Do I shoot RAW files or JPEG Files?

This blog post might ruffle some feathers in the photographer community as well as cause some confusion about what is better. I don’t want to partake in any debate of which is better, just simply put forward information to someone that would be travelling with a DSLR camera and how the different file formats effect them. Shoot RAW, or not to shoot RAW, that is the question. Sorry I had to say that. I’ll qualify by saying I shoot RAW files all the time, because it rules. No question about it. In my Canon 50D I usually shoot full size 15MP RAW files and the Standard Small JPEG file just purely for a file reference in Windows Explorer and if I want to send a small file over the Internet quickly without having it go anywhere near Photoshop or the like.

 
 

But shooting just RAW files is not always practical for a lot of shooters out there. A 15MP RAW file is about 20MB in size. That certainly chews through a 2GB or 4GB memory card quite quickly, especially if you record JPEG at the same time. On the other hand, the processing ability inside cameras today are really advance and customisable, so a JPEG straight out the camera will result (if taken or shot right) into a good quality printable photo. The diagram below shows the memory usage difference between the two formats, and this alone might swing some people.

Lets delve into the differences, so grab a coffee to keep you awake. I won’t get into all the numbers for all those techno nerds, just what they are and how it affects you.

RAW Files

A RAW file is really what it sounds like, it is the raw data captured by the image sensor in the camera. Just about every DSLR and some high-end compact cameras feature RAW capture, whether they’d be called .NEF, TIFF files or their own proprietary name.
 
When the data is captured by the sensor, it is written to the memory card directly without any post capture processing applied by the camera. The only reason why you would capture RAW files is to apply processing to them on a computer that is beyond the scope of the camera’s inbuilt processor. The RAW is uncompressed data unlike a JPEG file, hence why the file size is substantially larger, simply because at capture time there is no data discarded or compressed. Having all the data allows to process the image in post production software like Adobe Lightroom, Adobe Camera RAW, Capture One or the one provided with the camera.
 
 
With a RAW file you can extract more shadow detail, recover lost highlight detail, push saturation, apply your own level of sharpening and noise reduction and more. The most important i think is the ability to change white balance or the colour temperature. I can make a photo look cooler or warmer with a simple slider adjustment. I utilise this flexibility of RAW with just about every picture I take. If I ever expose an image a little bit on the underexposed side, I can adjust the exposure in the RAW processor, like I could have in camera. I always aim to nail the exposure right in camera as much as possible, but with the narrow exposure latitude of digital cameras and easily fooled exposure meters it is easy to miss. No body is perfect anyway!
 
I also like using RAW because you can change just about any aspect of the photograph in regards to colour and overall appearance. I am often happy playing around with a RAW for a minute or two in Camera RAW or Adobe Lightroom and come out with a much more pleasing looking photo than I would a standard JPEG straight out of camera and sometimes the image never needs to go as far as Photoshop, except when I need to enlarge it, sharpen it further or do things beyond the scope of the RAW converter like removing distractions and using complex layer techniques. To speed up the RAW editing process I have set up numerous presets that allow me to make the photo look the way I want with a simple click of the mouse. I can often process a few hundred photos in a few hours, but that is usually because I scrutinize every picture and each picture will have fine tuning, but you could always simply apply one preset to the entire photo shoot and your RAW processing will only takes minutes.
 
I won’t talk about RAW anymore than I have to, because you can go forever on the topic as it is so in-depth, just simply because RAW is so flexible. One of the biggest RAW Evangelists is found here: http://www.rawworkflow.com/ and also a couple of good places to go for the nitty gritty details http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/RAW-file-format.htm and http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/understanding-series/u-raw-files.shtml
 
JPEGs

JPEG is an acronym for Joint Photographics Experts Group and is the current standard for lossy picture compression. Lossy meaning parts of the digital file are discarded to make the file size smaller (at around 10:1 compression usually). When a JPEG is recorded in camera to a memory card it is captured in the same way a RAW file is. It then passes through the camera’s internal processor after being held temporarily in the camera’s buffer memory. The camera processor’s job is to apply any form of effects or compression. In most cases this will be a colour saturation level, contrast level, sharpness level, white balance, noise reduction and compression algorithms.

The major benefit of shooting JPEG files at image capture is that the file is substantially smaller than a RAW file, saving memory card space, allowing you to shoot more pictures on one card. This is especially the case when you shoot both RAW and JPEG at the same time (See diagram at the top of the article). Another benefit is the ability to take the photo and immediately use that image in any way, for example printing it, putting up on a website or even viewing on your PC straight away ( Apple MAC OSX has the ability to view a RAW in most cases).

A JPEG file’s biggest downfall is the limitation on what you can extract out of it in say a post processing program. You can’t pull the same amount of exposure correction, you can’t push the saturation as high and most importantly you can’t change the white balance (colour temperature) as you would a RAW file as it is done in camera (you can to some degree, but it isn’t the same). When shooting JPEG you can use the automatic white balance setting on your camera, but you are stuck with what the camera decides is the right colour temperature. For example if you were shooting a sunset, the camera will detect there is a high degree of kelvin (a higher colour temp) and therefore will take a flat looking sunset, not like the way you remember seeing it in person. So to make that sunset picture look warmer and more inviting, set your white balance to ‘Cloudy’ (the cloud symbol, duh) or ‘Shade’ so the colour temp of the image is higher. Once you experiment with different white balance settings you will see the differences easily and then it becomes second nature (Note: I got sick of writing temperature, so I wrote temp instead).

So what is the evidence to show why RAW is better? Below is a RAW file that has had a Canon Landscape profile applied to it in Adobe Lightroom, much the same as if it was applied in camera. It uses a slight saturation and contrast increase and sharpening. Below it is the same RAW file with adjustments done to it in the same program to a point where I think it looks good. It might not be to every one’s taste, but I’m the artist here, so I’m going with it! You can see I have pushed the saturation to make the colours pop, much like I saw it when I took it. It was taken at the Oaks in Inverloch, Victoria, Australia by the way. I also increased the white balance (remember colour temp) to give it a warmer look, the detail has been increased, a fill light applied to bring back the shadows, and also applied a gradient of colour over the sky. As I captured the photo with a Neutral Density Filter over the lens I had already darkened the sky. You can still apply a gradient filter in Lightroom or Photoshop and darken the edges of the JPEG, but I could not have pushed the colours as much without getting a posterization/blocky effect. All the effects in this photo were achieved in about one minute in a simple to use program and it resulted in a much more pleasing photo ready to print and hang up. With the RAW file I could print at A2 or A1 size and still have a good clean result.

The JPEG The finished RAW file
To sum up, what ever you shoot is up to you. If you are like me and millions of other photo enthusiasts, you will shoot in RAW, fill you memory cards fast and spend hours in front of a computer and output exciting prints. On the other hand, you can shoot hundreds more photos in JPEG, spend little or no time in front of the computer, but pain over the fact you can’t push the file as far as a RAW image. How does it affect you as a travelling photographer? The biggest downfall of RAW is the image’s file size and you fill your memory cards twice as fast as if you were shooting JPEGS. Unless you have ready access to a computer to back up your files to a hard drive or to a DVD or go to a photo lab to burn the disc for you (if they have the service), shoot JPEGs. You can still edit them in Photoshop to a point and still result in a pleasing photo.

What I do do under certain circumstances, I will shoot the usual happy snaps in JPEG to save card space then for the shots I’ll know I’ll process later for a print, I’ll select RAW capture. Nothing wrong with doing that! Please leave a comment to tell me what you shoot or what you are going shoot on your travels.

 

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