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RAW or JPEG? (IQ #3)

Welcome to the third in a growing series of articles aimed at improving the IQ (Image Quality) of our cameras. Today's topic is Raw versus JPEG shooting.


One of the bigger questions that new DLSR buyers face is whether to use Raw mode or continue shooting in JPEG mode like they always have. Before deciding whether to shoot raw or jpeg (or both), we need to understand the difference, and the implications when out shooting.

What is a raw file?

  • A raw file is not an image file yet, at this stage it's simply data that can be used to create an image.
  • Needs specialised software to convert to an image file.
  • Is typically a proprietary file format. Each manufacturer has their own raw format, even different camera models use different formats. Some open-source formats exist (such as Adobe's DNG) but these are not overly popular.
  • All images start out as raw files, even out-of-cam jpegs. The camera sometimes converts the resulting raw into a useable photograph.
  • Has a higher bit depth of 12 or 14 bits compared to 8-bit jpegs. This gives less chance of posterisation, especially in the darker areas of an image
  • Has a much larger file size than a jpeg - if a standard 10MP jpeg is 2.5MB, then an uncompressed raw will be around 10-15MB. Can either be compressed or uncompressed.
  • Has not had sharpening, white balance correction, tone curve, saturation, contrast, noise reduction, etc applied yet.
  • As a result has higher dynamic range and the potential for the best possible image quality

A raw file is therefore suitable if you plan to edit the images yourself before printing. Jpeg files will have most of the corrections readily applied. This means that once you get your files on the computer you have less chance to heavily manipulate them.

Botched up a shot? It'll be very difficult to correct in jpeg while being very easy to correct in the raw development stage.

What is a jpeg file?

  • A jpeg file is a regular image format. It's extremely widespread and is probably the most common image format out there. It stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group.
  • Doesn't need any extra software to view. Most web browsers are capable of viewing jpeg files easily (check individual settings though)
  • Since it's already converted, it can be used 'as-is' - making it great for a fast workflow.
  • It is extremely compressed. You can fit much more onto a single memory card. Almost no compression artifacts visible in superfine and standard jpeg files.
  • Had all major settings applied already.

Therefore, a jpeg file is extremely suitable for printing straight from the camera. Usually you can apply some styles on your camera (such as 'Vivid' mode) for added or reduced effects.

If you're looking for a quick and easy workflow then opt for one that is jpeg-based. However, there are programs like Adobe's Lightroom that work great to speed up a raw-based workflow. However, each file will still need a conversion to a jpeg to be useable.

photographers have to get it right more often when shooting jpeg...

A jpeg is great for sports photographers because of the reduced file-sizes, increased buffer capabilities, and ease of transmission. A news editor doesn't have the time to stay converting raw files!

The biggest negative is that photographers have less latitude on the computer. They have to "get it right" more often when out shooting. Some cameras also benefit greatly from raw as they have weak built-in jpeg converters.

So which to choose?

Ultimately, it's a matter of convenience versus ultimate quality, which is always down to personal choice. You can't print a raw file as quickly as you can a jpeg. Then again, you can lose quality editing a jpeg file while losing nothing in raw.

If you've made your choice, then that's great. For everyone else... Food for thought.

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