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Shooting RAW vs JPG


If you google "Shooting RAW vs JPG" you are going to find over 1/4 million results, and most of them are going to tell you to shoot RAW, and the other half is going to tell you to shoot JPG.

Some will say it doesn't matter, just shoot JPG, some will just insist you shoot RAW all the time, no matter what.

I am going to tell you a little bit about JPG, and tell you a little bit about RAW, then tell you when I use each, and leave it up to you to shoot as you wish.

I will admit, I was once one of those Shoot RAW, Period! to everyone I knew with a DSLR. I even forced it downs a students throat, and that was very wrong of me, she had many good points about why she shoots JPG, and how it was better for her, I was stubbornly stuck on the superiority of RAW and could not grasp why one would not want to shoot RAW.

I wont go into a lot of technical detail, but just inform you a bit, there is plenty of info on google if you want to know more. And for all you techies, yes, I am aware of 16bit jpg, and 32bit color, but this is a general discussion.

The JPG image: A JPG image is the defacto standard for displaying images, moving images, and for sending artwork off to a printshop. A JPG image is also a lossy format, that is it loses some information to make the file size smaller. This information is supposed to not be detectable by the human eye when displayed. But for closeup views, we can spot poor JPGs So a JPG is not best for 100% quality.

Also note, a regular JPG image is an 8bit per color image. This means that a JPG image uses 8bits for Red, 8bits for Blue, and 8Bits for Green.

What does all this bits mean, well, to get right to the point, 8 bits for a color, means that there are 256 shades for that color.

So what does that mean? Well most computer systems, show color as 24bit (8red+8blue+8green), so a JPG is a natural fit, the color information can be displayed on your computer screen pretty simply.

The RAW image: A RAW image is the data that your camera sensor records as the light that hits it. My Nikons that I use are 14bit per color files. As I mentioned about the JPG is 8bit/256 shades of each color, the RAW is 14bit/16,384 shades of each color!

Ok, right there, that is a lot of color information, this means the camera can record more details in the shadowy areas of the picture, as well as in the bright areas of the picture. And in general, RAW is saved as seen, and no data is lost. This is why people saw there is so much data in a RAW file, and they are correct.

You also have the ability with this that it has benefits where you can over/under expose a shot, and recover it in post.

Comparing, here are two images, the first one is shades of blue, but only 5 shades, the second is 9 shades. Now rember; JPG only has 256 shades, and RAW has 16,384 shades.



Shooting JPG: With this, your camera will take a shot in RAW format, and use its internal CPU/Software to convert it to JPG for you. And then it will just through out the RAW image. This is very similar to shooting on film, getting the negatives printed on paper, then throwing away the negatives.

I personally set my camera to sharpen a tad bit, increase contrast a tiny bit, and a few other little things for the JPG setting.

Now go out, bang the shutter, and transfer pics from your card to your PC, and your done. Bring into Photoshop if you want to clean it a bit, you know, get rid of that scar or remove the beer can off the grass. Resize it for facebook, or to email it out. Thats it your done.

Shooting RAW: This requires a little more effort on your part. This is very similar as before, shoot on film, then send out to get processed/printed, with one big exception, you are going to develop the film your self in your own darkroom.

You shoot the images in RAW, transfer to your computer. Now you have to bring the into something that can allow you to process the RAW images and convert to JPG. The defacto in this instance is lightroom (yes there are others) light room is the digital equivalent to a darkroom.

Remeber, your RAW image has 16,384 shades of each color, but your monitor, and most rest of the places you send the image can only see 256 shades (Techies, I know, this is a general discussion)

So basically, the RAW image you see on your screen looks kinda plain, flat, low contrast, and just bad. Of course it does, its not done. But its up to you to finish it, convert it to a JPG.

Your screen cant show all the information thats in the RAW file, so you have to play/tweak/process it to make it look good.

Sounds like a lot of work, and it can be, but this will give you 100% control over the image and how it will develop out.

Why shoot RAW and do all that work? You shoot RAW so you can have complete control over the end result, just like film, you develop in house so you can control your prints.

Think about this, you are shooting a higher end camera, and go through all the trouble of setting the F/Stop, the ISO, Shutter Speed, Lens Focal length. All this, so you can tightly compose the shot you want, only to have the camera give you a general rendition of the scene.

You shoot RAW so you can continue controlling the process 100% from A to Z.

Here is a photo that was done with a Pentax 645Z shot in RAW. Notice how the pic on the left would be the JPG image if the camera converted it internally, but by having so many shades of colors availabile (detail) in the RAW, I was able to post process this, and bring out the shadows. Note, not my shot, but I processed the RAW image


Should you always shoot RAW?

This is completely up to you. I wont say either way, however I will tell you what I choose to do and why.

When I need to have complete control from A to Z because I am creating/composing a shot, I will shoot RAW.

When I shoot RAW
Why: Because I want to have complete control because I am creating a final image or I need to make the photo look the best it can. If I have my camera in Manual Mode, then I want to have control of everything.

  • Studio Shoots
  • On Set Shoots
  • Head Shots
  • Fashion Shows
  • Product Photography
  • Macro Photography
  • Long Exposure Shots
  • Setup Shots (where I take time to stage the shot)

When I shoot JPG
Why: Because a simple JPG will suffice and I am not trying to create a photo, just a quick capture. Basically if I am in any type of Auto Mode , that is A, S or P

  • Public Events
  • Long Beach Grand Prix
  • Action Shots
  • Sports
  • Random Street Photography
  • Shooting something for a friend

And to extend this, when I shoot JPG Small

  • Behind the scenes shots
  • When I shoot specifically to post here

What should you shoot? That is up to you, and what works best for you. Are you the type of person who just wants to snap a picture and have it look good? If so, then RAW might not be for you. On the other hand, if you find you are designing your shot with ISO, F/Stop, Shutter, etc... to achieve the look you want, then maybe RAW is for you.

I would say give both a try, each one has its place and is useful, go out shoot, and try everything and find the right fit for you.

Take a look at My Post Workflow to see my workflow for a RAW shot during a Fashion Show.

Mike Bradley

Author: Mike Bradley

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