A very common question that I asked when I started shooting with a DSLR was should I shoot in JPEG or RAW. I got to read a lot of view, listing lots of pros and cons of both. Which one is better, well there is no exact answer to that. Here’s my take on the same and hopefully it will help you understand the both formats and let you decide which one is right for you.
We all know about JPEG
JPEG is the most commonly recognized file format for photographs, plain and simple. If uploading, printing or sending someone a copy of my images, JPEG is the way I usually send those photos, and same holds true for most photographers. Also the JPEG format is definitely the most common image compression format used by digital cameras, and technically, a method of “lossy compression” for photographic images. This lossy compression is the main reason behind the debate.
Essentially when saving in JPEG format, the camera is programmed to compress the pixels into a smaller file size, discarding some of the pixels. Depending on what setting we have selected for recording our camera images, there will be either more or less compression. For example, if we choose the largest JPEG file size we can for shooting, our camera will discard less information than if we choose a smaller setting.
Then when we further process that image on our computer using some sort of image processing software like Photoshop, it is compressed even more each time we save the image.
When I choose the largest JPEG setting on my camera (D7000), the file size is just below 5MB
How does RAW format differ from JPEG?
When we set our camera to RAW in the photo quality menu, we are telling the camera to NOT process the photo in anyway. It preserves all the pixels and contains the data collected by your camera’s sensor. In itself it’s not an image. It needs to be converted to an image file. In some way this raw file is a Digital Negative and just like film negatives, they need to be processed. The post processing of RAW might be a little tedious, but then it does allow a lot of control over the same.
If we compare the size of these files, a RAW image that I obtain from my camera is close to 20MB.
Now if we were to shoot the same image in RAW (without post processing) and JPEG, the JPEG is likely to be more appealing visually, but the same RAW after post-processing is more likely to look superior.
For example when we start shooting more often than not we let the camera decide the white balance, and more often than not the camera judges it pretty well. Every now and then the camera gets confused and might mess up the white balance. Fixing this in a RAW is far easier than working on a JPEG as the latter already has discarded data to begin with. RAW images are much easier to manipulate using image editing software such as Photoshop. In Photoshop we can easily adjust many parameters of an image such as white balance, exposure, colour saturation, colour tint, fill light, brightness, contrast and others. Of course, we can also do this with a JPEG image, but it is not so easy, the results aren’t as good, and we still have the problem of gradual degradation of image quality from the JPEG compression algorithm.
The one place where JPEG does beat RAW files is that the latter are proprietary to individual cameras. As the manufacturers churn out a new camera they keep updating these file settings, and as a result there is no standard way of producing these files. Older versions of image processing programs are not always able to read the files of newer cameras. Not to mention if you are using a Canon, your files are different than if you use a Nikon. The RAW extension is even different. Canon is xyz.CR2 and Nikon is xyz.NEF extension. So if you are not planning to put money in updating your editing software, you might still want to stick to the good old JPEG.
What do I prefer?
I think for the first 5-6 month I was quite trigger happy, clicking like there is no tomorrow, and that meant far more pictures than I required and a lot more pictures that I should have deleted, which are still there in my HDD. During that phase I stayed clear of RAW, because it seemed a little too tedious, and would need a lot more data storage.
Since the D7000 has two slots for memory card, and it allows one to save different formats on each, I started shooting in RAW + JPEG (Back up). What this let me indulge in, was to shoot anything and everything in the monochrome setting. This way I would just use the JPEG in Black and White, and in case someone would ask for a coloured version I would edit the RAW. Working with RAW gave me an insight on how much more creative freedom I got as compared to editing the JPEG. As of last one year or so, I haven’t used a single JPEG file, although I do still shoot with the same RAW+JPEG setting.
On my D7000 the primary slot has a 16GB and the secondary slot has 8GB card, and it allows me to click close to 800 images (RAW+JPEG), which is far more than I would click on a days shoot.
What should you use?
If you are 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 or say Darkroom on Ubuntu (since PS for linux is no where in sight) 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.