One of the most frequently discussed questions amongst experienced
photographers and those just starting out in digital photography,
is whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG format with a digital SLR (dSLR)
camera. Numerous articles have been written on this question, online
and in various photographic magazines, yet several key discussion
points are often glossed over.
To put everyone on the same plane of knowledge, whether you’re an
experienced digital photographer or someone that is just now looking
into digital photography, the file formats in question should be defined.
RAW format is often a proprietary format of a particular camera
make. 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
uninterpreted and unaltered. RAW files in their simplest description
can be thought of as digital negatives. They are a pre-production
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) 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.
Thy Self Key Questions To Ask Yourself
Unlike recommendations in other articles I’ve read, the best way to
immerse yourself into this question of whether to use (capture and/or
edit) RAW or JPEG file formats is to ask yourself the following questions:
"What are your goals as a photographer?"
Surprisingly, this is often alluded to in articles I’ve read on this
subject, but never 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,
your computer software/hardware capabilities, and the amount of time
you’re willing to commit to the post-production of your work.
"How comfortable are you with editing images on a computer?"
Many long-time photographers are technically excellent and seldom
need to make substantial edits in post-production; while newer photographers
just starting out in the digital format may need to employ many post-production
editing features available to them to clean up their images. Realistically
assessing your technical skill level behind the camera and behind
a computer is a key factor in deciding what file format to use.
Format Pros & Cons:
The Pros of RAW format:
The Cons 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.
- 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 Pros of JPEG 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.
- 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 Cons 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 microdrive
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 or microdrive 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.
- 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 and
- 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.
- Interpolating or upsizing 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
- 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. Some photographers will feel more
strongly in backing the use of one versus another, but it is ultimately
an individual choice. Personally, I shoot RAW + L (large) JPEG as
my camera supports it and it provides me greater flexibility. For
photographs that I've exposed correctly, JPEGs allow me a faster
path to share images online and selectively use for printing. For
photographs that I am interested in having published or printed,
I begin my post-processing from the RAW file and make alterations
in lossless file formats (PSD or TIF). The end result is the production
of images that I feel are of the highest quality.
If you happen to have an eye to the future, then RAW may be the
way to go as it will afford you the greatest long-term flexibility.
I would anticipate that, as digital photography and photo editing
software mature, greater editing options will become available to
those shooting RAW. Image development has undergone a revolution
where complicated algorithms, complex mathematical equations, are
run against RAW data to produce new output for an image. In the
future you may find it possible to load RAW files and run software
that will change how an image looks on the fly. This may allow you
to mimic the output equivalent to any number of film types. Digital
photography is in its early stages; as cameras and software mature
a variety of new opportunities will be made to photographers. The
trick with anything digital is looking to the future and aligning
yourself to be ready for those opportunities.
|RAW vs JPEG - Image Gallery
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
Banding & Pixelation
Synopsis - JPEG artifacts can be seen in the graduated color
of the sky resulting in banding & Pixelation
||1 to 1 Crop
Of the Sky In The Original Image
Synopsis - Interactive comparison showing the difference
between File Originating from RAW & JPEG