Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tech Talk Tuesday - Raw or JPEG

The challenge of this Tech Talk Tuesday will be:   to give you a basic understanding of the difference between RAW and JPEG formats;  to help you determine what's right for you;  to do so in a brief summary; AND, not to bore you all to death!!!  A tall order but I'll give it my best shot.

Remember, this is just the basics for beginners, so first a little background.  Many digital cameras today allow you to choose different formats to use, the most common being JPEG, then RAW and sometimes TIFF and PNG.  Deciding which format to use should be determined by your shooting style and what you intend to do with your images.  Today I'm just going to talk about RAW and JPEG, so first let's list some basic comparisons:

A Raw image
  • is not really an image, but a format of an individual camera, and not the final product, in other words, not a picture.  Think of it like the digital counterpart to a film negative
  • contains raw data that is uninterpreted and unaltered
  • contains the complete data, so no information is lost
  • captures a higher dynamic range from bright highlights to dark shadows
  • has lower contrast, low color saturation
  • is not tack sharp
  • must have special software to open the file, so an image cannot go immediately from the camera to printing or internet
  • creates a very large file
A JPEG image
  • is a standard format readable by all computer imaging programs
  • is compressed to a fairly small file size that contains less data
  • loses information or data every time the file is opened and edited or manipulated
  • is higher in contrast, lower in dynamic range and sharper
  • can be suitable for printing or posting on the web right out of the camera

In a nutshell, RAW images must be edited in a computer program to be usable.  The files are 'neutral', and you the photographer/artist, must make the editing decisions as to sharpness, more or less contrast, more or less saturation, etc.  In addition, one big advantage of Raw, is that you generally have more leeway in adjusting exposure and white balance, so if you over or under expose the shot,  for example, you have a better chance of 'repairing' or making a proper correction if the image was shot in RAW.

JPEG images come out of the camera ready to print or display on the WEB, and are more what most photographers want their end result to look like, namely, sharp and colorful.  They are a standard format, universally accepted by all computer editing programs, and the file sizes are more manageable, but they have less data and can lose data which will potentially degrade the image.

What's Right For YOU???

There is no right or wrong answer here.  
But, you might want to consider shooting in RAW if you say:

  • I'm often unhappy with the exposure and white balance of my images and end up making adjustments in Photoshop
  • I really enjoy editing and tweaking my images on the computer and the time I spend is not an issue
  • File size is not a problem because I have 16 GB Compact Flash cards and a ton of storage space on my computer
  • I might want to submit my image to a stock photo site, or blow it up to fit over my sofa, so I want the highest quality possible.
On the other hand, you might want to consider shooting in JPEG if you say:
  • I'm pretty confident of my photography skills and usually don't have a problem nailing the exposure and white balance
  • I really want to spend my time shooting pictures and not sitting in front of the computer
  • I need to conserve on file size because I don't have a lot of storage space
  • I shoot mainly to post on my blog and rarely print anything out
If you fit into one of the above categories, then your decision is made.  But for most of us, we sometimes fit into one category and sometimes another.  For example, if I'm taking candids or informal photos like I did last night for my son's birthday dinner, JPEG would be just fine with me.  But, if I'm shooting bridals, then I will always shoot in RAW, because I don't know if the bride will want a 5x7 printed or a 24x30 on canvas printed.  In RAW I've got all my bases covered.  If I'm shooting an image only to display on the blog and nowhere else, (rare for me), then the smallest JPEG file would do just fine.   And cameras, now days, make it easier to decide, because many models have settings that capture both RAW + JPEG in the same shot, so you get the best of both worlds.  Or if you decide JPEG is right, you can set your camera on either a Small, Medium or Large file size, giving you even more versatility.

So what do I choose you ask????  Usually I choose RAW because I like to leave all my options open, especially by having the highest quality image I can get, (more data), and not worrying about degrading my image if I do a lot of editing and manipulations.  (Incidentally, some 'authorities' say that data is lost on a JPEG if you do as little as cropping or resizing, or if you use the command "Save As" in Photoshop.  That's not a lot of editing and doesn't even take into account exposure correction, white balance correction, let alone any artistic embellishments you might make.)   JPEG proponents will tell you that the amount a JPEG is degraded is negligible and is not even noticeable, but in my experience I have found if I add enough actions or presets, or corrections, or artistic treatments, I can see the difference, especially when viewed at 100% resolution.

Thanks for sticking with me to the bitter end!!  I hope you understand RAW and JPEG a little better now, and have a better idea about which format is right for you.  

P.S.  Thanks 'SouthernSass' for suggestion this topic, and as always, if anyone needs further clarification, or help, just zip me an email.  Also, I'm open for new topics to discuss on 'Tech Talk Tuesdays'.  Again, just zip me an email.

(Today I took an all day studio lighting class, (definitely a weak area in my photography skills), and learned a ton of stuff.  Most exciting was to know that one can set up lighting at home that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.  This was a 'hands on' workshop and I'm excited to show you some of my shots with spectacular lighting, so tune in tomorrow!)