Why I Finally Decided to Shoot Only in RAW Format

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.

13 Responses to “Why I Finally Decided to Shoot Only in RAW Format”

  1. I've shot RAW + Jpeg more or less since starting with digital. My work rarely has need for high burst rates, and with cards and hard drive space so cheap, there seems no reason not to have the best quality image to work from if needed. RAW is also an excellent backup in case of small hard-to-correct mistakes with white balance or exposure. Usually the JPGs are fine out of camera, and that's what the client usually gets if the job's a quick turnaround. But when you need to squeeze that bit extra out of the file, you can't beat having a bit more to play with.

  2. Shooting .jpg because i mastered exposure with Zonesystem http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zone_system . My experience also is telling Olympus have better .jpg conversion in camera than Nikon and Canon...So if you go Canon and Nikon go Raw...if you go olympus go jpg...that´s my 50 cents...

  3. Very recent convert here! For a long time I thought that RAW images would take up too much space on my hard drive and that it would be fiddly messing around with extra processing for every shot. I suppose I just thought shooting RAW would be extra work and I was taking the easy option shooting Jpegs.

    I've noticed a significant difference in quality for my images since I've made the swap, and actually I'm enjoying the processing choices given to you by shooting RAW. I don't use it for everything... I shoot a lot of sport and I'm sticking with jpegs for that for now... but for Portraits, theatre work and pretty much everything else I use RAW.

    The biggest step in using RAW is just to try it. If you don't like it, stick to jpegs.

  4. It took me a long time to sway toward the side of RAW as well, now I use either, depending on the situation; RAW for important photos, JPEG for just-for-fun stuff.

    Not meaning to go off-topic, but your mention of "dropping a card at CVS", even if just a loose reference, sparked me to share this link regarding CVS Photo services exploitive terms & conditions: http://www.copyrightaction.com/forum/cvs-photo-exploitive-terms-conditions

  5. I shoot only in RAW, too, but I think it's important to note that it's not a panacea for poorly shot frames -- not quite as rosy as you put it.

    You can actually change the exposure in post production? Well, yes, but there's still no way to recover detail in blown out highlights or black shadows. And you can change the white balance in jpeg, too, but not quite as radically (bring a jpeg into Adobe Camera Raw and try it).

    The advantages of RAW for me really only come up when I need to do heavy post-processing. If I exposed correctly, which is of course the goal, there's little disadvantage to jpeg.

    ""You can buy a terabyte hard drive now for a few hundred dollars..." Oh my goodness, it's better than that. I bought a brand-name external 1.5 TB drive a couple months ago for $105. Just ordered a 2TB internal drive for $150.

  6. I've been doing RAW + JPeg (Large) for about 4 years now. While RAW is the besst way to develop and I do about all of it in Lightroom, JPeg does help me in a quick "First Cut" Scenario that helps get ride of things I'm blatantly not going to use very quickly without having to go through the whole conversion process.

    The one other thing that I do with RAW that is coming more acceptable is the need to get it from the Camera Coded RAW (Canon, Nikon, Sony) to a standard format. That's why when I bring the RAW file into Lightroom, I also convert it to DNG or Digital Negative which is now becoming an Adobe across the board standard.

    Good article Jeff.

  7. I recently started shooting exclusively in raw, thanks to the encouragement of photography friends, and I love it. I definitely see an increased quality in my images and I enjoy all of the control I have over editing.

    I do need to take more time when taking photographs because I'd like that extra space on my card taken up with quality images.

  8. Everyone is shooting raw. That's how digital cameras work. If your camera is set to jpeg it just means the raw file is being processed with the in-camera processing software. I prefer out-of-camera processing software not only because it offers more options and precision control than currently available in-camera software, but it also allows for development by inspection rather than development by prediction. In-camera processing vs out-of-camera processing is like one hour, uniform, automatic film development vs DIY darkroom developing. One hour film processing can work just fine and it's fast and easy, but almost anyone who chooses to invest the time and effort can achieve better results working in the darkroom.

  9. The sheer size and processing power/time needed for the 5DII's RAW is annoting, but I will never go back to JPG, the quality difference is too big.
    2 words: LightRoom 🙂

  10. The first professional digital cameras (Kodak DCS series) had no JPEG option and so we got used to processing files and converting them all that time ago (1998 in my case). The flexibility afforded by current RAW conversion applications and the quality advantages make shooting RAW something of a "no-brainer" for everyone except those with stupidly tight deadlines, and even they can shoot the two side by side in most cameras.

  11. I don't understand all the hoopla. Last night I was shooting in the Raw and got arrested for being over exposed.

  12. From the moment i started shooting RAW ive never went back to jpeg, the control you have shooting in RAW is amazing.

  13. Another key that I just found (not to resurrect an old discussion) is Microsoft has the Camera Codec Pack for at least Win7. This adds Windows integration for most RAW formats, so you can preview just as quickly as jpeg now (my only previous real gripe with RAW).

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