Shooting RAW vs JPEG is a question that every photographer faces at some point.
JPEG files are processed right within the camera. How exactly they are processed varies from model to model. While color temperature and exposure are set based on your camera settings when the image is shot, the camera will also process the image to add blacks, contrast, brightness, noise reduction and sharpening before rendering the file to a compressed JPEG. These files are finished and can be viewed and printed immediately after shot.
Because the image is compressed and saved to JPEG – which is a “loss” file format – much of the initial image information and detail is discarded and cannot be recovered. You may hear the term “Dynamic Range” used a lot when discussing RAW files vs JPEG. Dynamic Range is simply the amount of tonal range detail from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. Dynamic Range detail in JPEG files is significantly reduced as compared to RAW.
RAW files are uncompressed and unprocessed images of all of the detail available to the camera sensor. Because RAW files are unprocessed, they come out looking flat and dark. RAW images need to be viewed and processed using your camera’s software or in commonly used software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom prior to being ready for display or print.
These differences lead to situations that require choosing one over the other. For instance, if you do not have much capacity to store images in on your memory card, shooting in JPEG will allow you to capture 2-3 times more images compared to shooting in RAW.
However, if capacity is not an issue, you may consider shooting in RAW+JPEG, to cover all possibilities. If you cannot or do not want to do any post processing, then you can shoot in JPEG. Taking a picture in RAW is only the first step in producing a quality image ready for printing. If, on the other hand, quality is of the utmost importance and you want to get every bit of performance your DSLR can offer then you should shoot in RAW.
Shooting in JPEG
When you shoot in JPEG, the camera’s internal software (often called “firmware” since it’s part of the hardware inside your camera) will take the information off the sensor and quickly process it before saving it.
The quality of a JPEG taken with a DSLR will still be far better than the same shot taken with a top-of-the-line point-n-shoot camera. If your camera can burst (shoot continuously for a few seconds), you’ll be able to shoot more shots using JPEG than RAW because the slowest part of the process is saving the file to your memory card (the larger RAW files take longer to save).
Shooting in RAW
If you do shoot in RAW, your computer rather than the camera will process the data and generate an image file form it. Shooting in RAW will give you much more control over how your image looks.
To take advantage of this you will need to use computer software to process the files and produce JPEGs (or TIFFs). This will allow you the chance to change the white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, even calibration of the reds, greens and blues – all lossless.
Should always be shooting in RAW? Not necessarily. Both formats have their uses and photographers use both formats frequently. Here are some guidelines of when you may want to shoot RAW versus when you may want to shoot JPEG:
Journalistic shooting (RAW)
If you are shooting fast moving situations that are constantly changing in terms of lighting, scenes, backgrounds, subjects, then you should consider shooting RAW Shooting RAW will allow you to quickly shoot while having enough information to fix possible exposure issues in post.
Need additional range and tonal detail (RAW)
If you are shooting landscapes, nature or any scene that has a High Dynamic Range, you’ll want to be shooting in RAW to allow you to have additional post production flexibility to darken (burn) the highlights, while raising (dodging) the shadows
Shooting for immediate display (JPEG or RAW+JPEG)
If you need the images for immediate display, you’ll want to be shooting JPEG. If you need post production flexibility and the ability to immediately use the files, you can switch to RAW+JPEG so you have both. Tip: Make sure you have extra memory cards available
Shooting for web or lower quality uses (JPEG)
Save time and shoot these types of images in JPEG format making sure that you properly set exposure and temperature while shooting.
Personal use (JPEG and/or RAW)
Not all situations need to have a large tonal range and post production flexibility. In more casual situations, such as a family gathering, shoot JPEG. You don’t want to be spending crazy amounts of time processing images when the differences are going to go unnoticed. Know your audience, know your situation, know your use for the images and select appropriately.
Rapid succession burst shooting (JPEG)
If you are shooting live action sports and are shooting burst sequences in rapid succession, your buffer will fill up very quickly if you are shooting RAW. This means that your camera will stop to process the buffered images, thus making you unable to continue shooting while the camera is transferring those images from the buffer to your memory card. Shooting JPEG will allow you to shoot a lot more shots prior to filling the buffer.
Brightness & Contrast
The most obvious thing you will notice when comparing a RAW image to a JPEG image is that the JPEG image will have a significant amount of brightness and contrast added to the image during camera processing.
JPEG files will have additional noise reduction applied during in camera processing. If you intend to use these images for professional use, the noise reduction found in a program such as Lightroom will give you more control and a better job of reducing noise while maintaining sharpness and detail.
One of the biggest differences between a RAW and JPEG image is the amount of dynamic range and tonal detail captured. This means that you will see huge differences in quality when post processing images that are underexposed, overexposed, or images that simply have a high Dynamic Range; such as a landscape with a super bright sky against a dark ground.
So, what should you choose?
When it comes to your photography, you are the ultimate decision maker on what is best. Take the time to play with the RAW setting to see if it suits your workflow. Shooting several photographs under various lighting conditions using the RAW + JPEG setting on your DSLR (if it has that capability) is a great way to practice! Take the images back to your computer and compare post-processing for both types of files and see if the gain is worth your extra time.