Why should you photograph in RAW format instead of JPEG?
Hi there and Happy New Year!
I thought I would start of this first tutorial for the New Year with an attempt to address a question that has been raised so often. What is RAW and is it better to shoot images in this file format or JPEG?
What is a RAW file?
A RAW file is a file format that records all of the image data captured directly from the camera’s sensor. No processing is applied to this information so it is in a ‘raw’ form directly from the source. Accordingly it is exactly how the camera has recorded the scene. This image data can be accessed in post-processing and edited to create the final overall image.
What is a JPEG File?
Conversely, a JPEG image is where the camera has taken this information and processed it automatically in-camera to apply a variety of changes to the data. These edits are fixed and set by the camera manufacturer to universally change the contrast, colour saturation and apply sharpening etc. The JPEG file is then compressed to reduce the overall file size. The in-camera processing cannot be reversed and it is not possible to extract the original data from the JPEG to start the editing again. It is only possible to edit the JPEG file, which includes the in-camera processing.
Benefits of photographing in RAW format:
So what are the benefits of using the RAW file format when capturing images?
RAW records more image data
Quite simply the RAW file enables a better quality final image. As more information is recorded from the scene, this will provide for an improved quality image and ultimately a higher quality print.
You control the editing process
As RAW files are not edited in-camera, there is much more versatility in the editing options available. It is as if you are starting with a ‘blank canvas’ from which to take the image editing in the direction that you want as the photographer rather than as the camera has automatically taken for you. Each image can be edited uniquely without a universal number of edits being automatically applied to all images as the file is converted to JPEG in the camera. All creative decisions will be taken by you as the photographer, rather than the camera company engineers.
All edits are ‘non-destructive’
When editing RAW files, the changes are not actually saved onto the RAW file itself but rather as a separate small file that is linked to the RAW file itself. This means that any changes made do not affect the original file image and can be deleted at any time to start again or multiple edits can be made without affecting the quality of the original image. It is not possible to accidentally save the edits over the original file and destroy the original. JPEG files require any canes to be saved over the top of the previous edits and each time a file is saved, the quality is reduced. This is not the case with RAW files. Accordingly final images will be better quality.
Better dynamic range
RAW files in recording more image data allow for the capture of a wider range of light and shadow information which is know as dynamic range. This can be extremely useful in editing the images where there is more recoverable information in the shadows and highlight information of images where photographs were incorrectly under or over-exposed. You can read more about Dynamic Range in my earlier post by clicking here.
RAW files record all of the preset information for white-balance so this can be changed easily by selecting from the list of presets in post-production without degrading the image quality. It is as if you are still at the scene to change this setting. It is also possible to have wider flexibility to amend the white balance using editing controls again with no image degradation. This can be extremely useful in scenes where there is a variety of artificial lighting such as in urban night or cityscapes. You can read more about White Balance in my earlier post by clicking here.
Benefits of Photographing in JPEG format:
Although RAW files give you all of the flexibility listed above, this is not always what is required. There are some benefits in shooting in JPEG file format.
As the camera will process the images for you, no further editing will be required for a ‘semi’-polished final image. This can be useful if the scene is relatively straight forward or you do not want to spend further time on post-production and editing images. As soon as the image is taken it is generally ready to be shared, saved or printed.
As the JPEG files are compressed, they are smaller file sizes than RAW files and quicker to email (or easier to save and store) than larger RAW files.
Universally accepted file format:
RAW files come in a number of types in that different camera manufacturers have proprietary names (and file extensions) for their files. Canon use the extension ‘CR2’ and Nikon ‘NEF’. Whist this does not ultimately make much of a difference when it comes to loading into post-processing software, unlike JPEG files, RAW files require this post-production software to convert them to a useable file format. This is required before the image can uploaded to social media, printed or sent to friends.
Overall, capturing your photographs in RAW format allows for much more versatility where editing and post-production are concerned. Especially as these are non-destructive and do not permanently degrade the original image file.
RAW captures a wider range of image data and enables greater flexibility in post-processing options for the final images. This means your photographs can more easily be tailored to your vision as a photographer.
Personally I take all of my images in RAW for this very reason. I appreciate that this is not always the best option for everyone, but think that as we go to such lengths to invest our time and in our equipment for our images, why would we not really want to have complete control over how each individual image looks at the end of the process.
I hope that you find this article useful and naturally please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments relating to this topic or any other photography question. Please also feel free to pass this onto any photographer friends that you think may find this useful.