RAW vs JPEG?

14/10/2018


This is a question which has often led to much serious debate in the photography community, and there generally is no right or wrong answer. As with most things, it's a case of personal taste. The two big factors here are file size, and the control available to you in the post production of your images.

For those that are completely new to this, let me try and explain; a RAW file, also known as a digital negative file, is the file type unique to your camera system which captures the image and retains all the information available at the time the shutter was pressed and the exposure settings dialed in at the time. It is referred to as a lossless file format because none of the information is purged or lost.

I say unique to your camera system, because all manufacturers have their own file types which are not read by other manufactures operating systems, and typically they need to be converted to a universal file type when being imported into your editing software (for Adobe software this is DNG).

The RAW file, due to it's lossless nature carries a huge amount of detail which is the formats major down side to the JPEG. RAW files are large. My files are typically between 20,000 - 30,000 KB which means they take longer tor write to the card when captured, take up more space on the camera card and quickly fill hard drives. Shooting a lot starts to get expensive!

This brings us to the strong case for the JPEG, speed and size. The JPEG file is universal, every camera and image viewing program can read it. The JPEG file is lossy, and compressed as the camera will take the image and process it in camera, retaining only the information that it believes is required to produce a balanced image based on the settings dialed in (i.e colour profile). Once finished your are left with an image file that has been processed, sharpened and ready to post on Instagram. My early JPEG files were typically sized between 8,000 - 11,000 KB, that's half the size of the RAW files I take.

In contrast, RAW files are totally unedited and come out of the camera lacking saturation, vibrance, contrast and sharpness. In camera you are shown a JPEG preview of the file which shows how it can look, but on viewing in Lightroom you will be presented with a flat uninteresting image. It's down to the individual to make these adjustments and present the image in their own style and taste. This process has to be performed to every file, which can be deeply time consuming. Shortcuts are possible, such as import presets, which I have yet to explore personally but am keen to do so.

This shot taken of St Andrews Cathedral at sunset in Scotland shows the difference between the original RAW and a processed version. You can see here how the shadows have been recovered, the colours, saturation and contrast have all been adjusted to transform an otherwise flat image to something far more presentable.

Additionally, the perspective has been changed to correct for the leaning structure, the side effect of lens distortion. The JPEG equivalent would not include the detail in the shadows, the colours would be as seen but a little stronger but the perspective would be as seen.

Using programs such as Lightroom edits are non-destructive, this means that every action you make to a RAW file is kept separate from the original. This means that even years after the shot was taken, and edited you are able to return to it and make subsequent adjustments, or even start from scratch.

So it's a no brainier right? Why not shoot JPEG? You'll have plenty of card space, plenty of hard drive space and will save countless hours in post production? For many this is absolutely fine, but for me it has to be RAW.

Watching Anthony Bourdain travelling through Huế, Vietnam in his show Parts Unknown really made me realise how much I miss this beautiful country. Looking back at my shots from that trip is so frustrating! I was still finding my way around a camera at the time, so the images are not how I would like them to look and do not do the country the justice it deserves. Whats even more frustrating is that I shot the whole trip in JPEG so I have limited opportunity to adjust the shots after the fact.

At the time of this trip, I was asking myself the question, should I shoot RAW or JPEG. The Sony RAW format, ARW, was particularly difficult to convert to DNG. This may not be the case, but at the time I wasn't running the latest version of Lightroom/Photoshop and I had to find external file converters to make the files usable. This, coupled with the file size made it an easy choice at the time to shoot purely JPEG.

Had I shot RAW, I probably could have easily gone back over the image files with a little cropping, and using my style of post production I think I would have been far more satisfied with the portfolio of shots from this trip. Watching the show and feeling an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia and romance remembering the sites, the sounds and tastes I was inspired to revisit this portfolio and attempt some tweaks to improve the shots I have.

Original

Revised

Above is a less extreme example. This shot of a street vendor selling iconic paper fans is OK. The straight out of the camera original JPEG is a little flat in contrast and colour, and the composition is not perfect due to the significant portion of dead space towards the top of the frame. I was able to make some subtle tweaks to this file to produce a shot that pleases me more over the original. Had this been a raw file I would have more control over the exposure and the ability to create a more interesting lighting instead of the flat, uninteresting light you see here.

This opens up a more complicated subject all together, how much should you manipulate your images? For purists who shoot film, or still have the process fondly in their memory, the general attitude is that everything should be correct in camera and the image should be altered as little as possible. I would argue that, certainly with travel photography, you are shooting against the clock and do not have the luxury of waiting for the right type of light, for example. The RAW file gives you the opportunity and flexibility to correct for lighting conditions, increasing the dynamic range of the shot, and compensating for exposure.

Original

Revised

Another example here, taken in the undeniably majestic Ha Long Bay, sees the shot taken out of the camera as flat and lifeless. Some small adjustments to the JPEG have given this shot a new lease of life and now it''s more visually appealing with a warmer feel and more vibrant colours.

So if you are able to adjust these JPEG's, then whats the problem? These examples do not tell the whole story. What you loose with JPEG's is detail in the shadows, recovering the detail in these areas is close to impossible as you will end up with a lot of image noise . The answer to this is expose for the shadows, right? That's fine, but watch your highlights because there is nothing you can do about blown out highlights. In RAW, you can recover maybe one or two stops, but in JPEG the detail is gone forever because that information will be purged.

Further more, the level of sharpness applied to JPEG's is beyond your control. Viewing in a small format such as a mobile phone, or as shown here sharpness isn't too much of an issue. In larger formats and printing, the quality of the sharpness may not be as crisp as you would like.

So if you are starting out, and wondering which file format to choose my advice is this: your shooting and editing today will not be the same as it will be in the next 2 years, and will almost certainly involve through out the years. The ability to return to these files and edit them from scratch is why I bear the pain of having to edit each and every image so I have the control and flexibility to be as creative as I chose to be.

If your still not sure, I would invest in more memory cards and set your camera to shoot both file formats so that you at least have the option. This is what I wish I had done here, and yes it would have cost a lot more in memory cards, but knowing now that I had these RAW files would have made me feel more content with the portfolio of the trip. I do wish I could revise all the images for this trip, and the few that came before it such as Istanbul and my first time in Berlin. It does mean however that I have a great excuse to go back to my beloved Vietnam and shoot it all over again, something I am hoping to do next year.

What are your thoughts on the RAW vs JPEG debate? Feel free to share them below.


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