We asked people in our amazing Pure Constructive Criticism group what topics they wanted blogs about. One that popped up a few times was the difference in RAW image files vs. JPEG image files.
"Woot!" I thought. "A softball question! I can totally do this!"
And then I started thinking about it. All of the technical information I knew. All of the technical information I DIDN'T know. Gulp. This is actually a HUGE topic.
So can I start this blog with a little disclaimer? I do not claim to know the exact technical information on all of this. I have some technical knowledge and some practical knowledge and I will present what I know and what has worked for us.
So let's start with WHAT a RAW file is. When a camera takes an image, the sensor captures the light of red/green/and blue. It records the intensity of the light of these colors. If you choose to capture your files as a RAW image, you will be getting THIS. The uncompressed, unfiltered, unedited, RAW (like as in really actually raw) data. If you choose to get a jpg image, your camera will strip out and filter the data to compress it and it will add some in-camera processing (contrast, sharpening, etc.) to your final image.
This is not to say that one file is better than the other. Rather there are times that one will be the best fit.
A JPEG is
• A compressed file, stripped of some of the data that could be deemed unessential to the exposure you told the camera to make
• smaller (since it's compressed!)
• edited in-camera, to an extent
• able to be directly edited, though this can lead to some quality loss. (A lossy file.)
• A file that can be viewed immediately on a computer or printed
A RAW file is
• An unfiltered file, all of the data collected by your camera's sensor
• much larger
• Not edited by the camera AT all. All editing happens in the computer afterwards.
• Cannot be directly edited. It is considered a read-only file, and all edits are added via a "sidecar" file like an xmp file.
• This leads to the file being lossless.
• It is also not exactly an IMAGE. It cannot be viewed without special software. But most cameras come with their own or you can use a product like Adobe Lightroom or Bridge/ACR. Also, each RAW file tends to be proprietary to each manufacturer and camera.
Using a jpg file is a great idea if you know you'll have good exposure or white balance and if you don't feel like you'll be editing the images a lot. Sometimes if I am almost out of memory when I am taking snapshots at a soccer game, I will switch my camera to JPEG and capture smaller files. They are not files I will be using to print huge images, I won't be editing them extensively, and usually my exposure and white balance is close enough. And, truthfully, if I mess up a little, the sakes are not high. JPG is ok here.
But when I shoot a wedding, even though I am fairly confident in my exposure skills, I will shoot in RAW. I have enough digital memory that I can capture a whole wedding easily in RAW and I make SURE I have all my cards. But the safety net that RAW provides is wonderful. I can easily sync edits for RAW images in Lightroom, but I WILL need to post process all my images, though I will have ALL the control over the editing.
Here are two screen shots of a JPEG and RAW of the same image.
This is the JPG image. (I just asked Crystal to grab a snapshot using JPG/RAW capture for me. Yay for her and thank you to her beautiful models.) It is pretty sharp and has strong contrast.
Same image as above, but the RAW data. Notice how much less sharp it is out of the box? NO sharpening applied. Much lower contrast. In fact, there is a lot more dynamic range. Less highlights and less deep shadows. This means I can add the contrast I want in the processing, but I will have more actual data to work with, rather than trying to change an manipulate pixels that are already set.
Changing exposure, white balance and contrast in a RAW image is MUCH easier than trying to push the pixels of a JPEG. So if you are not sure of your white balance or your exposure, then shooting in RAW is not only a safety net, it will make a faster edit. A few clicks will give you a perfect exposure and skin tone with no quality loss.
I would say that for most people, using RAW is the more responsible option for client sessions. In the event something goes awry, you will have much more leeway with the RAW.
One other benefit (and a HUGE reason we choose to shoot in RAW), should there ever be a dispute over who created an image and it comes to legal proceedings, a RAW file can help you establish ownership of your image. This is also why we never relinquish our RAW files to anyone. They establish us as the creators of the images.
If you have not ventured into RAW with your SLR yet, consider trying it. The creative control alone will astound you. While you can use Lightroom and ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) for JPGS now, there is much more range to what those tools can give you if you have the RAW images. If you're not ready to give up your JPGS, most cameras give you the option to shoot in both RAW and JPEG at the same time. Give it a shot. I bet you'll grow to like it.