Dan McCullum just got his first DSLR (congrats!) and DM’d me on twitter asking for my opinion on whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG. If you are completely photo illiterate, I suggest you stop reading this, get a large mug of your favourite drink and start here. Most amateur photographers have probably heard these terms thrown around before, but don’t know which is better for them.
What are they?
Every time you click the shutter, your camera takes a picture and saves it in a file – typically a high-quality JPEG. JPEG compression is a lossy format that throws away the data that you can’t see in order to give you smaller file sizes. RAW on the other hand is lossless. It keeps every piece of data your camera captures – even if you don’t need it. This results in much larger file sizes, and slower write speeds. A RAW file isn’t even technically an image file. It has to be converted by special software on your computer and processed in order to be suitable for print or publishing.
Okay, but I asked what are they?
In essence, RAW and JPEG photos look pretty similar coming off the camera. In some cases, RAW photos can actually look worse as they are not as sharp and contrasty by default, creating the appearance that they are washed out.
So why would someone shoot in RAW if it produces worse shots and takes up more space off the bat?
While I don’t agree with Ken Rockwell’s opinion on this matter, he happens to have a decent analogy for explaining the purpose of RAW:
Cameras all start with raw data and convert this data to JPEG images with hardware in the camera. They then throw away the raw data since it’s no longer needed.
Saving this raw data is exactly like people who save twenty years of newspapers in piles around their house. They know they might need the information sometime, but it sure gets in the way! Other people think they are crazy.
The easiest way to understand why you want to keep the data in your photos is to see some real-world use. I scoured through my Aperture library to find two photos that were atrociously taken (by yours truly) to use as our victims in this experiment.
Example 1: White balance
Yes, that’s me in all my yellow splendor.
This is the photo right out of the camera. I know what you are thinking: horrible white balance. Photo is ruined. Delete. But this photo was shot in RAW, so there is still the original information from the camera saved in this file. Let’s simply tell Aperture to set the white balance from the colour of the shirt – which should be pure white.
After a white balance and a couple contrast and sharpness adjustments, the finished photo looks perfect. No one would have known that I had totally messed up the white balance had I not written this post. I was able to turn this photo from a reject to a rather nice portrait in under a minute.
That’s my secret. Shoot in RAW, and you can fix almost any mistake you make in the camera.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s look at what would have happened if we applied the exact same adjustments to a JPEG version of this image.
Bet you wished you had kept those 20 years of newspapers – you never know when you might need them.
Since the JPEG compression threw away data that you technically couldn’t see, you can’t make very extreme adjustments when editing the photo. All of the original data is lost and the detail in those parts are gone. Photo ruined. Delete.
Example 2: Over-exposed
By now, most of you are thinking that I’m a horrible photographer. There is a reason this photo came out overexposed. In order to blur the car I needed to slow the shutter speed to 1/25 of a second. I closed my aperture to f/22 (the maximum) and set the camera on the lowest light sensitivity (ISO 100), but the image was still going to be overexposed. I had to choose between a normally-exposed capture with no motion blur, or an over-exposed capture with motion blur.
I chose the motion blur. And with a couple adjustments in Aperture I came out with this:
That is the power of shooting in RAW. You can correct things that went wrong in the camera. In this case, I restored data from areas that were totally clipped (pure white) and brought them down to a normal exposure. Again, in order to see how revolutionary this is, you have to see the equivalent JPEG.
While the car and the trees look decent enough, the detail could not be restored from the road or the sky and resulted in turning those areas to pure grey. The photo looks washed out and ‘blah’ compared to the RAW version with the preserved detail
If you want more information on the specifics of RAW and JPEG photography, check out this in-depth post from one of the greatest photo blogs out there – Digital Photography School.
So which one should I use?
There are pros and cons to shooting both RAW and JPEG images. Many people choose to shoot in JPEG because it is a universal format that they can be taken right off the cameras and shared via email or published to the Internet. RAW shooting requires an additional step – and additional software. RAW images need to be processed in a program like Aperture or Lightroom – I prefer Aperture – or even Adobe Camera RAW in Photoshop.
If you are not going to bother processing your photos, RAW is not for you. But even if you view photography as a simple hobby, it is worth investing in photo-management software like Aperture or Lightroom that make organizing, keywording, searching, and editing your RAW photos as simple as working with JPEGs. Flash memory and hard drive disk space is cheap enough nowadays that you can save all the data from your photos – especially if they are memories that you want to last forever.