RAW or JPEG

The ​benefits and ​downsides of ​each

RAW or JPEG

RAW or JPEG - Which do you shoot? Are you new to digital photography and have a camera capable of shooting in either of these modes/qualities? You may well have come across the same scenario as myself then.

When I first moved over to digital photography, I was so busy. Too busy I didn't have the time or inclination to really learn and understand RAW and what it meant. I knew that shooting RAW meant better quality and more possibilities but it all looked so complicated!

So I started off by shooting entirely large/fine JPEGS. Although the images were good quality, easy to process and even good enough to be used for sizeable A1 displays, I always had this niggling feeling that I should learn how to shoot and process RAW files.

Before we go into all that, it is good to know what the basics, benefits and pitfalls of each are. When choosing to go RAW or JPEG....

RAW or JPEG - JPEG

JPEG (pronounced "Jaypeg") stands for the Joint Photographic Experts Group who are the people on a committee that wrote the standard. Put simply, a JPEG is the term used for a standardised image compression mechanism commonly used for photographic images.

JPEG was initially designed to work on full colour or grey scale images of everyday, real scenes. It can also be used, but not so effectively, on simple drawings or cartoons.

JPEG is "lossy", which means that it loses a small amount of information when an image is stored this way. One downside is that the more you open and re-save a JPEG image, the more "information" is lost. Its quality suffers, albeit on a small scale.

By simply viewing a JPEG and closing it, no information is lost, with no loss of quality.

This is not such a problem as it would appear. The algorithms that make up a JPEG, exploit the known limitations of the human eye with regards to colour and light. This means that we can't really notice any difference at all. That is unless you repeatedly open and re-save the files or the compression is set at its lowest quality and smallest file size.

A machine analysis may well spot these differences more easily than a human, which may present problems, but for 99% of photographers, JPEGS do just fine.

Benefits

The beauty of the JPEG is that you can choose how big or small a file becomes, although with a quality/file size trade off. The bigger the file size, the better the quality and vice versa. Smaller files are great for emailing and take up less storage space whilst larger files are perfect for printing.

I would always recommend that if shooting JPEGS, you always keep a "master" copy. From the master you save new files at varying sizes. For example if my master filename is LZ1G1444.jpg, I would re-save with a filename of LZ1G1444a.jpeg leaving the original intact.

RAW or JPEG - RAW

RAW is also known as the "digital negative". Whereas JPEG is an abbreviation, the term RAW is just that…RAW as in unprocessed.

A RAW file contains all of the detail and information recorded at the time of shooting as it comes off the sensor. It is stored before any in-camera processing is done meaning that you have all the information at hand when processing with compatible software later on.

A RAW file normally contains the colour information as a 10 or 12-bit-per-pixel RAW file. A JPEG or TIFF file stores at 24 bits, being three 8 bit channels (red, green and blue). This means that although it stores more information, a RAW file is half the size of a TIFF file.

A TIFF file is data stored in a "loss-less" format from either a saved RAW or JPEG image. Unlike the JPEG it won't lose any information when re-saved although it does take up more space.

Benefits

The beauty of shooting RAW is that whatever adjustments made "in-camera" at the time of shooting such as:

...can be undone again during processing giving so much more flexibility than a JPEG.

Also, any blown out highlights or particularly dark areas can be adjusted with the details being drawn back from the original information stored at the time of shooting. It is virtually impossible to get back blown out highlights from a JPEG, which is incidentally one of the main factors for my move up to RAW.

Most modern digital cameras are now offering the capability of recording an image as RAW plus JPEG to your memory card at the time of shooting.

This means that the majority of your images may be processed quicker as JPEG's. With the more difficult images, with poorer dynamic range for example, being processed from the RAW files. Albeit on a slower scale. A great compromise.

So, basically…

RAW or JPEG - JPEG

Benefits;

  • Highly compressed with great flexibility of quality, file size and storage space.
  • Quick processing with most editing programs. Images come out "almost" ready.
  • All "in-camera" adjustments save time doing it later in post-processing.
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    Easy to share via email.
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    Excellent print quality at high resolution.
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    Most software these days recognises this format.

Downsides;

  • Although not that important, the "lossy" aspect sticks in people's minds.
  • Any information lost at the time of shooting (blown highlights) is lost for good!

RAW or JPEG - RAW

Benefits;

  • No information is ever lost from this "digital negative" when saved as JPEGS or TIFF files meaning you can process, play and save to your heart's content.
  • Much more information is recorded at the time of shooting meaning more chance of "saving" an image that was poorly exposed.
  • Many more adjustments with more flexible options are available using RAW processing software.
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    "Mistakes" made during the capture such as exposure or white balance, can normally be corrected during processing with little or no hassle.

Downsides;

  • Slower, more complicated processing.
  • Larger file sizes taking up more space.
  • Needs specialist software.
  • Can be a steep learning curve.

Once I had learned how to process RAW files, with practice it became almost as quick as JPEGS. Most RAW conversion software allows you to either batch process for similarly lit or exposed images. Or you can "process as previous conversion" making it that much quicker.

I also felt safe in the knowledge that the information was always there. In a nice full, digital negative if I ever needed to re-process or process in a more creative way.

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