RAW vs. JPEG – Deciding which is best for you
Yes, RAW vs. JPEG, the seemingly endless debate, almost as bad as Mac vs. PC or Film vs. Digital and people have been asking me to write up an article on this based on my opinion and experience and I have really put this article off for a long time as I wanted to be as unbiased in how I write this given that this is a very biased topic. In the interest of full disclosure I will start off by saying that I shoot every image, and I do mean every image I shoot in RAW, we will get into why in a bit.
What is a RAW image?
By RAW, I mean an image that is shot with your camera image quality set to RAW mode which stores the actual sensor data for the scene that was shot. This is different than a JPEG image that is a rendered image of the RAW data that has different effects applied to it by the camera such as sharpening, saturation, and contrast. A good quality JPEG image can look incredibly good and can be printed at large sizes and will look great. A RAW image will need some form of software program to convert the RAW data to something usable. The most popular programs for this today are Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, Capture One (Nikon), and Digital Photo Professional (Canon).
Is there a technical difference?
Anyone that tries to tell you there is no difference in image quality between a RAW image and a JPEG is simply mistaken or ill-informed. From a purely technical perspective, a RAW image will always give you a better image. A RAW image simply has more data, for each pixel there is at least twice as much data on older cameras like my 30D and as much as eight times as much data with newer cameras that have more bit depth. This means that a RAW image has the ability to have a greater tonal range than a JPEG. A RAW image will also then have greater latitude than a JPEG image, giving you the ability to process the image to recover shadows and highlights more than you can if you started with the JPEG. Since white balance settings are applied when an image is saved as a JPEG, shooting in RAW will allow you to adjust the white balance during post processing without sacrificing any image data.
This is not an opinion, it is a pure technical fact. So let’s accept that this is true and that RAW has a distinct technical advantage over a JPEG saved from the camera. I don’t think we need to debate that RAW has an inherent technical advantage and I think some people get caught up in this. I think the real issue is whether or not you need the advantages of RAW versus the negative reasons for using RAW that we will look at later.
Getting down with the downside of RAW
The big debate over RAW vs JPEG is whether or not the pros outweigh the cons so let’s look at the cons and see what the downside of using RAW images is:
- Increased file size
This is probably the biggest issue there is. RAW images are considerably larger files than their corresponding JPEG images. With my 7D, a RAW file will typically be around 22mb while a fine quality JPEG will be around 1.5mb. As the megapixel count goes up, the files get downright huge. If you are shooting lots of images, at a wedding for example, then the larger size of RAW files will be a significant hit. Since the files are larger, they will require more horsepower from your computer to process. For the same number of images, you will need more flash card storage.
- Specialized software needed to process
If you can call Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture specialized software, then yes, you will need something like this or use the software that came with your camera. If you use something other than these programs then you may have issues dealing with RAW files. For a brand new camera, you may have to wait for updated versions of these programs before they can recognize your files. This also means that if your camera is discontinued in the future, there is no guarantee that your camera’s format will always be supported (this is a good reason to use DNG files, but that’s for another article).
- RAW workflow is different than a JPEG workflow
Is it? If you are already using Aperture, Lightroom, or Adobe Bridge for processing JPEG’s, then there is little to no change in your workflow. Two years ago, before tools like Lightroom and Aperture, working with RAW images was such a pain that RAW was said to mean “really awful workflow”. Since many of us are using Lightroom and Aperture now, there is little to no changes at all for working with RAW files other than they take longer per image to download off a CF card.
- RAW images in third party tools don’t look as good as the JPEGs
This has been a real serious problem for a while as only the camera manufacturers really have the secret sauce for decoding their RAW images properly. Adobe has pretty much solved this issue with Lightroom 2.2 and the inclusion of camera profiles that setup the RAW processor to match the settings used to create the JPEG images in your camera.
Again, we are looking at facts here and not opinions, but it is important to understand that there is a downside to using RAW files even if I personally feel that the negatives are typically blown a bit out of proportion with the exception of the increased file size which can be a really significant issue for heavy shooters.
The non-destructive workflow
One of the biggest advantages of shooting RAW is that it inherently provides you today with a non-destructive workflow. What it means is that there is no image degradation between saves and any given step in the editing process can be removed. If we are using any of the three most popular tools today (Photoshop, Aperture, or Lightroom) then when we edit a JPEG, and make our changes, those changes are permanent, and because we just re-saved our image as a JPEG some compression has occurred, every time we do this we lose some image quality. Sure you can make multiple copies along the way so you can go back to earlier versions, but that negates the point of JPEG’s saving disk space. I work in Lightroom and I can take my RAW images and apply as many edits to them as I want but these changes are simply stored as a set of instructions to Lightroom, thus the original image is never modified. This also allows me to make virtual copies of an image so I can have a color, B&W, Sepia, or dozens of different versions of an image and take up only a trivial amount of disk space since it is only storing the steps to make the changes and isnt storing a new copy of the image itself and again, no matter what I do, there is no image quality lost at all during the post-production process.
