Why shoot RAW instead of JPEG

 

I picked up the latest Popular Photography at the airport yesterday and got as far as the Letters to the Editor section when I saw something that kind of surprised me. The first two letters were from readers that were seriously angry about RAW and didn’t see why they should use it instead of JPEG. Apparently Debbie Grossman wrote an article in the November issue entitled “Why RAW Works”. Now truth be told, I have not read this article but then again, I know why it works. I am still amazed though at how little awareness there is by camera owners at the power and importance of shooting in a RAW format. The big complaints seemed to be as follows; no way to open and work with their RAW formatted images, larger file sizes, waiting for images to write to the memory card, less capacity on the memory card, longer download times, and, well, you get the idea.

I am just going to take a stab at this and guess that the folks that are having issues understanding the RAW format are those that have recently moved up to a DSLR camera and have previously been shooting strictly JPEG images. So let me start off with a few comments about JPEG. First, there is nothing wrong with JPEG if you are just taking happy snaps. Why go through the process of adjusting RAW images of the kids opening presents when you are just going to email them to Grandma. Then there are the journalists and sports photographers that are shooting 9 frames a second and need to transmit their images across the wire. Once again JPEG is just fine. So what is wrong with JPEG? Absolutely nothing, that is unless you care about having complete creative control over all of your image data as opposed to what an algorithm thinks is important.

First of all, did you know that JPEG is not an image format? It is actually a compression standard and compression is where things go bad. When you have your camera set to JPEG, whether it is Fine, Normal, or Basic, you are telling the camera to process the image however it sees fit and then throw away enough image data to make it shrink into a smaller space. But in doing so, you give up subtle image details that you will never get back in post-processing. Now that is an awfully simplified statement but still fairly accurate.

So what does RAW have to offer?

Well, first and foremost, RAW images are not compressed (there are some cameras that have a compressed RAW format but it is lossless compression which means there is no loss of actual image data).

RAW images also have a greater dynamic range than JPEG processed images. This means that you can recover image detail in the highlights and shadows that just aren’t available in JPEG processed images.

There is more color information in a RAW image because it is typically a 12, 14, or 16-bit image which means it contains more color information than a JPEG which is almost always 8-bits. More color information means more to work with and smoother changes. Kind of like the difference between performing surgery with a scalpel as opposed to a butcher’s knife. They’ll both get the job done but one will do less damage.

Sharpening a RAW image is more controlled because you are the one that is applying the setting according to the result you want to achieve. Once again, JPEG processing applies a standard amount of sharpening that you can not change after the fact. Once it is done, it’s done.

And that brings me to my final and possibly most important fact. A RAW file is your negative. No matter what you do to it, you won’t change it unless you save your file in a different format. This means that you can come back to that same file and try different processing settings to achieve differing results and never harm the original image. Make a change to your JPEG and accidentally save the file and guess what, you have a new original file and you will not ever get back to that first image. That alone should make you sit up and take notice.

Final advice for new RAW shooters

Don’t give up on shooting RAW just because it means more work. Hey, if it takes up more space on your card, buy bigger cards or more smaller ones. Will it take more time to download, yes, but good things come to those that wait. Many programs like Lightroom let you start working with your images while they are downloading. If you don’t understand the process, find a book or even better, a friend that knows how to work with RAW. Read your owners manual about your camera’s particular format. The chances are that it actually came with some RAW processing software that you weren’t aware of. Move away from the amateur mindset of JPEG and think about how much better your images could be if you took complete control of them instead of handing that over to some algorithm. After all, you took the photograph; shouldn’t you be the one to decide how it looks in the end?

I have heard numerous times that if Ansel Adams were alive and shooting today, he would be shooting digital. I have no doubt about this but I also bet he would be using RAW, not JPEG.

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  • mike meyer

    So what about all the processing power you get by using the “open in Camera Raw” when shooting jpg? I know the difference but if you need another subject to write about that could be part two. Also when you are resizing your images to make them smaller I wouldn’t just use a lower number in the jpg save as box. You can usually go down to about a 10 in Photoshop and your jpg’s will look great if you only save them once. The way I e-mail images is to actually resize the image to about 800 pixels wide then save as a 10 to 12 setting and the final files are even small enough for dial-up to handle but, still look great when Grandma opens them.

    mike meyer

  • george

    I only shoot RAW because I am not consistently good enough to shoot JPEG, I usually mess up one of the camera controls (White balance is a particular favorite) and RAW gives me the capability to at least have a shot at saving the shot. I think RAW is the Digital beginners friend and, since I figure I will be a beginner for a very long time, there is just so much to learn, then it is my friend for life. I do know well respected pros that only shoot JPEGs, but that is their choice and they have the experience and ingrained habits to pull it off consistently.

  • http://photonotesblog.com Patty Hankins

    Excellent advice for people who don’t know the difference between RAW and JPEG. I’m going to bookmark your post – since I get asked this question fairly often – and your explanation is wonderful.

