SHOOTING RAW vs. SHOOTING JPEG: WHICH TO CHOOSE?
When you first get into photography, you begin shooting in JPEG, the default file-type on most DSLR cameras. But pretty soon you hear about the option of shooting RAW. At some point you will have to decide which option is best for you…but first you need to know what this whole RAW vs. JPEG thing is all about.
Every photo you take starts out as a RAW image. That is, every pixel seen and captured by the camera.
When you shoot in JPEG (remember it’s the default option) the camera then goes to work editing the file. Things like brightness, contrast, colour tone, highlights and shadows are all adjusted in-camera to produce the finished product: your JPEG photograph. Once the internal editing process is done, all information deemed to be ‘unnecessary’ is then deleted…a handy way of reducing the file size so you can fit more photos on a memory card. A well-exposed JPEG photo is ready to share with the world. Your photos can also be edited, but there are limits to what you can do because a lot of data has already been deleted.
When you shoot in RAW the image is saved in its original state with no editing. Every pixel remains untouched exactly as it was captured. So you have a much larger file…but it is unfinished. Now it is up to you to make those adjustments to brightness, contrast etc., so be prepared for at least a few minutes at the computer working on a RAW file before you show it off to anyone.
Untouched RAW file (top) and edited version (below). All the elements of the original are still there, they have just been brought to life with a light touch of editing.
What? Editing photos? Isn’t that cheating?? That is an old ‘purist’ argument that doesn’t really apply these days. A camera is not a human eye, and rarely can it reproduce things quite the way we see them. So to make a photo as realistic as possible, some editing has to take place. Remember, if you shoot JPEG your camera is already editing your photos for you. The question is, do you want to settle for what the camera gives you, or do you want to make a little more effort and make your photo look exactly the way you want it to?
Note that editing does not have to be about ‘faking’ a picture (a common suspicion of the non photographer). For me editing is simply about lifting a shadow that is a bit too dark, or adjusting the colour balance for a more lifelike result. In short it is about taking a photo that is already 98% there, and polishing it up with the extra 2%.
Almost every ‘serious’ photographer agrees that a well-processed RAW file produces a better finished product than an out-of-camera JPEG. And it doesn’t take as long as you might think. You don’t process every photo you take…just the best ones you want to share with the world.
Long story short. If you enjoy taking photos, are happy with the results you are getting, and have no interest in the computer side of photography, then stick with JPEG. It’s great. But if you want to take your photos to the top level to compare with the best photography in the world…switch to RAW. It’s better. But ONLY if you are willing to spend that time at the computer.