Shooting in Raw or JPEG

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You decide

Should I shoot in Raw or JPEG?  That’s a great question to avoid asking a photographer. 

Unfortunately this one refuses to go away.  Zealots in either camp say ‘you should shoot’ one or the other.  That’s bad advice.  You should shoot what is best for you and the situation.  And at the end of the day, provided you got your basic settings right, you will still get a workable image.

So, what is the difference? The key difference between Raw and JPEG is where the major post-capture processing work is done – in the camera or on the computer.

JPEG is a popular industry-wide format for digital images.  The image is fully processed, and can be displayed on a wide range of devices or printed straight from the camera.  You can choose a range of quality and hence sizes. 

Raw means what it sounds like.  The image data is uncooked.  You have to run it through a piece of software called a raw converter to get anything out of it.  The format is peculiar to a camera brand and often model.

Some other facts about JPEG are:

  • If you use a size other than Large, the image is compressed using a “lossy” compression method. This means that you cannot uncompress the file and get back to the original.
  • JPEG is limited to 8 bits, which equates to 256 shadings of each of Red, Green and Blue. Raw is typically 12-16 bits, which is 256 doubled 4 to 8 times over – very large number.
  • This means that the raw file has a lot more fine-grained data about the image captured.
  • When you import a Raw file into Lightroom (I will use Lightroom as an example of post-processing software) it will automatically undergo conversion and some processing and result in a decent looking image on your screen.  You can make further adjustments and when you want to, generate an output to a JPG file or whatever.

    When you import a JPEG file it will be pretty much left alone, apart from Develop settings you choose to apply. You can make further adjustments on your computer if you want to, and generate an output to a JPG file or whatever.

    If you expose correctly and have your white balance, picture style and other settings in camera set consistently, you should get a similar result in Lightroom from either format.  (The Picture Style corresponds to the Camera Calibration Profile in Lightroom).  There are likely to be some differences, but it is subjective as to which you like best. 

    So some argue that there is no need to shoot raw. They proudly say that they have never seen a difference. Well, there is. Anyone who has tried to edit Raw and JPEG versions of the same image soon comes upon them. You simply cannot push a JPEG far before you will find it has over-simplified the data. This shows up as adjustments that don’t look right, loss of detail in highlights and JPEG “artifacts”.

    Partly this is due to the higher bit count. You notice this when you tone down an over-exposed image. Raw will give you a much cleaner result, because it calculates light in the highlights at much finer detail. To understand how this works, imagine a piano keyboard. The lowest A key is 27.5 Hertz. The second A key is 55 Hertz. Go up another octave and the A3 key is 110 Hertz. By the time you get to A7 you are at 3,520 Hertz. Each octave is double the frequency. The same is true of light – each stop is twice the brightness of the previous stop.

    A JPEG version of a piano keyboard would only record a note number (from 1 to 88 keys). A raw version would record the hertz number, from 27.5 to 3,520.

    This makes no difference when the piano is in tune and played in the intended key. But when you want to deal with a badly tuned piano, or bend the sound on a synthesizer, you can do a lot more with the higher notes with the raw data.

    This is why it is safer to expose to the right (over-expose) a raw image. You can get fine detail out of the higher end. At the lower end there is fewer gradations between the octaves, or stops, so raw is not so good at handling shadows.

    That might make it sound like you should always shoot raw, but there are some good reasons to shoot JPEG – you might ask, why and when ?

    1. When your camera doesn’t have a raw option
    2. When you don’t have a PC and software to do post-processing of raw images
    3. When you are not conversant enough with post-processing software, or your post-processing software is unwieldy with the volume of images you shoot
    4. When you are concerned about disk space, network traffic, upload and import times and don’t need the quality or flexibility of raw
    5. When you don’t have time to do any post-processing, for example if you need to get sports images loaded to news media fast
    6. When you are shooting in bursts and your buffer will fill too quickly with raw images – JPEGs are saved by the camera much faster.

    When should you definitely shoot Raw?

    1. When you know you are going to have blown out highlights in a JPEG format and this matters
    2. When you don’t have time or knowledge to get your JPEG settings right in the camera

    The rest of it comes down to horses for courses – weighing up the advantages and disadvantages in each situation – and to personal preferences and philosophical approaches to photography.  I will completely ignore those last two considerations – you work out your own beliefs

    The situations where JPEG can have advantages are:

    1. Taking rapid bursts of images or sustained repetitive shots close together, such as in sports and timelapse.  JPEGS can be written faster, as they are smaller, and the smaller size lets you fit more shots onto a card.
    2. When you are concerned about time
    3. When you are confident of getting the shot perfect in camera, and don’t want to spend time in front of the computer
    4. When your intention is only to show your images on screen, rather than high quality printing.

    The pitfalls of JPEG you should consider are:

    1. The in-camera post-processing is not reversible.  If you get the white balance badly wrong, or use a monochrome picture style, you are stuck with it.
    2. If you use a smaller JPEG file size, you will lose detail.  It compresses the file by throwing away data.
    3. If you save an edited JPEG back over the original file, you may lose significant data, due to the compression method.
    4. You are more likely to get blown out highlights with JPEGs, and damaging color shifts if you try to reduce the exposure in post-processing.
    5. In post-processing, several options are more limited and have a coarser effect.

    Generally if you shoot JPEG you should aim to get everything right in camera, and minimise post-processing.  It might be a gross generalisation, but film workers seem to prefer JPEG.

    The major advantages of Raw are:

    1. It has the most complete, detailed and unmodified data about the image captured
    2. You can ignore all but the most critical camera settings, then use the raw image as literally raw material in post-processing
    3. You can process raw images through different raw converters, and even re-run them much later through updated software (eg Lightroom’s 2003, 2010, 2012 processes)
    4. You can create several different looks from the same raw file.  You can with JPEG, but you are more limited.
    5. You can work in 16 bit environments and with wider colorspaces such as ProPhoto. 
    6. A raw image can be provided as evidence of non-manipulation. NZIPP required raw images be submitted for its Iris Awards.
    7. You can fix some capture errors in post-processing, especially over-exposure as a lot of image data is recorded in the highlights.

    The pitfalls of Raw are:

    1. Because you can fix things in post-processing, you might get lazy with your camera
    2. Unless you choose a setting which saves a companion JPEG, you have no record of how the scene looked on the back of your camera.
    3. You cannot send a raw file to anyone else, unless they have the right raw converter.

    Generally photographers shoot raw when they want the most flexibility and most granular data to work from, and they want the freedom to do extensive post-processing.

    Some cameras give you the option to take both JPEG and Raw at the same time. That uses more space on your cards though.

    There is no right answer that will work for every photographer and every situation.  I suggest you learn both ways, and know when to use them, to give yourself the best chance of success.