Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Great Debate: RAW vs. JPEG

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
This is a processed RAW file.  Scroll down to see the original RAW file that came straight out of the camera and a black and white version, as well as another example.  I blogged about these amazing windows last month.

So you got a beautiful new DSLR in your stocking last month (lucky you!) and you've got more buttons and dials and menu options than you know what to do with.  Top all that off with a fat camera manual and you feel completely lost.

If you're just a beginner you'll have to learn about things like aperture, speed and ISO.  But, even before any of that, you first have to decide whether you want to shoot your images in RAW or JPEG.  Are you lost?  If you know the basics then you're already ahead of the game and the decision about which format to shoot in (RAW or JPEG) will be the most important.  And, ultimately, it's the first question you should be asking yourself right after you turn your camera on.

So how do you decide?

First it's best to learn about what each of these file types are. 

Defining RAW and JPEG

A RAW file is a file that is waiting to be processed by your computer.  Essentially, in the simplest of terms, it is like a digital negative (remember those? I do and I miss them!) and all of the information is saved on the file itself.

A JPEG is a file on your camera that is already compressed and has certain information saved on it that comes directly from the choices you made when you set your camera.

Characteristics of RAW and JPEG Files

A JPEG file is smaller in size than a RAW file.  It is higher in contrast and cannot be manipulated without losing data.  If you shoot an image in the JPG format and you set your white balance for cloudy or your expsosure too low, you're stuck with both of those choices.  The opposite is true when you shoot RAW.

A RAW file has all of the information saved within it and you can manipulate every last pixel of it.  Don't like the white balance you chose?  That's ok, you can change it and even create a custom white balance for your file in post-processing.  Don't like how dull the image appears?  Clarify it!  The color is off?  Fix it!   Yes, you can sharpen an image and make many other changes in Photoshop (levels, curves, contrast, etc.) but it just isn't the same as starting with a file that is exactly how you need it to be and not a manipulation of whatever it is that you photographed.

Unlike a RAW file, when you shoot in JPEG you can load the file directly to your computer and print it, upload it and basically use it however you wish without doing anything to it in Photoshop or which ever program that you use.  But this ease comes with a price.  When you shoot in JPEG it is very difficult to go back and "fix" any mistakes that you made in your settings in post-processing - especially to exposure and color mistakes.  The downside of all this post-processing flexibility however is that a RAW files take up a lot of space on both your memory card and your computer.  The files are enormous.  And, you will also need a program to process the raw files (in addition to Photoshop, Lightroom or whatever program you use).

So, what do you do?

If you are a professional photographer or an advanced amateur or someone who is a control freak (I feel you) then your only option is to shoot RAW.  You simply cannot afford not to because you want to take advantage of all that your camera and your talent has to offer by having as much information recorded on the file to work with after the fact.

I would say that if you are a beginner or you're in a rush or if you just want to shoot for fun and do it quickly (I admit it, a lot of the photos I take of my baby are in JPEG because I need to use and send the files quickly), then shoot in JPEG.  If you don't care about the information being lost in your file then you won't even miss it.  However, shooting in RAW is a great way to learn about your camera and your settings because you have to play around with them so much in post-processing.

Either way, start by asking yourself the question!  To RAW or to JPEG?

What do you think?  Do you shoot in RAW or JPEG or both?  Have any tips?  Questions?

Original RAW file straight out of the camera.

Copyright Monica L. Shulman
Black and white version



Copyright Monica L. Shulman

Copyright Monica L. Shulman

Oh, and one small, unrelated programming note, it's a new year so I'm going for a new look and streamlining the blog with some new design.  Thoughts?  After rebranding my website last year I got the itch.

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