March 11, 2008

JPEG v. RAW

greatblueheron.jpg

(Great Blue Heron – Canon 1DMKIIN – Canon 600 F/4 IS Lens – Wimberley Mount – Gitzo Tripod – shot 12-2-05 at 1/3000th of a second, F/8, -0.5 EV, ISO 400)

Photo & Article by Scott Bourne

Every digital photographer has to decide between shooting in RAW v. JPEG. In this tip – I will explain the advantages and trade-offs of each. I will NOT tell you how to shoot. I’ll simply give you information that you can use to help make your decision.

Here are the basic differences. If you want the highest quality possible in your photographs, you want to shoot in RAW mode. This means that you can adjust the photo after the fact in ways that seemed like science fiction a few years ago. If you mess up the exposure or the color balance, you can fix it in software called a raw converter with no penalty. Do you always need the highest quality? No. If you are just making snapshot sized prints or posting to the web, RAW is overkill. But when you want to make large print or when you have a problem exposure, RAW can be a lifesaver.

Here are some of the advantages of shooting in RAW:
RAW is:

1) More forgiving if you make a mistake
2) More information means better prints
3) Changes can be made before the image is processed in the camera giving you wider latitude to make pictures perfect
4) Higher overall image quality
5) More precise color control

Conversely, if you shoot in JPEG, your image is processed in the camera and certain decisions are made for you that are tough to undo without degrading your photo. Here are some of the advantages of shooting in JPEG mode:

JPEGS:

1) Smaller file sizes take up less hard disk and storage space
2) Display faster
3) Print faster
4) Faster write times to your storage media
5) Don’t need the extra step of conversion

Depending on the type of camera you have or the subjects you photograph, you may or may not need these benefits. If you have a top of the line professional DSLR like the Nikon D3, there is no real worry about speed. The camera is so fast in RAW mode that there is no need to shoot in JPEG. But if you have a sub-$500 digital point and shoot, JPEGs are probably your best option if you’re in a hurry.

If you shoot fast moving action, JPEGS can be valuable because they write to the storage card fast and leave your buffer empty so you can shoot more shots quickly. If you shoot primarily landscapes, scenics, product shots or architecture, you might as well shoot in RAW if you can because those subjects aren’t going anywhere.

The more serious you are about your photography and the more you have invested in your equipment, the more likely it is that you should be shooting in RAW. That said, if you feel like you are good at getting the exposure just right in the camera, and you want the disk savings and convenience of avoiding working with a RAW converter, try JPEG.

Join the conversation! 29 Comments

  1. Scott – Love your show – great info. I use a Canon XTI and shoot RAW. When I import into Lightroom I take the option where it converts into a DNG file. I researched the DNG thing a bit before going this route, but I am hardly an expert regarding RAW/JPEG/DNG/CR2 etc. I do all my adjustments in Lightroom and am really happy with it. Are there any downsides to DNG or better options?

  2. I shot JPEG for the first 3 years I had a DSLR, but with RAW support not very good back in 2004, I decided to keep shooting JPG (as well as not knowing the benefits).

    Now I shoot almost exclusively in RAW, I love the control in post (via lightroom and photoshop) makes it invaluable.

    Great post!

  3. Some (most?) cameras will also do both. If you never use the RAW, this maybe isn’t the best setting because the resulting jpg (on my camera anyway) is not the best quality. I’m guessing there are some implications for how fast you can shoot from a burst standpoint also, but I’m not certain.

    One thing you should watch out for with jpg’s is that if you edit it and then save again, it is recompressed. It is not noticeable immediately, but 3-4 iterations of this and the image is trashed. The electron microscope center at my school uses TIFF (uncompressed) as the standard intermediate format, possibly moving to PSD (photoshop, actually a TIFF derivative) as this is becoming a standard format that other things are starting to read.

  4. “write to the storage card fast”

    Whoops, missed this in the post.

