RAW or JPEG: What’s Best For You?

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eHow Tech Blog

ehow-raw-1If you want to start a heated debate anywhere, try to get people to discuss RAW vs. JPEG. (Recently, fellow eHow blogger Kristen Duke explained why she shoots in RAW, for example.) I will admit to already being on the RAW side of the fence, with no going back for me, though plenty of people argue that JPEG is just fine. So let’s delve into the difference and see what will work best for you.

What is a RAW image?

RAW means an image that is shot with your camera image quality set to RAW mode, which stores the actual sensor data for the scene that was shot. This is different than a JPEG image, which is a rendered image of the RAW data that has different effects applied to it by the camera such as sharpening, saturation and contrast. A good quality JPEG image can look incredibly good and can be printed at large sizes and will look great. A RAW image always needs some form processing on the computer to convert the RAW data to something usable. The most popular programs for this today are Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, Capture One (Nikon) and Digital Photo Professional (Canon).

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Any technical difference?

Anyone that tries to tell you there is no difference in image quality between a RAW image and a JPEG is mistaken or ill-informed. From a purely technical perspective, a RAW image always gives you a better image. A RAW image simply has more data; each pixel has at least twice as much data on older cameras, like my 30D, and as much as eight times as much data with newer cameras. This means that a RAW image has the ability to have a greater tonal range than a JPEG. A RAW image will also has greater exposure latitude than a JPEG image, giving you the ability to process the image to recover shadows and highlights more than you can if you started with the JPEG. Since white balance settings are applied when an image is saved as a JPEG, shooting in RAW allows you to adjust the white balance during post processing without sacrificing any image quality.

Clearly, RAW has a distinct advantage over a JPEG saved from the camera. I don’t think we need to debate that RAW has an inherent technical advantage and I think some people get caught up in this. I think the real issue is whether you need the advantages of RAW versus the negative reasons for using RAW that we will look at later.

Getting down with the downside of RAW

The big debate over RAW vs. JPEG is whether the pros outweigh the cons, so let’s look at the cons and review the downside of using RAW images:

Increased file size. This is probably the biggest issue for RAW. RAW images are considerably larger files than their corresponding JPEG images. With my 7D, a RAW file will typically be around 22mb, while a fine quality JPEG will be around 1.5mb. As the megapixel count goes up, the files get downright huge. If you are shooting lots of images, then the larger size of RAW files will be a significant hit to your camera’s memory card and eventually, your computer’s hard drive. Since the files are larger, they also require more horsepower from your computer to process. Bottom line: For the same number of images, you need more flash card storage.

Specialized software needed to process. If you can call Photoshop, Lightroom or Aperture specialized software, then yes, you will need something like this — or use the software that came with your camera. If you use something other than these programs then you may have issues dealing with RAW files. For a brand new camera, you may have to wait for updated versions of these programs before they can recognize your files. This also means that if your camera is discontinued in the future, there is no guarantee that your camera’s format will always be supported (this is a good reason to convert your RAW files to the DNG format, but that’s for another article).

RAW workflow is different than a JPEG workflow. But is it? If you are already using Aperture, Lightroom or Adobe Bridge for processing JPEG’s, then there is little to no change in your workflow. Years ago, before tools like Lightroom and Aperture, working with RAW images was such a pain that RAW was said to mean “really awful workflow.” Since many of us are using Lightroom and Aperture now, there is little to no changes for working with RAW files other than they take longer per image to download off a memory card.

RAW images in third party tools don’t look as good as the JPEGs. This has been a serious problem for a while, as only the camera manufacturers really have the secret sauce for decoding their RAW images properly. Adobe has pretty much solved this issue with Lightroom and Photoshop’s Camera Raw that includes camera profiles to setup the RAW processor that matches the settings used to create the JPEG images in your camera.

Again, we are looking at facts here and not opinions, but it understand that using RAW files has a downside — even though I believe that the negative aspects are blown a bit out of proportion (with the exception of the increased file size, which can be a really significant issue for heavy shooters).

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Non-destructive workflow

One of the biggest advantages of shooting RAW is that it provides a non-destructive workflow, with no image degradation between saves and allowing removal of any given step in the editing process. If you are using any of the three most popular tools today (Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom) then when you edit a JPEG, those changes are permanent. In addition, because you just re-saved your image as a JPEG, some compression occurs, so every time you do this, you lose some image quality. Sure you can make multiple copies along the way to go back to earlier versions, but that negates the point of JPEG’s saving disk space. I work in Lightroom so I can take RAW images and apply as many edits to them as I want, but these changes are stored as a set of instructions to Lightroom — the original image is never modified. This also allows me to make virtual copies of an image so I can have a color, black and white, sepia or dozens of different versions of an image that take up only a trivial amount of disk space to store the steps to make the changes, not a new copy of the image itself. Again, no matter what I do, I don’t lose image quality during the post-production process.

