RAW Vs. JPEG

 

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RAW vs JPG“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?

Image Quality
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.


 

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JPEG Quality Choices

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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. raw vs jpg

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.

raw vs jpgRAW Forgiveness
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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raw vs jpg

Once-In-A-Lifetime Shot
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.


33 Comments

    My feeling is RAW is a something profesionals use to brag. Oh look at me I am a profesional and I only shoot RAW. Well if you where really pro and worth your salt you would know which exposure settings to use and not need the extra flexability and extra work that comes with shooting a RAW image. If you don’t know your exposure setting take a couple of pictures with the different exposures settings and see which one comes out the best. I believe this is the best way to learn anything, by doing it over and over again. I prefer jpg because I would rather not do the extra work associated with shooting RAW images. I want to keep this art of photography as enjoyable and fun, not make it as much work as humanly possible. That being said there are some times when shooting in RAW will give me a better picture and knowing the art and when those situations arise is what makes someone a true profesional.

    i was given a minolta 35mm film camera several years ago that my uncle had for years. it has three lenses 28mm,50mm,135mm with no zoom lens. i have since bought a kodak 7.1 megapix w/a 12x optical zoom (36-432mm). i learned from my uncle, several books he had from way back when plus i get some photo mags. i am no pro but do best i can. i learned on a film camera and try to keep in mind what i leaned about how the camera works. if i look at the preveiw and think the subject will be exposed wrong. i move my camera to a area thats closer to what i want then press and hold my shutter button half way down. then move back to my subject and press all the way down or i’ll use flash on camera w/a corded remote flash to highlight the scene. i found for my needs that high quality jpeg works just fine. as many megapics as some cameras have now raw is not a real big deal for me. i have done several wedings & often print 8×10 that look terrific (can go up to 20×30 before it pixilates).

    I’ve wondered why camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon don’t make their extended lens cameras with RAW–they seem to have just JPEG. For that matter, considering all of the advantages of RAW, I wonder why more cameras–and cameras on smartphones/cell phones–don’t offer RAW? Price, perhaps? Maybe one of these days there will be software which can make it easy for anyone to use RAW files and RAW files to be available at a small size. RAW has its advantages but the ones mentioned here such as file size, along with camera price, make it impractical for many photographers.

    Excellent analogies and comparisons. It will for a time remain a complicated issue especially if in the mix we were to introduce the question of the intended use of each photo…what is the intended final product?

    Have enjoyed your ‘Staff’fine writing skills.

    I shoot JPEGs and do minor (and sometimes not so minor) adjustments to them in Elements. The idea that JPEGs are like slides and can’t be altered is just plain wrong. You can’t do as much as you can with RAW, but they are not like slides.

    Why manufacturers don’t allow raw as an output options is a mystery to me. EVERY digital camera shoots raw, but it is converted to JPEG. How much could it cost to accept the speed penalty just allow the user to have the raw if they want their pictures that way? Raw processing algorithms are owned by all of them.

    To Joel Bader – you said “considering all of the advantages of RAW”. But there are only like 1 and a half advantages to mention. Color balance is a big one. Exposure latitude isn’t as big as people like to think. To the author, why oh why would you shoot high ISO in still life landscape photography? This is “Outdoor Photography” keep the ISO low.

    I’ve pondered this decision for some time. In a John Shaw workshop he said that shooting both formats is not a good option, as when shooting in RAW you should expose for the highlights without clipping which is not what you do when shooting in JPEG. JPEG is more traditional where you expose for the shadows as in B&W film. It’s confusing at times and it seems everyone has a different opinion on it.

    Hi there,
    my choice for several years is only shooting RAW format.
    I edit in Aperture with Adobe Photoshop as external editor and have additional options ‘fine RAW Tuning’ that offer me few extra skills to control edge, sharpness, etc.
    The control in light or shadow area is significant powerful, also the Exposure.
    After I finish to edit, I export in different format, with or without watermark (I make some custom export format).
    It is also important that every export or resize to use only RAW format as master!

    RAW vs. JPEG. RAW delivers 4 times the digital information of JPEG and if you want to do something with the image like enlarge it, RAW delivers a more constructive result. JPEG is valuable for recording a moment and increasing the amount of in camera storage, again by 4 times. But, once RAW has been processed using a tool like Photoshop Elements, you will think twice about ever shooting JPEG again, except to record an unimportant moment.

