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Whether to save your files in a RAW format or JPEG has been the source of heated debates since the beginning of digital photography.
I'm going to settle it once and for all: If you're reading this article, you should be shooting RAW.
Let me explain why.
What Is a RAW File?
A RAW file is an image file that contains all of the unprocessed data that your camera collected when you took the photo.
If you imagine for a minute that taking a photo is like baking a cake (bare with me). The raw file is the equivalent of the collection of ingredients and the recipe needed to make the cake.
To turn the raw file into a finished photo you will need to process it with some software called a raw converter. When baking a cake you can change the recipe slightly to suit your taste, so the finished cake comes out perfectly. Processing a raw file allows you to adjust certain settings to tweak the final photo into the masterpiece you imagined when you pressed the shutter button.
What is a JPEG File?
To continue the analogy of baking a cake: a jpeg file is the finished product - the baked cake.
To create a jpeg file, the camera takes the raw data it captured when you pressed the shutter button, uses the camera settings that you chose (and quite a few that you have no control over) to create the final version of the photo. All of the settings are locked in and much of the raw data is discarded.
So, a jpeg file is like a cake you bought from a store. You can't tweak the taste of the cake because it is already baked. If there is something you don't like, you're stuck with it. You can put some icing on the cake to try and mask the taste, just like you can try and 'fix' your photo in Photoshop, but you can't change what is already there.
The Advantages of RAW
So, what is it about being able to access the unprocessed image data that makes it so good?
The White Balance of a scene has a large impact on the colours in a photo. Unless you set it manually, the camera will automatically choose how 'warm' (red) or 'cool' (blue) a scene is and set the white balance as it sees fit.
While cameras have become quite good at getting this technically correct - it is quite common for a photographer to want to adjust the white balance for creative reasons. Adding a touch of warmth to a sunrise image
A jpeg file has the white balance baked in. Any changes made after the jpeg file has been created have to build on what has already been set. A raw file on the other hand, can have the white balance changed at the click of a button in the raw editor.
In the examples below you can see that the camera chose a white balance that was far too cool (blue). Adjusting the raw image to better reflect the scene took two clicks in Lightroom. Trying to adjust the jpeg file shows an improved image, but there are some undesirable colour shifts introduced
A jpeg file has 256 possible tones for each red, green and blue pixel - meaning each pixel can be any one of 16.7 million colours.
That sounds like a lot, however a 12-bit raw file has 4096 tones per red, green and blue pixel for a possible 68.7 billion colours. Woah! Many cameras take raw files with 14-bits which extends this to 16,385 tones and over 4.3 trillion colours.
The human eye can only distinguish around 10 million colours - so it sounds like a jpeg file would easily cover that, and it does when it comes to displaying a processed file. However, when editing a file and manipulating the colours (saturation, vibrance, contrast, and many other creative edits) - the 256 levels of tone can result in some nasty artefacts and 'stepping' of what should be smooth colour graduations.
If you ever plan on manipulating the colour of your images (hint: most of the 'professional' photographs you see have had colour manipulation done to them!) then raw should be your choice of file type.
Shadow and Highlight Recovery (Dynamic Range)
Also related to the tones issue above:
A raw file has a much larger dynamic range than a jpeg file. If your photo has dark areas that need brightening, or bright areas that are too bright - you have much more ability to correct this in a raw file.
Because much of the data is thrown away when creating a jpeg file, trying to pull detail out of dark or light areas in a photo will result in a muddy mess. When the jpeg file is saved, the camera looks at the dark areas and decides that because you can't see any detail in that part of the photo, it will discard the data held within. That is fine, unless you want to edit the photo to show what is in the shadow areas (probably the most common edit a photographer will do). A raw file holds on to all of the information the camera captures, so the detail can much more easily be exposed.
Below shows an original, overexposed photo on the left. Recovering the highlights of the raw file shows a decent amount of detail pulled back into the sky, with only a small area that is still blown out. The same recovery on the jpeg file produces notably worse results.
It is a similar situation when trying to recover the shadow areas from a dark image. The image below was captured in such a way as to make sure the bright areas were not blown out. This meant the foreground was dark and needed pushing up in Lightroom.
If you look closely at the difference between shadow recovery between a jpeg version of the file, and the raw version: You can clearly see that the raw version contains much more detail.
There is no magic sharpening setting that applies to every photo you take. Different subjects, lenses and artistic intentions required different amounts of sharpening. When editing a raw file you have complete control over the amount of sharpening - from zero to whatever you need.
Jpeg files have the sharpening irreversibly applied in the camera. There is no way to reduce it after the fact. You can add a second round to the jpeg files if the in-camera amount wasn't enough - but the results can be less than great when sharpening an already sharpened image.
The same limitations apply to noise reduction as sharpening. Not only is the amount of noise reduction editable on a raw file, but the results of noise reduction on the extra data contained in a raw file will generally be better than when applied to a compressed, sharpened and already noise-reduced jpeg file.
