Monthly Archives: February 2012

RAW vs. JPEG… That is the Question

Over the past ten years or so in the short life of digital photography, the most nagging question in any group of professional or amateur photographers has to have been, “What format should I use, RAW or JPEG?”  The question for professional photographers has been answered.  In almost every instance RAW won.  RAW format saves all the digital information for each image in a raw, unedited form that provides the photographer with the photo data needed for professional photo work.

In the world of amateur photographers, many use RAW, many are happy with JPEG and a lot are wondering what to do.  So how does a photographer make up their mind?  Here is some basic information.

RAW (The name stands for “raw” file.) Almost every camera manufacturer has their own RAW software that comes with the camera.  Nikon’s proprietary software does not work with Canon or Sony.  Canon’s doesn’t work with Nikon and Sony and so on.  RAW files are the unaltered data captured by the camera and can be thought of as digital film before processing.  All RAW files need post-production.

JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format processes and compresses image data, in camera, to a smaller file size.  A smaller file size means it takes up less space on your memory card and hard drive, but also stores less data of each image.  How much less depends on the compression and quality settings that are determined in camera by the photographer.  File compression is nice, but file quality is sacrificed in the process.

Here is a list of RAW and JPEG pros and cons.

RAW format

  • RAW files are called “lossless” files.  All image information is held without sacrificing image quality.
  • Lossless is good if you want or need all that information to work with in post-production.
  • Because RAW files do not compress, each image file takes more space on the camera memory and computer hard drive.
  • RAW software saves the original image file and is never altered, so that even after the file is processed, the original file is preserved and available for additional processing.
  • Processing RAW files takes some additional time in post-processing.  However, new software such as Lightroom 3 that uses non-proprietary Adobe Camera RAW makes the conversion almost automatic.
  • Whether using your camera’s proprietary RAW software or if you use the Adobe Camera RAW converter software (that works with almost all cameras),you will need a relatively new, high-speed computer with at least 2 gigabytes (4 is better, 8 or more is best) of RAM to process you images smoothly as well as a large (500 – 1500 gigabyte) hard drive for image storage.

JPEG format

  • JPEGs are “lossy” files.  Each time the file opened and saved again, data is additionally compressed and lost.  The result of many opening and resaving files leads to loss of image quality (saturation, resolution, sharpness).
  • JPEG compressed files take less space on your camera memory card and computer hard drive.
  • The JPEG file format has been adopted as an industry standard.  It is pre-loaded in almost all digital cameras and easy to use.
  • JPEGs are compatible with all image editing programs (Picasa, Lightroom, Aperture, GIMP…).
  • No additional post production is required, but you always can.
  • JPEG files are based on the camera settings (white balance, exposure, and others) at the time you press the shutter.  (New post-production programs provide some leeway to adjust an image, but not as much as a RAW file.)
  • JPEGs can be saved at several sizes to save space on memory cards and hard drives.  Because large capacity memory cards that fit most cameras are now available and at prices that drop almost monthly, saving JPEGs at a less than large size less of a concern.
  • Images can be resized smaller if needed.
  • Upsizing a JPEG image often results in a degraded photo.  Third party software is available, but can be expensive.
  • Image “noise” (a grainy look) is more likely in prints made from a JPEG file.  (Software like Lightroom 3 and Picasa 3 do a much improved job of reducing noise in post-production.)
  • Cameras that support RAW can be set to save a JPEG image at the same time so that you have both files.

So, what works best for you?  If you aren’t sure start by asking yourself these three questions:

1)       How will I use the images?  (Large prints think RAW.  Small prints, images viewed on your computer or website, then JPEG will do.)

2)      How much time do I want to spend working on the computer? (RAW requires some additional time, but is getting easier with each generation images processing software.)

3)      Will my computer handle a lot of post-production processing?  (If you don’t have a fast processor with at least 2 GB of RAM and a large hard drive, then stick with JPEG until you can upgrade your computer.)

The secret here is to experiment.  If you are like a lot of photographers there will be times when you shoot RAW and others when JPEG works just fine.  The best thing is you can switch from JPEG to RAW in camera with every image you shoot.  So give them both a try.

February 7, 2012

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