Raw vs. JPEG ... which format should you shoot in?

One of the most frequently debated topics inside the photographic community is whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG format. I have read a lot of articles on the topic yet several key discussion points are often ignored.

The Basics:
Before I start I would like to put everyone on the same playing field, whether you’re an experienced digital photographer or someone that is just getting into digital photography, the file formats in question should first be defined.

RAW format is often a proprietary format of a particular camera make. A Nikon RAW file will differ from the RAW file produced by an Olympus camera. RAW files hold all the RAW data captured by the camera. Unlike conventional photography where light is exposed against film with a specific chemical formulation to provide deep saturation or soft skin tones that would otherwise be automatically applied based on the type of film used, RAW digital files contain raw data that is uninterrupted and unaltered. RAW files in their simplest description can be thought of as digital negatives. They are a pre-production starting point, or the foundation of any digital image.

JPEG format compresses image data into a smaller file size. In theory, a JPEG file contains less data (how much depends on the specified size and compression/quality settings that you set on yoru camera) than an equivalent RAW file, but is able to closely reproduce an image once fully loaded. When saving an image with photo editing software it is possible to save an image with different levels of JPEG compression. This enables you to create files that take less storage space sacrificing how well the file displays or take up more storage space to more accurately reproduce the original image.

Before we decide which is better for you, let’s consider your needs. Lets first ask ourselves a few quetions to better understand whether to use RAW or JPEG file formats:

"How comfortable are you with editing images on a computer?"
Many long-time photographers are technically proficient at composing a fantastic photo in the camera; they seldom need to make substantial edits in post-production. Newer photographers that are just starting out in the digital format may need to employ many post-production editing features available to them in order to clean up their images. I would suggest that you realistically assess your technical skill level behind the camera and with a computer before deciding what file format to use.

"What are your goals as a photographer?"
Surprisingly, this is often alluded to in articles, seldom explicitly stated. The significance of this question is quite important, as you’ll want to select the right file format to match the following: your output goals (print, online display, etc), your technical comfort level, your available storage capacity of your computer and hard drives, your computer software/hardware aptitude, and the amount of time you’re willing to commit to the post-production of your work.

Pros & Cons of each format:

The Pros of RAW format:

• RAW is a digital negative holding all of the data captured by your camera providing you a foundational element to which to apply all of your edits to with no sacrifice of image quality or the original captured image.

• RAW file software editors allow you to quickly and easily change the output of your image such as adjusting exposure, white balance, noise reduction, image size (interpolation), saturation, contrast, levels, curves, sharpness, output resolution, bits/channel, etc.

• RAW file software editors allow you to load saved adjustment settings and some even enables users to batch process a group of files versus making changes to one file at a time.

The Cons of RAW format:

• RAW files take up more space on your camera's compact flash card or microdrive than other formats.

• RAW files require you conduct some degree of post processing via photo editing software to convert your image to an editable file type for editing, printing and/or online display. (PSD, JPEG or TIFF)

• RAW file software editors have a learning curve, even if mild, and for the uninitiated can be intimidating at first.

• Batch processing and/or loading multiple files may tax slower machines and require more computer RAM to keep your software running smoothly.

The Pros of JPEG format:

• JPEG is a file format that has been adopted as a standard and can be loaded in a variety of programs making display easy and simple.

• JPEG files take up less space on your camera's compact flash card or external drive than other formats.

• JPEGs can be loaded easily by most all image editing software applications, requiring no intermediate steps.

• Most dSLRs enable you to choose what size JPEG files (S, M, or L) to save to your compact flash card when shooting. This enables you to use smaller images that are easier to handle for email attachments, web display or as an alternate preview mechanism if your camera supports saving files in JPEG and RAW formats simultaneously.

The Cons of JPEG format:

• JPEGs are not a lossless file format. Each time the file is saved data is compressed, with some data being lost in the process. The net impact can be loss of color saturation, color range, clarity and sharpness.

• JPEG files reflect a one-time interpretation of your subject based on the settings of your camera (white balance, exposure settings and output resolution, etc.). Altering these settings and re-outputting a new file, as you can with a RAW file, is not possible. What you capture is what you get.

• Increasing the size of an image initially saved as a JPEG can result in less than ideal results. Some 3rd party software applications can do this better than others, but you’re still dependent on using another software application to get the job done.

• With specific types of photographed scenes JPEG compression artifacts can appear in prints.

Which Format Is The Better Format To Use?
Only you can say which is the correct file format to use after matching the pros and cons to your photographic needs and goals. An argument can be made for both formats. Many professional photographers only shoot RAW files and would never dream of using JPG images. But keep this important fact in mind: photography is their job

Since it is a full-time job, they can devote the hours it takes to process and edit RAW images so that they have complete control over the photo from start to finish. They already have special software that allows them to process RAW files, and the computer power to manipulate them. They also understand how levels, curves, color saturation and hue can alter their photos. Plus, by making the smallest of adjustments to each one of these they separate their photos from the average photographer.

In the end, using RAW files is all about control. If you're the sort of person who always dreamed of developing your own film, then RAW is the perfect choice. You can make each photo look exactly the way you want it to.

On the other hand, if you enjoy taking photos much more than manipulating them after the fact then JPG is a much better option.

My Suggestion
Every digital SLR camera sold today can capture photos as both RAW and JPG files...so why choose just yet… Go out and shoot in both, work with each type of image, see what the results are, then make the decision on what’s right for you.

Happy Shooting!

Kev

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Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.northof49photography.com Blog: http://northof49photography.com/blog/