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Raw vs. JPEG: The End of the Debate

CheecaSunrise4-LongIf you have been around photography for longer than 20 minutes you have no doubt been exposed to “Raw vs. JPEG” discussions. The issue is which format to use for your digital photos.

We’ll start with JPEG, which is a universal file format used by nearly all cameras and computers. Digital cameras adopted this format and when you take a picture, your camera takes the image data and converts it into a JPEG file. At the same time, because camera manufacturers know that you want your pictures to look sharp and colorful, they will add some saturation, contrast, and sharpening to the picture as the file is being converted to a JPEG. At the same time, converting the image data into a JPEG actually compresses the data and saves room on your memory card.

There were certain people, however, who wanted all the underlying image data. They didn’t want the compressed file, and they certainly didn’t want the camera manufacturers adding processing to their pictures. As a result, cameras started allowing you to create what are called Raw files, which are just the underlying camera data bundled up into a file. There is no compression, so the files are large, but you get all the data, and there is no extra processing.

So now you have two different file types to choose from when you take a picture. Which to use?

Countless articles have been written urging photographers to shoot in Raw format and pointing to the various advantages of doing so. In fact, it is fair to say that the vast majority of expert photographers shoot in Raw format. From time to time, however, you will see occasional articles encouraging photographers to shoot in JPEG mode, on the premise that the files are good enough and take up much less space on your memory card and computer.

There is an easy way to have all the benefits of each format though, which I will share with you in a second. Therefore, if there was ever any reason to engage in this debate (and I’m not sure there ever was), there is no longer.

Raw Files

First, we should briefly address the reasons why Raw files are vastly superior files to JPEG’s. Here are the primary reasons:

  • Raw files are 14-bit files in most DSLRs (and can actually be as large as 16-bit files), whereas JPEG’s are only 8-bit files. As addressed in this article, Raw files have exponentially more colors than JPEG’s. This is particularly important at the low-end of the color scale.
  • Raw files have more data generally than JPEG’s as well. For example, the typical raw file from my camera is about 22 MB. The typical JPEG is about 7 MB.
  • Raw files allow you to apply your own white balance and processing to the image, rather than have the camera apply it. Now, most Raw editors will edit JPEG’s as well, making this a limited advantage, but it is an advantage nonetheless.
  • You can pull highlight and shadow detail out of files that would otherwise be lost in JPEG’s. Most say you get an extra stop to a stop-and-a-half of extra highlight and shadow detail by using Raw files, and that is pretty consistent with my experience.

JPEGs

JPEG’s, on the other hand, are much smaller, easily shareable files. They have the following advantages:

  • The smaller file-size saves you space on your memory cards and computer.
  • You can take shoot fast for a longer period of time, as the camera will write the pictures to the card faster.
  • They are easily shareable among computers, as JPEG is the most commonly used format on the web. In fact, if you are posting your picture online your picture will end up as a JPEG.
  • The camera will add saturation, contrast, and sharpening, so your photos will come out of the camera looking better than Raw files.
  • Unlike Raw files, JPEGs require no special software to read them.

Raw vs. JPEG: Which to Choose?

The answer is both. Cameras are capable of creating both types of file every time you take a picture. It is a simple setting in your camera menu. Therefore, you should set your camera to take both. There is no reason not to.

First of all, you definitely want the advantages of Raw files. They are just better files with more transitions between colors from which you can pull more detail. No one disputes this, nor could they. Even if you do not plan to process your picture now, you might want to do so at some point in the future. You want the best data to be preserved.

You might as well add a JPEG while you are at it. You get a universal file format with a little processing. It cost you nothing but a little bit of data. The cost of this extra data is insignificant. Consider the following:

  • On my camera shooting raw files on my 32 GB card means I can take 1148 pictures. Adding a JPEG still allows me to take 927 pictures on that same card. That is plenty.
  • Data is cheap. You can get a 64 GB SD card for about $25. This will hold roughly 2300 Raw + JPEG pictures on it.
  • You can get hard drives measured in terabytes for under $100.

These are current prices and things will probably be even better by the time you read this. Data prices continue to fall and there is no reason to believe this trend will not continue into the future.

Photographers like to argue about things, but there is no reason for this to be one of them. We can truly have our cake and eat it too. Just set your camera’s Image Quality setting to Raw+JPEG and never touch it ever again.

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