Friday, April 9, 2010

My Take On RAW vs. JPEG

I have been asked recently whether I shoot RAW or jpeg, and why? As I was explaining it I thought it would make a good blog post so I took some mental notes, which turned into written notes, and then ended up here.

This is a topic that generates varying opinions from many photographers, not unlike the Canon vs. Nikon or Mac vs. PC debates. Up front, I shoot RAW. Why? Simplest answer is when it comes to my photos I'm a total control freak. The secondary answer is, like many photographers, I don’t always get things right in camera and can use all of the help I can get. RAW affords me that latitude.

Disclaimer Time: This post is not about me telling you to use one over the other; I’m definitely not a “RAW guru”. I'm only going to explain some of the advantages and disadvantages of each, as I know them. It’s really up to you to decide what you want use and why.

Let's first look at the differences:

RAW Advantages:
  • RAW captures the maximum amount of data possible on the sensor
  • No file compression so there’s no loss of data
  • No compression also means higher image quality
  • Puts you in complete creative control of your image
  • Easier to correct colour and white balance – this is huge since auto white balance, although quite good, does not always get it right
  • 4 stops of exposure control: -2 to +2
  • RAW files allow for a 16 bit image after conversion. This means that you have over 65,000 levels of brightness to work with allowing you more latitude with shadows and highlights
  • Availability of RAW converters that can greatly speed up your workflow (i.e., Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Aperture, Capture One, Bibble Labs, Nikon’s NX2 and Canon’s DPP… just to name a few) 
RAW Disadvantages:
  • RAW files are completely unprocessed - no saturation, contrast, white balance or sharpness - you need to process it yourself and this can take time; think of RAW as a film negative
  • Proprietary file formats for each camera brand that can only be read by a RAW converter program - (see list of converters above)
  • Larger file size; therefore, you need more storage space
  • Frames per second can be slower - since files are larger it can take longer to clear the camera’s buffer. In addition your burst rate can stall (I discovered this one the hard way and missed a some of the action in a few shoots)
JPEG Advantages:
  • Smaller file size – less storage space required
  • Easy to shoot – the camera takes charge of the processing so you don’t have to think; however, you do have some control over saturation, contrast, sharpness, by setting the parameters in the camera yourself
  • The processing in the newer cameras produce much better jpegs now which means less post processing required
  • Faster frames per second – since the file is smaller the buffer clears faster. There's also less chance of your burst rate stalling
JPEG Disadvantages:
  • Files are compressed which means some data is lost
  • White balance is literally baked into the file and not as easy to correct in post
  • Much more limited ability to correct exposure problems
  • Jpegs max out at 8 bits with only 256 levels of brightness – say goodbye to shadows and highlights if you're not careful
  • Camera is in charge of the processing. Although, you have some control over saturation, contrast, sharpness, by setting parameters in the camera yourself, letting the camera choose how to process the image means you give up some personal creative control
So here are my top reasons for shooting RAW:

Using RAW I know that I'm getting a complete unprocessed file out of my camera that I have total control over (did I mention that I’m a bit of a control freak?).

Mistakes in capture, such as exposure or white balance, can be fixed much more easily with the RAW file; we all make mistakes with exposure sometimes, well at least I do, and RAW allows me more flexibility just in case. For example, I might forget to check my metering mode and settings when I move from inside to outside, which might wreak havoc with my exposure. However, shooting RAW gives me a better chance at fixing my mistakes.

Batch processing – this definitely speeds up my workflow. I have been using Adobe's Lightroom since 2007 and I'm pretty used to its workflow. Lightroom is a formidable program for working with RAW files. I still make the trek over to Photoshop regularly, but 95% of what I do can, and is, done in Lightroom.

I prefer to have as much data to work with as I can. As much as I try, I don't always get it right in camera (are you sensing a pattern here?) this is where RAW is my best friend.

If you shoot RAW is there any reason to switch back to jpeg?

Most definitely! Sometimes your situation dictates what file format is required. For example, I shot in jpeg mode for the Bat Mitzvah shoot that I posted back in early February. Why? We needed to make some prints immediately after the shoot. I was 3000 miles from home, without my computer and without access to Lightroom, so jpeg was a no brainer. I was quite pleased with the output, but still would have preferred to shoot RAW.

Another reason may be shooting sports, birds in flight, or any other fast moving action. You need to ensure that you're getting the maximum frames per second, where jpeg can be faster than RAW, and you will get more jpeg files on one memory card than RAW files. 

Final exposure:

There's nothing magical about shooting RAW; there's advantages and disadvantages, and I prefer the control that RAW affords me. RAW is not going fix a bad photo and it's not going to all of the sudden make you a better photographer. This is one of those areas where if your interested in RAW then you need to do some research, shoot in RAW, develop in RAW, and make your own decision whether you think it's right for you.



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