will change both resolution and compression. Low-quality JPEG settings have low resolution and high compression—these may work for record shots, but they really aren’t appropriate for most photographs.
To make big, high-quality prints or have enough resolution for a print publication, you need to shoot at the highest-resolution JPEG setting with the least compression. Resolution is often listed as low, medium and high, while compression may be Normal, Fine and Superfine. Use the highest compression settings, such as Fine or Superfine.
These two images of a hawk show the difference between shooting at the low and high setting. As you can see, at the low setting, the image is pixilated. That’s something you don’t want to see in a print or on a Website.
The Contrast Factor
I always shoot RAW files because I like to process my images in Adobe Camera Raw so that I have total control over image processing. However, if a scene doesn’t have a lot of contrast, such as this butterfly resting on some flowers, you might not be able to tell the difference between a JPEG file and a RAW file of the same scene.
When a scene does have a lot of contrast and bright highlights, such as this red and white flower against a black background, shooting RAW is a must if you want to retain all the details in the scene, and if you want to make a large print or an enlargement from only part of the scene. RAW files, which have wider exposure latitude than JPEG files, capture more data to be processed in the computer.
When it comes to exposure, RAW files are more forgiving than JPEG files: you can recover up to one stop of an overexposed area in Adobe Camera Raw and other RAW-processing programs. That’s what I did to rescue the overexposed neck area of the caracara that I photographed in southern Florida. As with my flower picture, this scene had a wide brightness range, in this case between the dark and light feathers.
RAW files also avoid any potential problems with JPEG artifacts and offer potentially greater dynamic range because of the high bit-depth of color information (which can be helpful in tricky lighting situations).
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There’s yet another reason to shoot RAW files: when you have a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. I used RAW when photographing this butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. The flexibility and forgiveness of the RAW format helped ensure that I got the shot.
If I had shot in JPEG and the exposures were off too much in either direction, there would be no way to salvage the images in editing. The possibility of a reshoot was, of course, nil. So it could have easily gone down as the bungled once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity.
But, exceptions and special shooting circumstances aside, differences are difficult to see when RAW and the highest-quality JPEG are shot side by side with proper technique. It’s critical, though, to shoot JPEG with accurate exposure because it has less processing flexibility. Which image format to use is often a matter of personal preference in the digital workflow rather than an arbitrary quality issue. Don’t blindly use RAW because you read a bunch of articles that say that’s what you “should” use.
If you don’t enjoy the additional work RAW images require, then shoot in JPEG. Or just use RAW selectively. Find what works best for you, because there’s usually more than one way to arrive at a destination, which, in this case, is consistently good image quality captured in a way that suits your needs and goals as a photographer.
Visit www.ricksammon.com for more information, and meet up with Rick at one of his PCPhoto/Outdoor Photographer workshops.