  • http://www.revellphotography.com jeff

    Thanks Patty. I tried to make it as brief and easy to understand as possible without writing a short novel. I think George gets it too. There are pros shooting JPEG and they certainly have their reasons for doing so but theirs is a conscious decision based on years of shooting experience. And don’t worry George, you will still be using it long after you have left that beginner monicker behind you.

  • John

    The big thing that you missed is that EVERY time that you edit a JPEG and save it you have degraded the orginal again with the new compression. It’s like leaving new fingerprints on the negative each time.

    Also you spent money on that nice DSLR with let’s say a 12 bit file. That’s 4096 different levels of color that you have available in RAW. When the camera takes the raw data and compresses it to JPEG (and does other fooling around) it compresses it to 8 bits or 256 levels of color. That was okay for your computer monitor in the mid 80′s but how many people still have the colors on their monitor set for 256? I bet not many. But they’re happy with JPEG, it makes no sense.

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  • http://www.paulopics.com Paulo Jordao

    Hi Jeff,
    I am a Wedding Photographer here in Ft. Lauderdale, FL ( http://www.paulopics.com ).
    I might shoot 500 to 1000 shots per Wedding. Then, I create a webpage with them so the bride can start selecting their pictures.
    At the end, I might have to give at least 200 prints (between 4×6, 5×7 and 8×10).
    The question is…
    I always shoot in JPEG, should I shoot in RAW?
    Thanks

    Paulo Jordao

  • Mike

    There seems to be way too much controversy regarding this. People seem to feel pressure to shoot one or the other when one does not have too. Most digital cameras of note have RAW+JPEG so arguing about which is better is a moot point. Memory cards and hard drives are so cheap that it makes no sense to feel the need to make some kind of final choice about which format is better. I’m not even going to get into the comment about levels of brightness and 12-bit vs 8-bit because people seem to copy and paste thigns they have read on other sites without actually understanding the implications of what they are referring too. The human eye requires 8 bit to see nature as the camera can capture it, but is unable to see the difference between 8-bit vs 16-bit, which is why most professionals (I’m think of Scott Kelby and Rob Sheppard) don’t bother with 16-bit. The main point is that it is no longer about “this” or “that.” It’s about having the opportunity to shoot both so that you don’t have to worry about such things. Not only that, I always see this nonsense about it being easier to correct white balance issues etc. by shooting RAW. Color correcting is actually more powerful in Photoshop, if one takes the time to actually read about it and find out. There are so many things that can be done in Photoshop but people feel they can only be done at the RAW stage when in fact there are many things which are crucial to good looking images that can ONLY be done in Photoshop (local tone adjustments, dodging and burning multiple layers, etc). God, I can’t wait for this nonsense to be ancient history. The funny thing is, the people who argue about it are not professionals but rather amateurs who like to use the words “workflow” and “metadata” to sound like they have know how. Ask the average pro about that stuff and he’ll walk away, they would rather talk about photography.

  • http://www.revellphotography.com jeff

    You make some valid points Mike. I don’t disagree with half of the things that you say. I do know a lot of professionals that shoot JPEG and it works for them but I don’t know of a single one that shoots fine art or advertising that doesn’t shoot RAW. I shoot professionally almost every day and the RAW format is extremely valuable for the images that I am taking. For others, it might not matter. The key is to be educated enough to understand why you choose to shoot with a particular file format. Knowledge is King.

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  • http://bigaysining.deviantart.com Brendon

    I am a mixed media digital student artist, I shoot my fine art photography using jpegs..only because I still use a humble digital camera..but I think RAW is definitely a good option since I want images more faithfully reproduced in my camera than with a compressed one..

    nice explanations, it really helped me clear my mind on the JPEG vs RAW issue

    I agree with mike about the photoshop thing but I think there would be no harm done if you use RAW with photoshop…better options mean better images isn’t it? ^^

  • http://www.alexandragiamanco.com Alex

    Mike, I don’t think this discussion was about which one is better to use! the discussion was about the difference between the two formats, and the fact that people who switch to DSLR’s and don’t know what a RAW file is, get very disappointed with the results because the general idea is that “ohh I’m getting a DSLR and now I will take photos like a pro”, that is how the general public thinks, they realize AFTER the fact that there is a lot more to being a pro than just a DSLR camera. A pro can get outstanding photos with a disposable camera….but most people don’t realize that and think it is ALL in the equipment used.

    Actually there isn’t a discussion of which is better, the facts are actually very simple, RAW IS better because you get the entire data to work with rather than just a tiny bit….which degrades with every save…should everyone USE it? no, especially if not familiar with it or unwilling to learn it. You realize however how much better it really is when you know how to use it.

    I am a pro and I am shooting in RAW 100% of the time including family photos….

    Paulo, I think it is risky to shoot weddings in just JPEG format (my opinion)…I wouldn’t do that because the files cannot be edited the same as when shooting RAW and if something went wrong, (anything) the chances of fixing it and still have a good file are smaller…..I would shoot both, RAW+JPEG and then if all is good make a back up and then delete the RAWs from your computer (if you don’t have enough space) however, when weddings are concerned I think there are so many cool ways to edit those RAW files that I for one, wouldn’t even bother shooting JPEGS.