  5. The problem with not shooting in raw all the time is that you don’t always know when you’re going to get that next great photo. With memory cards being as inexpensive as they are now, I think it makes sense in the long run to always shoot raw.

  6. Would it be better to shoot in RAW + JPEG and use the jpeg for your website photos, but if you happen to get the great photo, then you have the RAW photo to post-process to achieve that ‘great’ photo?

  7. I use a Nikon D50 which is capable of shooting RAW but I often put my Photo’s on the web and print them to about A4 would it be best to shoot RAw or JPEG??

  8. Sorry, hit enter by accident. Just wanted to make a comment on Brian’s comment about jpegs recompressing after each save, as I understand it this is not the case in Aperture. That the master images remains untouched and the changes you make in post-edit are only affecting the version you export. So compression only happens once (unless your camera made a compression to jpg at the time of capture).

    Not sure if Lightroom works the same way, but would be curious to know as I am playing with LR now and considering making a switch. But that is a concern.

  9. I used to shoot RAW and low quality small jpg, but to be honest the jpgs just get in the way.

    The only time in now shoot jpg is, as Scott says, when operating in burst mode for sports etc to get a longer burst.

  10. @ Mike

    Personally, I don’t think so! RAW conversion is so fast and easy this way, I’d rather save the space on my CF card and shoot everything in RAW, then convert them appropriately, depending on where they’re going. That way, I know that I am getting the best quality available every time I press the shutter. I can always throw them out later, but I can never make them better if I decide not to use the best setting! You can even batch-process snapshots, so it’s not such a big deal.

    I guess if you absolutely positively know that when you’re pressing that shutter that particular photo will never be anything more than a snapshot, then go ahead and shoot in JPEG. But do you ever really know that???

    But… that is my opinion! It’s what I do, and I, like Scott, won’t tell you what to do. I have a very good friend who makes a good living shooting events for a magazine, and a lot of the time he does not even shoot at the highest res that he can, and he only shoots JPEG – he never got the whole idea of RAW – and it works for him! I’d hate to think what will happen when he gets that shot of a lifetime and they will want to print it big, double-spread… but that is not my problem. He’s happy shooting the way he does. :-)

  11. Oops! That should have read: “RAW conversion is so fast and easy these days”… Shouldn’t post after a long day editing photos… :-)

  12. Scott — A very nice summary of the respective advantages of both formats. I generally shoot in RAW but am curious about something that you didn’t mention in your article: Whether you shoot and process in RAW but keep your long-term archives in JPEG? As camera-specific RAW interpreters are required to open and to process RAW files, it seems as if JPEG would be a better choice for archival storage. Apart from the size advantage conferred by JPEG files, JPEG is a standard format that I imagine most photo programs will still support in some fashion 15 years from now when I decide to replace aging childhood prints of my now eight-month old kids. I’m less confident that the photo program of the distant future will support my by-then-long-discontinued camera’s RAW format. What do you think?

  13. Here’s my two cents:

    You can never gain the flexibility of RAW from a JPG. Once you’re a JPG, you’re a JPG. I think hard drive storage is cheap enough now that we should discount file size.

    RAW lends itself better to color correcting which is nice for things like HDR and merging exposures.

    That said, I only have 2 Gig cards. When I shoot time-lapsed things I shoot JPG, Good quality (one step back from the best) at 3.x MP. That way I can make my time-lapse into a 720p HD feed and I can shoot at 1 second exposures for over an hour on a 2 Gig card. Because of the effect of time-lapsed video, I don’t usually need the flexibility of RAW and therefore it’s not worth the extra space on my card.

    Life’s full of trade-offs.

  14. Ron I think the storage option is an interesting argument. I store my images in PSD and their original RAW format for the simple reason that you can still open a Photoshop file made with version 1.0. Adobe has promised and delivered backwards compatibility. I have no reason to believe that ACR won’t open them in the future. Additionally, Aperture and iPhone will also open those program files as will GIMP, etc.

    ANY format, JPEG, DNG, PSD, RAW, etc will run the risk of becoming obsolete. JPEGs are a lossy format and in my opinion, not a good option since any future adjustments would cause images to degrade.

    Lastly – none of these programs will go away overnight. In the unlikely event that any of them were to no longer be supported, there will be plenty of time to convert using batch conversion utilities.

  15. I just use RAW for its particular advantages. It is slower to display, but not terribly much so given how much information is in the file, vs. the CPU having to decode an image that’s just as large. I don’t think JPEGs necessarily print much faster as the printer daemon most likely sends out the data to the printer as a bitmap, I don’t even know if it’s necessarily compressed when sent over the printer cable. Maybe it’s a bit different for Postscript printing. As iMovie handles RAW pretty transparently without the separate conversion techniques needed in the past, I don’t worry about that. Someone did mention timelapse, and I agree, JPG is usually much better for that.

  16. “As camera-specific RAW interpreters are required to open and to process RAW files, it seems as if JPEG would be a better choice for archival storage.”

    This is a very good point, but I would say that the choice is not just between RAW and JPG, but “which of the hundreds of file formats available should I use for archive?”

    I work at a major research university, and have talked with the director of one of the electron microscope centers about workflow and archive issues. Photo images are their scientific “data”, and archiving is extremely important to them. They use TIFF for their archive images because it is a lossless format, and has been a very widely accepted format.

    I don’t know how apeture and iphoto do their internal format dealing with jpgs, but what you described is how I hope they would work. What I had to do for a class once was open a JPG, and resave it as a JPG, and repeat (this was in photoshop). Even at high quality, it was noticeable after 5 times or so. It was even worse if you cropped the image, as the JPG algorithm averages blocks of pixels, the resampling would hit different areas and result in splotches. If all you do is JPG out of the camera, and a single edit to JPG (maybe two) then I don’t think you will see a difference, but the issue is flexibility. You don’t want to “use up” all of your resaves and not be able to tweak an image again. Its just something to watch out for.

  17. What a timely post!

    A local group of photographers I’m part of has been having yet *another* debate on this very subject. It seems to come up a few times a year.

    While I shoot everything in RAW mode (I’m mainly a portrait photographer) I do see there are times where it makes sense to not shoot in JPEG mode.

    Several of the group are sports photographers and shoot literally thousands of photographs at a venue or event and need to get them ready to go in very short order. (One even has on-site ordering/viewing/printing) For them, it makes sense to shoot JPEG because of the time constraints.

    We also have a couple wildlife shooters and one did a comparison of RAW v JPEG on the same shot (by shooting RAW + Large JPEG) and I have to admit the JPEG out of the camera was impressive.

    The PJs for the local newspaper used shoot JPEG mode only. I’m not sure if they still do as I haven’t talked to them in a while.

  18. Scott — Thanks for the helpful and thoughtful reply. That’s the approach that I have been taking thus far, but I was interested in your thoughts. Your points about ACR and batch conversion utilities are very well taken.

    Joe — Thanks, also, for your reply. I agree that the cost and capacity of storage continue to plunge and increase respectively (I still recall with fondness my 1980s era 5 meg Apple profiler drive which was the size of a shoebox–how quickly things change–my 500 gig drive is slim, trim, and light weight).

    Ron

  19. I’m not sure about other RAW formats, but Pentax’s PEF has the postprocessed JPEG embedded in it, so if you need the image fast and are happy with the JPEG you could use that but still have the RAW if you want to do further editing.

    I personally shoot RAW with the DSLR and JPEG (no other option) with the point-and-shoot.

  20. I think one of the problems with RAW is the fact that most point and shoot cameras, even the high end ones don’t give you the option of shooting in raw. This is something I really don’t understand – the image starts of as RAW in every camera so why can’t they save it as such, or if there is some technical difficulty save it to an alternative lossless format that records the information more efficiently.
    Also I can’t lug a DSLR with me wherever I go, but I can easily fit my Ixus in my pocket. I was thinking about getting a G9 but it’s too expensive a premium for a feature (ie shooting raw) that every camera should have and also far too big to take with me – my pocket space is limited seeing as I gather more and more “stuff”.

  21. I’m a novice having fun with a good point and shot. I’ll be Jpg for a while but I love to know what is what. Just like Raw is more info for your image, TWIP is more info for my head. I’ll process it there.

  22. Oops! My comment should read: I do see there are times where it makes sense to shoot in JPEG mode.

  23. I would never store archival images as JPEGs, for all the reasons outlined above. In the past, I used to keep copies of my original RAWs and then a separate archive of converted TIFs (these were only the important images, the keepers, ones that I worked on and printed or used in some way). Lately, I have been converting my RAWs into DNGs and archiving them that way. Why? Because Adobe has a good track record of keeping backwards compatibility, they are pushing hard to make DNG a standard (and it is becoming one), and most importantly, I can save my image AND THE ADJUSTMENTS within one single file (no sidecar files to keep track of).

    I still keep an archive of TIFs for my worked images, but a PSD would be just as good (PSD is actually a derivative of TIF, and both were developed as standards by Adobe – that is why I’m so confident of DNG’s future viability!). I store mine as TIFs only because in the past I came across a program or two which didn’t recognize PSD files, but that was in the old PC days, it might not apply these days.

    As Scott mentioned above, at the first sign that my chosen format is about to become obsolete, I will be converting my files to whichever new format promises to be the next standard. In addition, I will probably keep an old machine with whatever old program that still recognizes my about-to-become-obsolete file format, just-in-case.

  24. Nice post Scott, but one thing I always see missing in articles like this (well you ever so slightly touched upon it) is that when you shoot RAW, you are able to produce a 16-bit ProPhoto file which when printed will kill anything Jpeg could produce. Most mid level home inkjet printers are able to produce much wider colour saturation (depending on the ink/paper combo) AKA Colour gamut then a 8-bit Jpeg can give. If you are lucky enough to have access to the new Epson 11800 you can then take advantage of that 16-bit Prophoto file and produce prints that are damn right sick looking (that being good) I saw a side by side comparison of a 8-bit sRGB print and a 16-bit ProPhoto print…..Its like setting a SDTV beside a HDTV….Night and day. Once I say that I was converted.

    Oh and Lightroom never touches the actual pixel of a file be it Jpeg, Tiff, PSD what have you. It is a metadata editor. If you want to actually apply the edits to the pixel you have to export it and it makes a whole new file.

  25. I’ve just started using RAW + JPG with my itty bitty Canon A720IS (hacked). The main problem is getting the file converted into a readable format by my MacBook (I convert to TIFF). However the quality leap seems to me to be very apparent especially when cropping.
    Other good points of the hack are battery status and histograms. Why aren’t these things standard??

  26. David – please note the part of my post where I said -

    “Here are SOME of the advantages of shooting in RAW”

    Not all – this isn’t the place for a white paper or an in-depth approach. Blogs don’t lend themselves to that sort of thing. Most sites don’t mention the 16-bit advantage for printing because in fact, less than 1/10th of 1 percent of photos are ever printed.

  27. AH, but Scott, did you not say that you don’t consider an image a photograph unless it is printed? lol

    But you are right, once you touch upon all of that you have to got deeper and deeper into the explanation…Whats Bit depth? ProPhoto? Gamat?….one answer leads to 10 more questions.

  28. i started shooting RAW about 2 yrs ago and i never looked back.

  29. As a rule RAW but its the classic “It Depends” question. I tend to go with RAW for most stuff especially if the lighting and exposure is going to be tricky. I never do both because of having to deal with the file size. I’m also pretty new and still tend to use the preset program modes that choose everything for me (only in certain situations while I’m still learning) and they all force me to use JPEG for those.

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