Is anyone still using JPEG these days?

If nobody was shooting JPEG anymore, than I wouldn’t have so many questions about it, but even real professionals are shooting JPEG.

Carlos Baez is a wedding photographer from Florida, making his living delivering top quality images to high paying clients. Carlos shoots JPEG because he can consistently delivers great images without the extra overhead of RAW files. Carlos is an expert at lighting and understanding exposure, so he doesn’t rely on post processing to get his images right.

Ken Rockwell is a huge advocate for shooting in JPEG, mostly because a lot of people use it as an excuse to not get the image right in camera. He has an article about this where he makes a few valid points, though I think the article is a little strong on the negatives. I agree that many people use RAW without either knowing why or use it to correct mistakes since they don’t know how to use their camera properly.

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Pros against JPEG

It’s only fair that I point out a few pros who have made the switch to RAW and some of their reasons for doing so.

David Ziser is, without a doubt, one of the biggest names in wedding photography and a recent convert to the RAW side. David’s big switch came when he started using Lightroom for his workflow and discovered that the images he was getting with Lightroom and RAW files simply gave him a better image than starting with JPEG. David details his experience in a post on his site, although he also make a case for use JPEG for less critical shots that will never be printed larger than 5-by-7. Anything destined for the album or enlargements, he suggests shooting in RAW shooting the filler shots in JPEG to conserve space.

Rick Miller, a Senior Solutions Engineer at Adobe, does a segment when he is demonstrating Lightroom in which he shows a picture of his girlfriend’s white, curly haired dog. Rick took a picture of the dog that demonstrates that when the rest of the scene is properly exposed, the dog is overexposed. Saved as a JPEG, the details in the dog’s fur are completely lost and unrecoverable. The same image shot in RAW uses tools such as Shadow, Highlights and exposure control to regain the detail in the dog’s fur. This demonstrates how even a shot that is technically correct for the rest of the scene may still suffer from being shot in JPEG.

RAW or JPEG – Which is for you?

Since I am far more likely to forget to change my camera from JPEG back to RAW when I need to, I simply leave it on RAW and take the disk space penalty. With a large wedding costing me around 20 to 30GB of space, it isn’t that big of an issue for me. What I like about shooting RAW for weddings is that in the thick of things, if you do make a small error in exposure or white balance, it is far easier to correct it afterward. I don’t use this as a crutch, but as a safety net.

To decide if you should stick with JPEG, all you need to do is to take a close look at your images and compare them with what you can get from a product like Lightroom. Then decide if your images are good enough, or if any improvements that you get from using the RAW image are noticeable and worthwhile.

What do some other photographers say?

Mark Teskey: “RAW only. Shooting JPEG is like working without backing up files or a second body/flash. There’s no safety net with JPEG.”

JE Images: “RAW all the way. if I need to tweak anything then I have full access to all the info..”

Denise Clay: “[I shoot] RAW – I used the best film I could that matched the job in film days, why not do the same now with the best digital file?”

MrsBoesch: “I shoot JPEG. It takes up less space on my hard drive, and I am of the opinion that you should try to “get it right” the first time”

So what are you to make of this?

You can make a case that you can create higher quality final images from RAW files, and that shooting in RAW provides a technical safety net (even if you don’t need it because you are wicked good). The main benefits of working with RAW, for me, are the non-destructive workflow and the ability to have multiple virtual copies of an image without eating up more disk space. I believe that almost all of the main complaints about RAW have been more than satisfied with current software, leaving the issue of disk space and storage as the only remaining issue, albeit a significant issue for some photographers.

In the end, you should be happy with the images you are delivering. If you are shooting for clients, you need to ensure they are happy with the images you are delivering. If you are shooting in JPEG, and are happy with your images, so see no compelling reason to switch, then don’t. If someone like Carlos Baez can shoot a wedding in JPEG and he makes a LOT more per wedding than I do, I am not going to tell him he is wrong for shooting in JPEG. On the flip side, if you are shooting in RAW and the disk space is killing you and you are good enough that your images need basically no tweaks for color, white balance, exposure, fill light, highlight recovery or saturation, then you may be a good candidate for shooting in JPEG. It all comes down to a personal choice. There is no right or wrong answer, it’s a question of what works for you to deliver the best quality images to your clients.

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