  • EK

    The numbers thrown around here can be a bit misleading. Yes, JPEG is a lossly compression but the emphasis should be on the word, compression. While you do lose some data, JPEGs also throw away REDUNDANT data that isn’t needed to represent the picture ‘faithfully’. So, don’t let the LOSSy aspect of JPEG be a bogeyman.

    The thing is harddrives and media used to be expensive and there were few decent software that handled RAW workflow well. These days, stuff is pretty cheap, and Aperture or Lightroom handle RAW pretty well. Plus you can shoot RAW+JPEG in camera. So, my take, is sure, get it right the first time if you can (and have the space/resources/time), but why not shoot RAW when the barrier of entry is pretty low.

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  • mike pod

    I see no advantage in shooting jpegs over RAW. None. You can easily convert a RAW to jpeg but you can’t turn a jpeg into RAW. Why throw data away when you are doing every little thing to get better pictures? There is a free download called jpeg from RAW which will convert a whole folder of pics in seconds. When I got my nikon dslr I didn’t understand the importance of RAW nor did I have a program which could open a RAW file. I was smart enogh to know that I should at least shoot in RAW and save the RAW originals on an external hard drive in case I needed them on a later date when I would know what to do with them. That date came a few months later. The jpegs I edited seemed quite good to me and to others. (I shoot wildlife especially birds every day.) Then one day a fellow shooter explained how much data I was throwing away and suggested I try editing RAW. It took about 30 seconds of editing for me to see how much I had been missing. No comparison. The beauty of it all is that I went back into the external hard drive and re-edited my better pics this time in RAW. The final results in EVERY shot are so much better. I have won over a dozen wildlife contests since converting and staying with RAW. Now what is it I’m missing by not shooting jpegs again? ?

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  • Phil

    Great post and discussions about RAW, I will defiantly dab my feet into raw format. But I feel like kicking my self a little for taking approximately 985 photos of my trip in Osaka Japan in jpeg after reading this post. But I am happy they came out great, love taking photos in macro / wildlife. Any how as the old adage gos “You live and learn”.

  • PeterOslin

    I realize that this is an old post, but never the less, here is another one, in which the author does not seem to have a clue that he is writing about. I just thought that that would be a way of complementing you on your explanation. http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/raw.htm

  • PeterOslin

    of what he is writing about.

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  • David Keel

    HI, thanks for your article. Where did you hear that with Raw there is a greater dynamic range than with jpeg ? I am aware that that is a long held theory that many raw shooters believe in. If I’m wrong please forgive me, I have been listening to Ben Long’s photography course on working with Raw images (It’s on Lynda.com). He is a fan of raw but says that there isn’t any difference in the dynamic range. I would love that statement of his to be wrong.

    • http://www.revellphotography.com jeff

      Well, I guess it is a matter of semantics. You could say that the final image does not hold any greater dynamic range. You would be hard pressed to tell the difference from a JPEG and a processed RAW when comparing them on screen. The real difference lies within the amount if dynamic range information available for you to pull into your final image. Case in point, I I took a picture of a nice blue-sky day with bright fluffy clouds, the chances of the clouds having much detail in the JPEG are slim. Even if I darken the image in processing, once you go solid white in a JPEG there isn’t anything you can do to pull back more detail. That is not the case with a RAW file. Just because you don’t see detail doesn’t mean it’s not captured in the image and can probably be recovered via processing. The same goes for shadow detail as well. Next time you are out shooting, try over exposing by 2 or 3 stops and then under-exposing for the same number of stops. Do this with a RAW setting and with a JPEG. Then go into your image processing software, I prefer Lightroom, and try pulling in shadow and highlight detail from the JPEG and then from the RAW and see which one gives the better results. Don’t just take someone’s word for it, find out for yourself and then you will know for sure. :-)

  • Alice

    I am a beginner, and got my first camera ever a couple of years ago, a Canon powershot S90, so it isn’t a DSLR. I do remember it came with a software disk that seemed to take over my computer, and baffled me. I need to find where I put it and try again. When I look on sites like Flickr, I try to understand the exif data on people’s photographs to find out what they did, which I mostly don’t understand. A lot of the pictures on Flickr that look processed I actually don’t like, they look fake. But I am also aware that my photographs lose a lot of detail, like the autumn leaves on the grass that just aren’t visible, the textures of things.

    • photowalkpro

      Alice, there is one thing that you need to keep in mind when looking at photographs in Flickr and that is that the EXIF data has nothing to do with the processing that was applied. The only reason to ever really look at the EXIF is to maybe see what type of camera lens was used for a particular shot or maybe what aperture setting was selected to achieve the depth of field in the image. You aren’t really going to learn anything photographically from looking at another photographer’s EXIF. What I would suggest for you is that you purchase a book that helps you to discover how the different elements of the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed, and ISO) are combined to achieve a proper exposure. Once you know this, you can start using the information for creative purposes.

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