There is somewhat of a controversy about whether shooting files in RAW is preferable to JPEG (also can be JPG). You are probably familiar with the JPEG file format, but you may still be a little fuzzy over what RAW is and why it may be helpful to you. This article will hopefully explain how these file formats work and help you to decide which one is right for you.
JPEG vs RAW
JPEG is the recognized file format for photographs, plain and simple. If you will be uploading to the web or printing your images, JPEG is the way you will most likely send those photos.
However, the definition of JPEG lends itself to some questions about the integrity of those image files. The JPEG format is described as “the most common image compression format used by digital cameras. And more technically, a method of “lossy compression” for photographic images. It is this idea of “compression” that is the problem which causes the discussion about whether to use this format when taking pictures and storing them on your computer.
The “lossy compression” is what happens in your camera when a picture is taken in JPEG format. Essentially, the camera is programmed to compress the pixels into a smaller file size, discarding some of those pixels. Depending on what setting you have selected for recording your camera images, there will be more or less compression. For instance, if you choose the largest file size you can for shooting, your camera will discard less information than if you choose a smaller setting.
So, let’s say you want to take as many pictures as possible on your storage card. The most logical setting is to pick the smallest available picture size, and let’s assume that it is 640 x 480, when the camera is capable of taking a full size photo at 3648 x 2736 (this is possible with a 10-megapixel camera). The camera “throws away” all those extra pixels. What you see on the LCD is the same as if you took the picture at full size, but when you try to enlarge that photo to print is at, say, 5 x 7, the quality will be unacceptable. You will see blotchy parts in the picture that we lovingly refer to as “pixelization.”
Then when you further process that image on your computer using some sort of image processing software like Photoshop, it is compressed even more each time you save the image. Most people do not save and resave their images, but it can be a problem if you do.
How does the RAW format differ from JPEG?
When you set your camera to RAW in the photo quality menu, you are telling the camera NOT to process the photo in any way. It will preserve all the pixels in the image. Pretty simple, right?
The resulting file is much, much larger than a JPEG file, even when the camera is set to JPEG (fine), meaning the largest JPEG image possible.
The next issue is that you must do something with that photo before you print it or post it to the web. In other words, you have to process the photo on your computer. A RAW file is somewhat like an old film negative (not really, but you can think of it in those terms to get some idea of how this works). In order to see get a print from a negative, the negative must be processed. The same is true with RAW files. You will need some kind of processing software to convert your photograph into a usable file for either print or uploading.
Another major difference when dealing with RAW is that you can’t use any of the creative modes on your digital camera. Yes, you can use the manual settings for aperture and shutter speed, but if you set your camera to a setting like “party”, you essentially cancel the RAW mode and automatically go into JPEG mode.
Bottom line: Shooting in RAW format gives you a full set of pixels to work with, but you have to do some processing.
What is the controversy?
Some photographers are strong proponents of RAW while others are fans of JPEG.
First of all, not every camera is capable of taking RAW format pictures. If you are the owner of a compact digital (point and shoot) camera, you may not have the option to go RAW.
Those who support shooting RAW want to be able to use every resource available for getting the best possible image outcome. Their claim is that using the RAW format gives them total control over their images.
Others, and we are talking professional here, have resisted the change and continue to use the JPEG format. Their reasoning is mostly that they are confident in their skills, and they always get good results with JPEG. Adding RAW simply increases their workflow, taking time away from their first love, which is taking pictures. Why would they want to spend more time at the computer to get what they are already getting out of the camera?
Another reason for not using the RAW format is file size. The file size, as mentioned above, is more than twice that of JPEG photos. They will fill up your storage card very quickly in comparison. And they will also take up much more room on your hard drive.
The last reason for sticking with JPEG is that RAW formats are proprietary to individual cameras. What that means is that there is no standard way to produce these files. If you are using a Canon, your files are different than if you use a Nikon. The RAW extension is even different. Canon is a.CR2 and Nikon is a.NEF extension. And what complicates this even more is that as newer DSLR cameras are produced, this file format changes. Older versions of image processing programs are not always able to read the files of newer cameras.
Ken Rockwell of KenRockwell.com is a strong opponent of using the RAW format. He claims that in the future, as software advances along with the newer file formats, older RAW files will become defunct, and you will not be able to open those older files without having an older version of image editing software. This may be an issue that deserves further study.
OK, now the big question. Which is right for you?
If you’re very familiar with image processing software, and you like to edit your own images, RAW is a very valid consideration for you. Even free programs like Picassa can open and process most RAW files.
If on the other hand, you don’t want to add another step to your workflow, or if you are not yet ready to take the next step in learning (or buying) some good software, you will want to stick with JPEG.
About the Author
Wayne Rasku has been an amateur photographer since 2003. He runs sites related to photography classes in Atlanta, Georgia, and a Canon lens organization site.
Note from the PictureCorrect staff: I stuck with JPEG for a few years in the beginning, but once I switched to RAW I never went back. I personally recommend becoming familiar with RAW files. You can always convert RAW files to JPEG, but you cannot convert JPEG to RAW.
Like This Article?
Don't Miss The Next One!
Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current: