Raw and Jpeg, Sittin’ in a Tree…

Usually, after I finish a presentation on composition or photographic lighting, guests that have not already fled in disgust gather to ask questions irrelevant to the subject on which I have just feigned expertise. (It’s a convenient arrangement: I pretend to know things, and they pretend to listen).

I am always asked whether I shoot RAW or jpeg, and I always answer, “Yes.”

Google “raw vs. jpeg” and you’ll get over 877,000 results, but because we’re friends, I’m going to let you in on a big secret: it’s a false dichotomy. I think RAW and Jpeg’s publicists cooked up this feud to generate ink/pixels.

Advocates get very excited about each format’s superiority, and the sects lob data and counter-data at each other in online forums. But spend enough time online, and you’ll realize that passions run just as high on the subjects of superhero powers, Fedora brim widths, guitar string metallurgy, and, as you’ve no doubt seen, whether Canon or Nikon users will be the ones condemned to eternal suffering for their sins. The world-wide-web is actually the world-wide-middle-school.

As it happens, I know RAW and jpeg personally and I can assure you they are good friends. They fraternize openly on my computer, and often I cannot tell them apart.

When I was new to digital photography, I agonized over which format to use. My digital mentor told me to shoot RAW exclusively. Ever pragmatic and irreverent Ken Rockwell extolled the advantages of jpegs. I tried both.

Now that I’ve fired a couple hundred thousand frames on three different dSLRs (Nikon D70, D200, D300), I’ve come to my own understanding.

Since this blog is for passionate pragmatists – those who wish to seriously enjoy photography with minimal fuss – here is my slacker’s appreciation of RAW and jpeg.

RAW format captures maximum data, just as it was originally recorded on your camera sensor. As such, RAW provides the opportunity to deliver the highest quality of which your camera is capable. However, if you don’t know how to produce the quality RAW makes possible, there may be no advantage in choosing the format.

Disadvantages of RAW include huge file sizes, slower frame rates (when your camera needs time to deal with the huge files), and, generally speaking, more post-processing time and effort (not for me, because I no longer devote a lot of effort to post-processing for either format).

Jpegs offer several advantages, including ubiquity as a digital imaging format. The files are smaller, the quality can easily surpass your ability, and you can capture camera settings directly – for better or worse.

If you know the light, know the subject, and generally know what you are doing, jpeg is good enough, and many – if not most – professional photographers rely on it. I use jpeg when I trust my camera or myself completely.

When I have doubts about the light, I shoot RAW. RAW grants me more latitude to adjust white balance and exposure after the shoot. In my experience, RAW also produces smoother tonal gradations, so I prefer it for portraits. When I’m shooting something rare and important, like a trip to Venice or my Dad’s visit to the World War II Memorial Dedication, I shoot RAW. When I want the best quality my camera can produce, I shoot RAW. If I can.

You see, as the Rolling Stones warned us, you can’t always get what you want. For example, I would like to shoot RAW at dance concerts, because the dancers fly in and out of multi-colored theater lights, but I have to shoot jpegs because I need a fast frame rate to capture the dancers as they FLY in and out of those various lights.

RAW also seems to handle post-process noise reduction better than jpegs, and I shoot almost all my theater and dance work at ISO 1600. But I also tend to shoot 1200 frames per event (Hey! You try catching a good shot with 20 or more high school dancers leaping around an unevenly lit stage!), and I find the giant RAW files are just too cumbersome in those quantities. It can take hours just to upload the images to the computer. Did I mention I usually do this stuff for free?

For me, the question is not whether to use RAW or jpeg, but when to choose RAW or jpeg for what I want to capture. After seven years playing with digital, I have mostly “graduated” to jpeg. When I want the best quality my camera can produce, I shoot RAW. But about 80% of the time, the camera’s best quality is more than I need, and jpeg is absolutely good enough.

5 Comments

Filed under Camera Settings, Lighting

5 responses to “Raw and Jpeg, Sittin’ in a Tree…

  1. By the way, I promise to write much shorter posts as the blog develops, but this one got me going…

    • keeble

      NIKON?!?!?! Ma, get the pitchfork!

      Great read, Dean. Thanks for summing it up neatly and with great examples of what for when.

  2. myrna

    good summary dean … i use raw about 50% of the time and jpgs often for family snapshots … recently i had a problematic jpg and susannah, the digital diva and my guru, gave me a way to put it in raw and it gave me a bit more information to work with

    here is how:

    • convert the jpg to a tiff
    • bring image up in bridge and highlight it
    • click on command R (or control R for PC users)
    and the image will open in raw … you cannot use
    all the controls but it can be helpful with certain
    jpgs

  3. Mike

    Well, I have to disagree with you on this one, old pal.

    For me, one of the main concepts behind graduating from taking snaps to making pictures is shooting raw. Yes, the files are huge and it does take longer to upload, etc. To that end, I’ve amended my workflow and simply accept those realities by setting up my import and walking away.

    But the benefits infinitely outweigh the problems. Suffice to say that a honking-large raw file allows forgiveness for MANY of my amateur mistakes. While the Aperture/Lightroom/Photoshop learning curve might at first seem daunting, there’s no way I could do to a jpeg what I can do with a raw file in those programs. My work is improving, in part, because of those tools.

    Here’s one thought to ponder regarding the largess of raw. I recently read on a photography blog that one of the signs of a good photographer is the size of his trash bin. It’s not an easy lesson to embrace because none of us want to trash anything that we might someday need, or just want, but I’d rather have a select few good/great raw files than tons of jpeg snaps.

  4. That’s not disagreement. We both want the right tool for the job, and sometimes the job is a snapshot. Artists should shoot RAW whenever possible. Journalists usually don’t need to.

    RAW is also one of the greatest teaching tools for photographers, because we can learn through post-processing how to better manage the original capture in the future.

    I should point out that with current versions of most software, working with RAW images is no more difficult or time-consuming than working with jpegs or tiffs or any other format.

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