    Camera of choice is Nikon D3; backup is Nikon D2sx. My wife wants prints to show the grandkids and JPEG lets her get them printed quickly. While I consider myself a good photographer, I am far from professional. The ability to adjust in Lightroom is fantastic but time consuming. I just returned from three weeks in Africa. The processed RAW shots blow JPEG away.

    Look, if you want to treat your DSLR like a glorified P&S and are satisfied with mediocrity, then by all means shoot JPEG. However, if you want to be serious about your photos then shoot RAW.

    You should want full control and not leave it to algorithms to decide how your photo should look. Otherwise, just click your wheel to the Auto setting and press the button.

    I personally prefer to shoot more and Photoshop less. Since I have a day job, shooting 1000 RAW images on a trip, then coming home and post-processing all of them takes a lot more time than I have. I think that Canon’s in-camera setting make it possible to get very high quality jpegs right out of the camera, and combining that with a Hoodloupe to immediately reshoot to get a proper exposure, if necessary, I feel I get excellent results. RAW may offer the ability to salvage poor exposures, capture better shadow detail, etc., but frankly that is not of great practical value.

    One advantage to RAW I have not seen mentioned is the potential for future improvements in the conversion algorithm. The fact that a computer has more processing power allows it to run far more complex software than what can be run in a camera. As new RAW processing software is developed, even old RAW images may yield better results.

    I think that RAW always allows you to get all the information that you can, sometimes you will need it, some times not, but in the end with the low cost of storage mediums and the appropiate software to process images (mainly Aperture and Lightroom) I think that it is a better choice to always use RAW (JPEG only if rapid action is needed) and keep those extra bits with you, i normally dont perform too much changes to the images, but when needed those extra bits, can become invaluable.

    When I got my first digital with the ability to shoot both RAW and JPEG, I followed advice and shot both. On my pictures, the RAW is far better even before processing. The amount of difference varies from one shot to the next, but the RAW is always better. Having just made the jump from slides to digital may affect my judgement a bit, as I really prefer the slide qualities.

    RAW files are so much more versatile, but their size still makes them a pain in the ass. I might shoot 5 or 600 images a day, and that puts a load on any desktop when you do it day after day.

    You have to cull RAW photos mercilessly if you don’t want them to overwhelm you (used to think 1 terabyte was HUGE) with sheer volume.

    But you can’t match the detail of the image, with all its data intact and uncompressed, it will always be the
    most fun to play with before running jpgs.

    Well this debate may never end. However this is certainly a great article to remind us to reconsider long held attitudes in light of changing technology.

    I would like to add a few thoughts:

    There is an advantage of shooting raw and JPEG that was not mentioned… with the Apple iPad you can load you photos (raw and jpeg) and actually see them on a bigger screen which is nice in itself but if you are connected to the iCloud the jpeg version is automatically uploaded to the cloud so you have a backup and you can see the photos on any connected device. Even when you delete the photos from the iPad they remain in the cloud. This happens when I transfer the photos to the computer and delete the source which is the only reasonable way to the remove large numbers of photos from the iPad.

    I use both RAW and JPEG settings simultaneously on my Canon 5D MKII, and can process them separately with the Canon program. Able to choose between RAW and JPEGS.
    More card space but more choices also.

    My file type depends on purpose.
    I shoot hundreds of photos at work as progress record and these are save as an 8×12 jpg, shot as a jpg.
    However, when i go out on my weekend floral shoot or go for a stunning architectural shot, i shoot raw. End product may be a fine art print or a computer desktop wallpaper, but i have the raw file with which all my options are open from editing to prining.
    No debate, no problem. Neat solution, for me, that works nicley…

    Almost everything is already said, but just want to add one thing. Some people think that when shooting RAW you can almost forget about right exposure since you can always correct it afterwards, and that is not true. Better a well-exposed jpeg file that an over or subexposed RAW file.
    I think that photography is much more than recovering underexposed areas in a picture. Light, framing, subject, exposure, sensitivity are much more important issues to worry about in order to get good pictures and sometimes people forget it.

    James your assumption that a “professional” is someone that knows more or is better at something is wrong. A “professional” is someone that makes a living at what they are doing. Also your innuendo that people that shoot RAW do not know how to set proper exposure is just not true. The fact that you do not like shooting RAW does not make it a valid choice for others. I wish people would stop denigrating others for their choice of tools and processes. Learn the tools and processes and use the ones that work for you.

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