RAW vs. JPEG: Which To Choose

Should you be using one, the other or both?
This Article Features Photo Zoom

RAW ISO 200
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. Read below for more photo printing tips.

 


JPEG ISO 200

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 200

JPEG ISO 200

RAW ISO 1600

JPEG 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?


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.