If you’ve watched any of my videos, especially my Lightroom training videos, you’ll hear me say over and over that you should NOT be shooting JPG’s and that you SHOULD be shooting RAW. In those videos, I don’t think I ever had the time to explain why RAW is the way to go. In this article, I will make it clear to you that RAW is the format of choice and the only way you should be shooting, in most situations, if you want professional quality images.
First of all, we should talk about what exactly RAW is and how it’s different than JPG
A RAW file isn’t actually an image file. What it is, is a file that contains all the data as transmitted by every pixel in your camera’s image sensor as well as camera, lens, location and copyright info. Usually RAW files are not compressed or they use a lossless compression both of which mean that all the data from the scene was recorded and saved to a file. Conversely a JPG is compressed and when it’s viewed, it’s uncompressed and some data is interpolated. That means some data appears in the viewed image that probably wasn’t in the scene.
Ok, why is RAW better?
For starters, a JPG image can contain up to 256 levels of brightness. A RAW file will have between 4096 and 16,384 levels of brightness. What that means is that a RAW image will retain detail into the shadows and into the highlights to a much greater extent than a JPG.
An 8-bit JPG contains 16 Million colors. A 12 bit RAW? 68 Billion… with a “B”, Billion. Need I say more about color?
When you shoot a JPG, the white balance is recorded by the camera and every pixel of the image is adjusted to match what the camera thinks the white balance to be. This makes it hard to readjust or change white balance in post.
When you shoot a RAW image, the white balance is recorded but it isn’t modifying the data received from the sensor. The white balance info is just saved to the file which allows for it to be easily changed.
When you edit a RAW file, you’re not actually modifying any of the data in the file. You’re just adding data to it or in some cases, writing to a separate database or creating a sidecar file that tells a program such as Lightroom how to read and express the file. This additional data can be deleted or altered at any time. The original RAW file is never written or modified as you process the image.
Conversely, if you edit a JPG, you’re often modifying the original image so if you didn’t back it up beforehand, the original will be lost forever.
Since a RAW file contains so much more information, sophisticated software algorithms have been written that utilize all the information to the fullest when it comes to sharpening. Sharpening algorithms in programs like Lightroom and On1 Photo RAW were written to take advantage of all the data that a RAW file contains to make it as sharp and noise free as possible.
Ok, there are other reasons why RAW files are better such as color spaces and the advantages of RAW metadata but, I think, as far as a photographer is concerned, I made my point as to why RAW files offer better quality images than JPG’s but, is there anything BAD we should mention?
Raw files are BIG
RAW files are considerably larger than an equivalent JPG. Also, the more “MegaPixels” a camera has, the bigger the raw file will be. So, RAW files fill up hard drives sooner and they take longer to read, copy, transfer and load. Also, because the file is bigger, it can slow your camera down. If you’re shooting at a high frame per second rate, your camera’s buffer can easily get full when shooting RAW and you have the possibility of missing a shot.
They can’t be viewed without conversion
RAW files require post-processing and conversion before they can be viewed. Additionally, there’s no standardization across manufacturers so a RAW file from Canon is different than a RAW file from Nikon which is different than a RAW file from Fuji, etc.
RAW files are YUCKY unless they’re processed
When you shoot JPG, your camera processes the image for you — it chooses the color balance, applies sharpening and color space. You can take the image straight from the camera and send it off into the world as is.
When you’re shooting RAW, you have to process the RAW file into photo. The creative control is now in your hands, not the machine (camera). Unfortunately, you’ll need software, such as Lightroom or Aperture to process the image and since it’s not done automatically, you’ll need time to do it.
I hope you’ll agree that despite the issues that shooting RAW poses, the advantages offset them and if you want to get professional quality images, you must consider shooting in RAW.