Should I shoot RAW files? Or, are JPEGs okay?

It’s a question that has been asked time and time again since the dawning of the digital age of photography:

Should I shoot RAW?  Or, are JPEGs good enough?

Biltmore TulipsThere are varying opinions on this.  Here’s mine:

If you are relatively serious about your photography, and you have the necessary software to effectively post-process your RAW files, then shoot RAW.

If you are a casual shooter who enjoys photography, but isn’t bothered about getting the “perfect” image for printing, then shoot JPEGs (of the highest resolution and quality).

Let’s have a look at each file type, what they are, and what their advantages and disadvantages are.

What is a JPEG file?  Think of JPEGs files (.jpg) as a “universal” image file — one that can be opened and viewed by any computer.  Many of the images you see on the internet are JPEG files (with many also being PNG and GIF files).  JPEG files begin their lives as “raw” data, but prior to being recorded on a camera’s memory card, this data is processed by a mini-computer inside your camera, tweaking such things as color balance, contrast, sharpening, etc., and also “compressing” the file during the conversion from raw data to the .jpg file format.

ADVANTAGES OF JPEG FILES

  • Universally accepted format that can be opened and viewed by anyone
  • Relatively small file size, which means that you can fit more of them on a camera’s memory card or on your computer’s hard drive (when compared to RAW or other non-compressed files)
  • Files are processed by the camera, reducing the need for “post-processing” (can also be a disadvantage!)
  • Ability to “compress” the files as needed to reduce file size to suit needs (e.g., internet use)

DISADVANTAGES OF JPEG FILES

  • Compression in camera creates a “lossy” file starting with its first generation (i.e., some raw data is discarded to allow for a smaller file size)
  • Lower dynamic range (as a result of the compression process)
  • Control of image processing is relegated to the camera’s pre-programmed algorithm, reducing the control of the photographer / artist
  • Processing in camera is “irreversible” in most cases (e.g., sharpening)
  • When working with JPEG files in post-processing, every time a JPEG is re-saved as a JPEG, it goes through a compression process (even with the highest “quality” setting).  In other words, every time you save a JPEG as a JPEG, you are reducing the image quality.

NYC Times SquareWhat is a RAW file?  A “raw” file is not really an “image” file, as it is essentially “raw” data that comes from your camera’s pixels, and it requires special software in order to be translated into an “image”.  Most/all DSLR cameras are capable of recording RAW files, and some point-and-shoot models can produce RAW files as well (e.g., my Canon S-95 point-and-shoot has RAW capability).  RAW files are proprietary in that every camera model has its own file design.  For example, though it may be obvious that Nikon raw files (.nef) are different than Canon raw files (.cr2), it may not be obvious that a Nikon D700 raw file (.nef) is different than a Nikon D800 raw files (also a .nef extension).

ADVANTAGES OF RAW FILES

  • They are “un-compressed” coming out of the camera (e.g., the data coming from the pixels is not “processed” in a way that throws out useful / usable data).  A raw file is usually about three times the size of the equivalent high-res / high-quality JPEG file because of this.
  • They are “non-destructive”.  No matter what you do, you cannot alter the data of a RAW file.  It’s like a film negative — you can creative derivative images from a negative (i.e., with darkroom manipulation), but this will not alter the negative.  Similarly, you can edit a raw file by adjusting the colors, contrast, cropping, etc., but you cannot affect the base data in the file, and you can always return to it.  In order to capture your “apparent” changes to a RAW image in your software, you must save it as another file type (e.g., .tif or .psd or .jpg).
  • Higher dynamic range when compared to a JPEG.  This will allow more detail to be brought out of shadows and highlights during post-processing, among other advantages. Basically, you have more data to work with, since nothing was “thrown out” during a processing process in the camera.
  • Essentially, the photographer has total control of the image processing, and can “alter” the image as they see fit (unlike a JPEG that goes through a mini-computer inside the camera before being recorded on the memory card)
  • Didn’t get the White Balance correct when shooting?  No problem with RAW files, as this is very easy to fix in post-processing.
  • I also find that the “noise reduction” capability of my software (Lightroom) works fantastic on RAW files.  Given that I often shoot at very high ISO settings for my music photography, this is a huge plus.
  • If you do not like the proprietary nature of a camera’s RAW file, they can be converted to Adobe’s “generic” raw file format, .dng (stands for “digital negative”).  See below for more about the Adobe .dng format.

DISADVANTAGES OF RAW FILES

  • Since every camera model has its own proprietary RAW file, special software is needed to work with them.  For example, before you can open a RAW file in Adobe Photoshop, it needs to be “converted” in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), which is built into every version of Photoshop.  Problem is, when a new camera model is introduced by a manufacturer, the version of ACR that came with your software will need to be updated in order to “understand’ the new model’s raw file structure.  Though these updates are free, they will always be needed as new camera models constantly come on to the market.
  • RAW files take up much more space than JPEGs, meaning that your memory card will fill up much quicker, and you’ll need more storage space on your computer’s hard drive.
  • RAW files need to be post-processed, and saved as a different file format in order to be used  or opened universally.  You cannot take a RAW file out of the camera and put it directly on the internet!  It must first be converted to an internet-friendly file format, such as .jpg or .png.
  • When working with RAW files in Adobe Camera Raw, it is necessary for the software to create “side-car” files in the .xmp format.   Though these serve a valid purpose to record “instructions” for the changes that you make to the file (including metadata additions), they can make things a little messy in your file folders.

Bandon, Oregon Sunset
Why choose the Adobe .dng format?

  • It is a generic RAW file format developed by Adobe to replace camera manufacturers’ proprietary RAW formats.  Adobe pledges to support this format forever, but will not support all manufacturer formats forever.  In other words, once a specific camera model is out of circulation for a long-ish period of time, it is unlikely that Adobe will continue to support its RAW file format in current and future versions of Photoshop / ACR.
  • Like other RAW file formats, it is non-destructive.
  • It has the ability to “embed” the original RAW file into itself, enabling the original file (e.g., the .nef file) to be extracted at a later date (NOTE:  I, personally, do not recommend doing this as it significantly increases the file size!)
  • If you choose to not embed the original RAW file, the converted .dng file can be about 20% smaller than its parent RAW file, with now loss in quality.
  • RAW files can be easily and automatically converted to .dng upon import into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
  • They do no employ a side-car .xmp file, making your folder system more organized.  The instructions that are traditionally contained in an .xmp file are contained within the .dng file, but are kept “separate” internally, preserving the non-destructiveness of the file, and enabling the user to always have the ability to revert to the original raw data.  Like its counterparts, you cannot change an .dng file!
  • DRAW-BACK:  At the moment, neither Nikon nor Canon can “shoot” .dng files, though I personally hope that they eventually come around and have this as an option.

So, there you have it!  The got f-stop? take on “RAW vs JPEG”.  Though I am a big fan of RAW files, and I convert all of my Nikon .nef files to .dng on import via Lightroom, I do understand the argument about shooting JPEGs.  What I will say is that if you choose to shoot JPEGs, understand the following in doing so:

  • You’ll have less ability to “fix” your exposure mistakes when you post-process your files
  • You’re allowing the camera’s built-in processor / computer to replace your own creativity with its pre-programmed “decisions”
  • Once you open your JPEGs in your software, and make a few tweaks, be sure to save that file as something un-compressed, like a .tif or .psd file.  Yes, this will be a very large file, but it will spare you an additional round of compression losses should you save the modified image as another .jpg file.

 Got questions about this post?  Leave a comment, please!

BB King - NOLA Jazz Fest

 

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