Is anyone still using JPEG these days?
If nobody was shooting JPEG anymore than I wouldn’t have so many questions about it but are any real professionals shooting JPEG and the answer is yes.
Carlos Baez is a wedding photographer from Florida, this is someone who makes his living delivering top quality images to high paying clients and yet Carlos shoots JPEG because he can consistently deliver great images without the extra overhead of RAW files. Carlos is an expert at lighting and understanding exposure so he doesn’t rely on post processing to get his images right.
Ken Rockwell is a huge advocate for shooting in JPEG mostly because a lot of people use it as an excuse to not get the image right in camera. Although he has an article about this (http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/raw.htm). I have posted a link to his article because he does make a few valid points but I think he does go over the top a little on some of the negatives while I do agree that many people use RAW without either knowing why or using it to correct their mistakes from not knowing how to use their camera properly.
Pros against JPEG
It’s only fair that I point out a few pros who have made the switch to RAW and some of their reasons for doing so.
David Ziser is, without a doubt, one of the biggest names in wedding photography and recent convert to the RAW side. David’s big switch came when he started using Lightroom for his workflow and then discovered that the images he was getting with Lightroom and RAW files simply gave him a better image than starting with JPEG. David details his experience in a post on his site, although he also make a case for use JPEG for less critical shots that will never be printed at larger than 5×7. Anything destined for the album or enlargements he suggests shooting in RAW and the filler shots can safely be shot in JPEG to conserve space.
Rick Miller who is a Senior Solutions Engineer at Adobe does a segment when he is demoing Lightroom where he shows a picture of his girlfriends dog that is a white curly haired dog. Rick took a picture of the dog that when the rest of the scene is properly exposed, the dog is overexposed. Saved as a JPEG, the details in the dogs fur are completely lost and unrecoverable. The same image shot in RAW is able to use tools like recovery and exposure control to regain all of the detail in the dog’s fur. This demonstrates how even a shot that is technically correct for the rest of the scene may still suffer from being shot in JPEG.
RAW or JPEG – Which is for you?
Since I am far more likely to forget to change my camera from JPEG back to RAW when I need to, I simply leave it on RAW and take the disk space penalty. With a large wedding costing me around 20-30gb of space, it isn’t that big of an issue for me. What I like about shooting RAW for weddings is that in the thick of things, if you do make a small error in exposure or white balance, it is far easier to correct it afterwards. I don’t use this as a crunch, but it is a safety net.
To decide If you should stick with JPEG all you need to do is to take a close look at your images and compare them with what you can get from a product like Lightroom and then decide if your images are good enough or if any improvements that you get from using the RAW image are noticeable and worthwhile.
What do some other photographers say?
Mark Teskey “RAW only. Shooting JPEG is like working without backing up files or a second body/flash. There’s no safety net with JPEG.”
JE Images “RAW all the way. if I need to tweak anything then I have full access to all the info..”
Denise Clay “[I shoot] RAW – I used the best film I could that matched the job in film days, why not do the same now with the best digital file?”
MrsBoesch “I shoot JPG. It takes up less space on my hard drive, and I am of the opinion that you should try to “get it right” the 1st time”
So what are you to make of this?
There is certainly a case to be made that higher quality final images can be made from using RAW files and that shooting in RAW provides a technical safety net (even if you dont need it because you are wicked good). The main issues of working with RAW for me are the non-destructive workflow and the ability to have multiple virtual copies of an image without eating up more disk space. I do believe that almost all of the main complaints about RAW have been more than satisfied with current software leaving the issue of disk space and storage being the only real issue, albeit a significant issue for some people.
In the end, the only thing that matters is that you are happy with the images that you are delivering and if you are shooting for clients, that they are happy with the images you are delivering. If you are shooting in JPEG and are happy with your images and you see no compelling reason to switch, then don’t. If someone like Carlos Baez can shoot a wedding in JPEG and he makes a LOT more per wedding than I do, I am not going to tell him he is wrong for shooting in JPEG. On the flip side, if you are shooting in RAW and the disk space is killing you and you are good enough that your images need basically no tweaks for color, white balance, exposure, fill light, highlight recovery, or saturation, then you may be a good candidate for shooting in JPEG. It all comes down to a personal choice. There is no right or wrong answer to this debate, its just a question of what works for you in order for you to deliver the best quality images to your clients.