Digital Photography File Format: JPEG or RAW?

September 07, 2013

Digital Photography File Format: JPEG or RAW?

Most digital cameras allow you a choice of file formats in which to save your images. The most popular available formats are JPEG and RAW.

JPEG

By default, the standard file format for most digital cameras is JPEG.

JPEGs are the image taken by your camera after it has been processed for the camera’s selected image settings. This processing includes adjustments for white balance, contrast, saturation, image effects and sharpening. After these adjustments are made, the file is then compressed. The amount of compression that occurs depends on the camera’s image quality setting.

JPEGs are quick and easy to use. There’s no additional processing required with JPEGs, so they’re ready to use directly out of the camera. And since JPEGs are compressed files, they are relatively small in file size. This small size means that you can fit lots of images on your camera’s memory card. This small size also means that JPEGs are great for emailing and uploading and sharing on the web.

But there are a couple of disadvantages to shooting in the JPEG format. First, depending on the amount of compression that is applied to the file, you can have quality issues with JPEGs. If there is too much compression, you’ll notice defects— blocky patterns and artifacts — in your photos. This problem only gets worse as the compression level increases. And, it’s nearly impossible to remove these flaws later using photo-editing software. So it’s best to avoid the problem to begin with by shooting your images with the highest quality setting (and the lowest compression level).

Another problem that you can have with JPEGs is limited editing. When these photos are processed within the camera, certain adjustments are applied to the image based on the camera settings at the time the photo was taken. Once that processing is complete, those adjustments become a permanent part of the image. That means that you don’t have a lot of ability to edit things like color balance and contrast. So if you take the photo with incorrect settings, you’re stuck with it.

RAW

RAW is a term used to describe the raw, minimally processed data that is output from your camera’s image sensor. A raw file is the equivalent of a digital negative. It’s like film that has been exposed but not developed. In fact, a raw file isn’t really even an image file at all. It’s a data file and it only becomes an image file after it’s been processed using software capable of processing these kinds of files.

The big advantage in using raw files is the control they give you over your shooting parameters. With raw files, you actually process the file into an image on your computer rather than in the camera.

This after-the-fact processing means you can adjust (and re-adjust) things like white balance, color, contrast, saturation, and sharpness until the image is the way you want it. Now, you can’t change everything. You can’t change the exposure—the aperture setting and the shutter time—and you can’t change the ISO. But with a raw file, you have much more control over how the image ultimately comes out.

But there are a couple of downsides to shooting in the RAW format. First, raw files are big—usually two to four times the size of a JPEG. That means you can store significantly fewer raw files on your memory card. Now, this probably isn’t as big of a concern as it used to be, given that today’s memory cards are getting bigger and space isn’t as big of an issue with them anymore. But the concerns about the size of a raw file don’t stop at the camera’s memory card. Remember that you will also need to work with these files on your computer, so computer resources—hard drive space and memory—can also become a concern.

Besides computing power, processing raw files takes time. And if you shoot a lot of photos, it can take a lot of time. And, remember that raw files can’t be used as is. They have be processed before they can be printed or emailed or uploaded.

And, finally, another problem is that there’s no standard, universal format for raw files. Each camera manufacturer has its own method for capturing raw data and, so, each manufacturer has created its own proprietary file type. In fact, some manufacturers even have more than one format. So, since there’s no single camera manufacturer, there’s no single raw format. Most of the software packages designed to edit raw files (Photoshop’s Camera Raw, Adobe Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture, etc.) can open all of these different file formats. But, sometimes, when a new camera comes out that uses a new raw format, it can take a while for the software to catch up. Now, to be fair, most camera manufacturers will provide you with software to read and convert their raw files. But, if you want to work with the raw files in any of the more popular software packages, you may have to wait until the software is updated for the new format.

What’s the Best Format for Me?

After all of this, which format is best for you to shoot in? Should you go with raw or shoot in JPEG?

I think the answer depends on a couple of things. First, it depends on the type of output that you are looking for (casual or fine art prints, online or display, etc.). It also depends on how comfortable you are with editing images on a computer, the amount of memory, hard-drive space, and computer capacity you have or are willing to purchase. And it depends on how much time you want to spend on processing image files.

So, here it is. If you shoot a lot of photos, you’re probably better off shooting JPEG. If you don’t have the time or patience or inclination to process images, shoot JPEG. If the added control of raw doesn’t necessarily matter to you, shoot JPEG. If you are generally happy with the JPEG results coming out of your camera, shoot JPEG.

And don’t let yourself be bullied into shooting raw. I know that may sound odd. But there are those who think that you can’t be a serious photographer unless you are shooting raw. Absolutely not true. Just shoot at the highest quality setting (and the lowest compression level) and keep an eye on your settings, especially the white balance.

But if you are looking for more control than you can get with in-camera processing or if you just enjoy image work, shoot raw files. And, as a plus, the processing part can give you another outlet for your creativity.

And if you’re still not sure, lots of cameras these days give you the option to shoot in both RAW and JPEG. This option is usually labeled “RAW + JPEG” and can give you the best of both worlds!

Happy shooting!




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