Wednesday, June 13, 2012

RAW or JPEG - Which Is Really Best?

This is a question that is greatly fussed about among Professional Photography Bloggers. Some say that RAW is just a waste of time and space, especially with more recent cameras that do nearly immaculate inside processing. Others say that to get the ultimate image quality and control, you should always shoot with RAW. I have my own opinions.

First, for Beginners, what am I even talking about here? A brief explanation - all Digital Cameras create JPEG Format files as their output - it is the one of many digital image industry standards which has become the most popular by far, so it is universal among Digital Cameras. RAW files, on the other hand, are only produced by "enthusiast" and "professional" cameras; DSLR's always, as well as most newer high-end Compacts. RAW files in fact are not "pictures" at all, but are the actual computer data which the camera produced in order to describe and create a picture. All cameras actually create such data in the process, but the cameras that allow you to shoot in "RAW Mode" are in reality, simply letting you get at that data yourself so you can convert it into a real picture, instead of the camera doing it for you. The cheaper cameras that don't have a RAW Mode just go ahead and create a JPEG picture without letting you "get at" the actual data. In order to "get at" the data in a meaningful way and create the picture yourself, you need RAW Conversion Software on your computer (such as Photoshop, GIMP, Photivo, or the Windows / MAC Software that came with your camera).

Okay, so a lot of people view the RAW file as your "Digital Negative", and that's a rather "cool" way of looking at it. As it allows you the most flexibility of all in what you decide to do with your pictures, including future printing in Poster Size if you like, then the advocates of RAW say that you should "keep all your negatives" for that reason alone. They do take up a lot of disk space, typically 25 MB or more. compared to 2.5 to 4 MB for a typical JPEG, so if you're really serious about keeping your negatives for many years, you probably should keep them in "safe digital storage", in other words, not on your main computer hard drive for very long.

My opinion has evolved with experience. Early on, once I actually had a camera with RAW, I simply "played it safe" and shot everything RAW, no matter what. This was educational for a beginner, because it forced me to learn all the capabilities of my RAW Software - something I highly recommend for any beginner. It's very important to learn how to use all of your photo processing and organizing software correctly. But soon I realized that quite a few of my photo-shoots had no real benefit in using RAW Mode for everything. Cat Shows for instance. I usually come home with nearly 200 pictures from a Cat Show, most of them are lousy and only a third of them would be keepers. Also, I know that I would NEVER want to make a poster print of any photo from a Cat Show. So, once I experienced the great inconvenience of having to view every shot in my RAW Software first, then adjusting and converting the "keepers", I realized I don't need to shoot Cat Shows in RAW. I'm sure others of you should have your equivalent to Cat Shows (like Birthday Parties perhaps?)

Most cameras will shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time, so how about doing that? Well, it is a good idea, except keep in mind that you'll need to separate them into two different folders on your computer in order to make the most of them, so that's a little extra work. But there's one occasion when you should ALWAYS shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time - that's when you want your camera to make a Black and White JPEG. I've illustrated this at the top. Same shot, but the first one is the B&W JPEG, and the second one is the RAW file which I converted to JPEG using GIMP. You might also notice the Black and White version seems to have a little more detail too. That's because in conjunction with the Monochrome setting, I also had my camera's "Highlight Tone Priority" turned on. This makes the camera's JPEG conversion do the following (quote from the manual, page 209):

"Improves the highlight detail. The dynamic range is expanded between the standard 18% grey and bright highlights. The gradation between the greys and highlights becomes smoother".

Although the manual doesn't mention it specifically, this sounds exactly like something you'd want to happen for a B&W photo, doesn't it?

Note to Beginners - how come the RAW one is in colour?
It's because - recall that the RAW File is always ALL OF THE DATA about the picture, ALWAYS, no matter what kind of JPEG output you're asking from your camera, in my case, Black and White. This will be true no matter what - you might have your camera set for "Vivid" colour, or "Toy Camera Effect", but such camera settings are for JPEG output only. The RAW will always be the "plain old" colour picture. Cool eh? So, if you shoot RAW + JPEG at the same time, your JPEG will match your current camera settings, while the RAW will be "simple vanilla colour", which you can later use your Software to turn it into something else, like a B&W, Vivid colour, Toy, Sepia, LOMO, whatever.

Another advantage of RAW is that the file has a lot more exposure forgiveness than an already converted JPEG file. So if you make a serious exposure mistake, like way too light or too dark, you can use RAW Software to make it right without losing picture detail in the highlights or shadows. That's because, within limits, all that detail is still there in the RAW data, but once the data has been converted to a JPEG, it's locked in, with a lot less wiggle room to correct the mistake. In less extreme cases, RAW is also better for making fine exposure adjustments, like if you want to recover just a little shadow detail.

The final word - I'm generally in favour of "keeping your digital negatives" except for those obvious cases where you don't care. One thing about it that I still find helpful is that it allows me to spend more time with my own pictures - I can go back to something I might have shot four years ago, and use my RAW Software to make a completely different picture from it if the mood strikes me. It's a big part of what makes photography into art.

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