Other than the 50-year Canon vs. Nikon holy war, nothing incenses opposing factions in photography circles like the debate over RAW vs. JPEG recording formats.
Why does this topic provide such great fodder for argument? As with most barstool discussions, it’s because there’s no right answer. Neither format is inherently superior to the other; it’s all a matter of how you work and how involved you want to be with image editing.
Most professional photographers favor RAW today, but it’s taken me years to finally join the club. I now shoot RAW almost exclusively — so I thought I’d explain how and why I came to my decision.
Convenience vs. Control
Whenever you take a photograph in the JPEG format, regardless of how you have the camera set up or what mode you’re in, the camera processes your image before you see it. Color saturation and sharpness are enhanced automatically, for example — making your images look as finished as possible right out of the camera.
For a lot of photographers (and photographic situations), this is a good thing. If you just want to drop your card off at the local CVS to be printed, this will vastly improve the quality and “prettiness” factor of your images.
The price you pay for that convenience, however, is that the camera has taken a certain amount of creative control away from you.
You can choose to set the white balance to “cloudy day,” for instance, to warm up shots on a cloudy day — but you are stuck with that white balance. You are also stuck, to a degree, with the exposure that was set when you shot the photo.
In many cases, this isn’t that big a deal. The larger problem is that, in order to keep files as small and manageable as possible and to keep your camera cranking out images as quickly as you can press the shutter button, the camera also compresses those images.
That’s what JPEG is — a compression scenario that shrinks images by tossing out similar pixels before you’ve even seen them. JPEG is known as a “lossy” format, because it loses information during processing.
Lossy vs. Lossless
RAW images, by contrast, are recorded with virtually no behind-the-scenes enhancement. The image that comes out of the camera is almost exactly as you shot it.
In this way, a RAW image is more like a film negative. All of the information is there for you to alter as you see fit in editing, just as you would interpret a negative in the traditional darkroom.
Nothing is lost or left behind in translation. Every pixel that was exposed is maintained, and nothing is compressed. Thus, RAW is referred to as a “lossless” format.
Where RAW really gets interesting, and quite useful, is during the pre-editing process. Whenever you upload and open a RAW file, you first go through a “conversion” step that enables you to change some key things like exposure, white balance, tint, contrast and saturation — and to do so on a very detailed level.
In terms of exposure, for example, you can be off several stops in-camera and actually change the exposure during editing. You’re not just making a curves or levels adjustment, as you can do with a JPEG file; you’re actually changing the exposure. You can also adjust the white balance in any way you like.
If you weren’t sure whether you wanted the image to be warm or cool, for example, or for the dominant light source to be tungsten or daylight, no problem. You can make that decision after the fact.
You can also adjust the hue/saturation/luminosity of each individual color before you even begin to edit the image — quite amazing. And you can pre-adjust curves in the conversion process (though to be honest, I do all of my real curves work in Photoshop after conversion.)
What Won Me Over
It was largely the ability to change the exposure and white balance that won me over. Also, my good friend and one of the world’s premier food photographers, Jon Van Gorder, convinced me that by not tossing away duplicate pixels and by editing in 16 bits instead of 8 bits (another RAW feature), the quality of my images would vastly improve.
I tried it for a few weeks, and he was right. Once I switched to RAW, my images were radically better. I also exercised greater care in my editing; I understood more about what I was doing and why.
Are there downsides to shooting RAW? Yes, but for me they are relatively minor.
For one, RAW files take up huge amounts of both card space and hard drive space. But memory prices have plummeted so much that this is no longer a concern to me. You can buy a terabyte hard drive now for a few hundred dollars — unimaginable when I started shooting digitally.
Shooting RAW does slow you down a bit, because it takes the camera longer to transfer the images from the buffer to your memory card. And there is that extra step in processing to go through as well.
So is RAW better for you? That depends on the type of work you do, the level of quality you demand from your images, how much time you want to spend editing them, and how many memory cards you’re willing to own. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong to shoot JPEG if the balance for you tips in that direction.
But if RAW sounds appealing to you, try it. Once you do, you could find yourself evangelizing in no time.