Below you can see the difference between in-camera noise reduction on a jpeg file vs using Topaz DeNoise AI on a processed raw file. The detail in the jpeg file has been smoothed over.
A jpeg file is compressed. Every time you open, edit and save the file it gets compressed more. After several times this can show up as ugly artifacts (blotchy areas) or banding in tonal graduations in your photos.
Raw files use lossless compression and can be saved as many times as you like with no loss of quality in the files.
Computer software is always being developed and pushed as new technologies emerge. Raw converts are improving as time goes by and new features are being added. Better noise reduction, sharpening, demosaicing algorithms, you name it.
Having your files in a raw format means that you can go back to your favourite photos years later and take advantage of these new raw processing technologies. Photos that may have been too noisy 10 years ago are now completely usable today. Images that could only be printed at 8x10" due to low resolution cameras can now be upsized with amazing quality to poster sized.
Raw image data gives you much more potential for future improvements than the baked in jpeg files.
Editing RAW Files Doesn't Have To Take Very Long
This isn't really an advantage, more dispelling a common misconception about raw files. It is true that a raw file needs to be processed before you can use it. However this doesn't have to take much time if you don't want it to.
If you use the raw converter designed specifically for your camera (it is usually free) then it will read all of the camera settings you applied when you took the photo and producing a jpeg is as simple as exporting the image. You can of course take more time to tweak the settings if you so desire.
Using a third party raw converter, such as Lightroom or Capture One Pro, you can easily apply preset and/or automatic settings as you import the files so very little manual work needs to be done to make the raw image look like the jpeg would have out of your camera. You can then tweak to your hearts desire if you want to.
Batch processing modes mean you can even process dozens of images at once. Raw conversion can be as quick and automatic as you like, or slow and methodical if you like to get the most out of each image.
The Advantages of JPEG
Files are 'ready to go'
Once a jpeg file has been created - it is ready to go (assuming you got all of the settings perfect before the shot). You don't have to convert it as you do with a raw image. Move the file to your computer, then upload it straight to Facebook.
They take up less space
With the current price of both memory card and hard drive storage this advantage is tiny, but I will get nasty emails if I don't include it.
Because jpeg files are only 8-bit files and are also compressed - they take up less room on your hard drive and memory cards than a raw image. A high quality jpeg file is approximately 4 times smaller than the equivalent raw file.
RAW + JPEG - The Best of Both Worlds?
Most cameras that shoot raw formats also have a mode where you can save both a raw file and a jpeg version at the same time.
Doing this will give you the best of both worlds (except for needing about 20% more space on your hard drives). If you got the camera settings right at the time you took the photo you can just use the jpeg file. If you want to tweak the output then you can load up the raw file and take full advantage of what raw has to offer.
Should You Shoot in RAW or Jpeg?
As an astute reader, I'm sure you noticed the word 'probably' in the title of this document. There are a few situations where it is feasible not to shoot raw:
Reasons Not To Shoot raw
There are a couple of very specific situations where shooting in a raw format is probably not appropriate. They probably won't apply to anyone reading this article, but here they are:
You Need an Extremely Fast Workflow.
If you are taking photos for journalism purposes (sports, news, etc) then you often will need to have a set of images ready to publish an instant after the moment has happened. The images need to get from your camera to the publisher with no time to do more than pick the good shots. In this situation your photos will be used pretty much exactly as they came out of the camera - a raw workflow would be too slow.
You Will Never Edit The Photos. Ever.
Not all photographic situations call for editing photos. If you're just taking happy snaps to record a moment and the photos will be hidden away in the depths of your hard drive to be seen by no one but yourself... sure, you should shoot jpeg.
I would guess that if you have gotten this far into the article you probably aren't taking those types of photos all that often.
Even in this situation, I personally would still shoot raw files. You never know when you're going to take the next masterpiece!
Reasons To Shoot RAW
This paragraph will be really short.
If your situation doesn't fall into the very specific categories above - you should be shooting raw. If you want the convenience of jpeg files, but the ability to edit them if you need to - choose the RAW + jpeg option.
Raw files contain all of the data captured by the camera when you took the photo. This data can be manipulated by raw processing software to get the most out of your files after they have been taken.
Jpeg files are 'final' versions of a photo that are ready to go with no extra processing. All camera settings applied during capture are 'locked in' and the compressed information is much harder to manipulate if you want to edit your files.
While each photographer and each situation is different, I highly recommend you shoot in raw. You will have much more control over your final image and you won't have to worry so much about getting the perfect sharpening, noise reduction, white balance, etc settings for each individual image.
If editing your photos is a little intimidating, then RAW + JPEG mode will give you the best of both worlds at the expense of a little extra hard drive space. If the jpeg version comes out perfectly then you can use that. However if you want to edit the final image you will be able to open the raw file and have full control when you need it. You will also be able to come back to the raw files after you get more comfortable and super-charge your old photos as you learn more advanced editing techniques.