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Should I Switch to Raw?

Nearly every expert photographer in the world will encourage you to shoot in your camera’s Raw format.  A Raw file is just a file created by your camera that does not compress the data or make any changes or improvements to the data that is captured.  I don’t disagree with the advice of these experts, and I personally shoot in Raw.

Nevertheless, you will occasionally hear a photographer encouraging others to stick with JPEGs.  The reason is that they are still good files, and they actually look better coming out of the camera.

For example, look at the two photographs below carefully.  They are both identical, unprocessed files, except that the one on the left is a Raw file and the one of the right is a JPEG.  Which one looks better to you?  Which one looks sharper?  More colorful?


The Raw file on the left is a little dull and flat  The JPEG on the right is brighter, more contrasty, and more colorful.

Sort of makes a case for JPEG, doesn’t it?

The Short Version: Shoot Raw Unless You Do No Editing

With that in mind, the short answer to the “Raw vs. JPEG” debate is that if you are never going to do any changes or edits to your pictures on your computer, then you might consider using JPEG files. Why make your pictures look worse by shooting in Raw? You might as well get the better looking picture. There is nothing wrong with a JPEG file.  So if that describes you, then you need do nothing.  Carry on.

But if you are going to do any post-processing on your computer, go with the Raw file. There are some advantages we’ll talk about in a bit.

The More Detailed Version

There is a bit more to this though, so even though I’ve already told you the ultimate answer, I hope you’ll stick around for a bit.  The longer answer will help you understand this better.  First, I’m going to talk about JPEGs, and then I will cover the advantages of Raw files.

Creating JPEGs

If you have been taking pictures with a point-and-shoot camera, or if you have been happily shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera without changing any menu settings, the image files you have been creating are what are called JPEG’s.  That is a universal file format for pictures that you have seen and used a million times.

To create a JPEG file, your camera take the data it receives from the image sensor and converts it into the JPEG format as it saves the file to your memory card.

The Benefits of JPEGs

JPEGs have some benefits, which is probably why everyone has used them for so many years.  Here is a quick, non-technical run-down of their benefits:

  • JPEGs compress the data from your picture file.  That means the file sizes are smaller (usually about 1/3 of a Raw file) and you can fit more on your memory card and computer.  Not only that, but if you are shooting sports or something where you are rapid-firing, the camera can save the smaller JPEG files to your memory card faster, which will avoid having the camera shut down temporarily to catch up.
  • The camera manufacturers add contrast, saturation, and sharpness to the image files as they convert them to JPEG’s.  As we saw above, this generally makes the pictures look better coming out of your camera.
  • You do have some control over the improvements being made to your pictures by setting the “picture styles” on your camera.
  • Because everyone uses JPEG’s they are always readable by everybody else.
  • Your file will probably end up as a JPEG anyway.  If you are going to publish your pictures to the web, or send them to anybody, you are going to end up converting your pictures to JPEGs.

So, in answering the question of whether you should shoot in JPEG or Raw, I would say that if you intend to never edit, I just, or do postprocessing to your pictures, you can continue to shoot in JPEG.  You get these benefits, and because you won’t be working with your pictures on the computer, you will get very little benefit from the Raw files (but see an alternative at the end of this article to “have your cake and eat it too”).

Most people should shoot in Raw.

Everybody else should shoot in Raw. There’s very little debate on this subject.  Here’s why:

1.  Raw Files Store More Data

A Raw file gives you all the data coming from your camera. It is not compressed so you lose none of the data gathered by your camera. In this day and age of cheap memory, the compression benefit of JPEG hardly matters.

2.  You Control the Picture Processing

When the camera creates a Raw file, it does not apply any of its own processing (saturation, contrast, or shortness).  Sure, this will make the picture look worse than a JPEG when it comes out of the camera, but you are free to add these effects to whatever degree you wish.  It is now your choice and not the cameras.

3.  Raw Files Contain More Colors

The Raw file has a larger color palette than a JPEG file.  JPEGs have large color palates, but they are what are known as “8-bit” files.  Raw files can be up to “16-bit” files.  Because of the way these things are measured, this actually means Raw files have exponentially more colors than a JPEG.  The upshot for you and I is that we might see slightly more subtle shifts in color with a Raw file.

4.  Raw Files Hold a Larger Dynamic Range

In addition, the Raw file has a larger dynamic range, which means it holds more of the range between black and white in one picture.  Therefore, you will be able to keep more really bright areas in your picture from “blowing out” or turning pure while, and keep really dark areas in your picture from turning pure black without any detail.

These benefits are significant and most people find Raw files the better choice to work with in their post-processing.  The cost is just the use of more data, because Raw files are typically about 3 times the size of JPEGs.  However, memory cards and computer drives keep getting larger, which is making this “cost” all but irrelevant.  Therefore, if you are doing any post-processing at all, I would join the chorus of those encouraging you to use the Raw format of you camera.

How to switch to Raw.

When I was first reading about Raw files years ago, I remember thinking that the file was going to look different.  I also thought it was going to be really complicated to make the change and that I might need some tools.  Both thoughts proved false, so don’t worry about that.

All you do to switch to Raw is go into the menu on your camera.  On most cameras there will be a menu setting called “image quality.” One of the choices should be Raw. Just switch to that and you are all set.

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

Finally, when it comes to the decision between Raw files and JPEGs, you don’t really have to decide.  You can have your cake and eat it too, in a sense.  Most cameras will allow you to make a Raw file and a JPEG file of the same picture.  The camera is not taking two pictures, it is making two files with the same data.
Obviously creating two files means using more data, but the extra JPEG won’t make much difference to you.  So you can set your camera to do that and have the benefits of Raw and JPEG files.  You can send out the unprocessed JPEG file immediately, but also have the Raw file for editing.
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