Shoot in RAW, even if you don’t know why yet.
OK so you’ve bought a fancy new camera, one of those professional looking ones with the big lenses and lots of dials and buttons. Look in your menu settings, read the manual if you need to (you should anyway), and find the option to change your “image quality”. At the very least, change this to RAW+JPEG, or just change it to RAW. Let’s take a look at why you’re doing this.
A RAW file contains as much useful information as you can get from your camera without compromising your photo. Whatever data the sensor has accumulated about the light entering your camera and the settings you used is at your disposal with a RAW file. Why just throw away a bunch of data about your photo that could potentially improve it by only shooting in JPEG?
Below Left – White Balance isn’t applied to RAW files so correcting the temperature and tint is no issue.
Below right – With the incorrect white balance set in camera, a JPEG just can’t recover the correct colours.
I do say “potentially” because not every photo is judged on its technical merit alone. The impact of an image can be just what you were after without any adjustments what so ever. But seriously, how often do you shoot a perfect image with a single click of the shutter and no processing? Oh what’s that? Images shouldn’t be processed with Photoshop or equivalent software because that isn’t “pure photography”. Well I’ve got news for you! Your camera is processing your images and doing the “Photoshopping” for you if you’re just saving straight to JPEG! So let’s weigh things up:
RAW. What is it good for?
- Absolutely everything (get it? Because it’s WAR backwards? K)
- The unprocessed data from your sensor
- No sharpening applied (Can be done selectively later)
- No contrast applied (Can be done selectively later)
- No saturation applied (Can be done selectively later)
- No white balance applied (Cloudy, Sunny, Shade….)
- No colour-space applied (sRGB, Adobe RGB…)
- Greater (than JPEG) dynamic range (range of spectrum between black and white)
- Greater (than JPEG) bit-depth of colours (The amount of colours available in an image)
- No compression of redundant data to save space
- Edits in software are non-destructive (a “side-car” file is created with a set of alteration instructions)
- Bigger files (about 4-5 times the megabyte size of the equivalent JPEG)
- Cannot be directly printed
- Cannot be viewed without specialised software (But, any software worth using to edit photos will support major RAW files)
Those last few things seem like negative aspects but we’ll see later that they don’t really affect your photography. But still, there must be some reason you have the option to shoot in JPEG.
JPEG. What is it good for?
- A couple of things (just doesn’t have the same ring to it)
- Smaller file size means many more photos can fit on a memory card or hard-drive
- Can be viewed by just about every image viewer known to man from digital photo frames (are they still a thing?) to billboards in airport lounges
- Ready to print straight from the camera. You could even use the cameras wifi to send it to your printer! Potentially faster than a Polaroid!
- Saves time in workflow if editing is not a priority
- Throws away about 80% of the data recorded by the sensor and camera
- Locks in white balance
- Locks in sharpness
- Locks in contrast
- Locks in saturation
- Assigns a colour-space
- Lower dynamic range
- Lower colour bit-depth
- Compresses “redundant” information
- Sometimes has visible compression artefacts
- Drastic reduction in editing capabilities (compared to RAW)
Now when you’re just starting out it can be easy to ignore some of the positives of RAW to keep things simple and just enjoy taking photos. But what happens when you start developing your knowledge of photography and taking a greater interest in fine tuning your shots in editing? What happens to all those photos you took of special occasions or travel destinations that you captured in JPEG? You cannot go back to those images and edit them the way you know how to now. You can’t get back all that information that was thrown away just to save space on your camera because RAW was an unknown or un-utilised component.
Below left – Basic Highlight and Shadow recovery from a RAW file.
Below right – Basic Highlight and Shadow recovery using a JPEG. Note especially the lack of detail through the shadows.
But what if you were shooting in only RAW and not JPEG? Well then there’s no problem. A RAW file can easily be saved as a JPEG without any editing, but a JPEG cannot be converted to a RAW file. You have all those RAW files sitting there to go back to if you desire. Worst case, you convert them all to JPEG and delete all the RAW files because they are no use to you anymore. But once you click that shutter, if your camera is not set to save in RAW or RAW+JPEG then there is no recovering that lost data. Storage space is so easy to come by too. On a 20MP camera you can shoot over 1000 photos in RAW on a 32GB memory card, and 32GB is small compared to what’s available.
If you are worried about complicated software that may be needed to edit or even view your RAW files then worry no more! Your camera most likely came with software that will at least let you view and save those RAW files to JPEG. These days there is also a huge range of editing software from free and easy to paid and limitless in capabilities (Capture One, Affinity, Corel…). Even Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom only require a small monthly subscription and there are plenty of online tutorials to build your knowledge on how to use them.
You may not understand all the technical stuff about photography. You may not currently possess the finesse required to professionally edit digital photos. Maybe you just bought a DLSR because you are going on holiday and want to take some decent images that look better than a mobile phone would. Whatever your reason for buying a half-decent camera or whatever stage you’re at in your development, shoot in RAW. Or, shoot in RAW+JPEG if you’re not ready to make the full leap. Because having all that extra data sitting there being unused is much better than wishing you could go back in time to have all those special moments captured in the highest detail possible.