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Do I need to shoot in RAW vs JPEG?

Many photography tutorials online and in magazines recommend shooting in RAW for the best results. But is there anything wrong with shooting in JPEG? The simple answer is no, both JPEG and RAW formats have their place. In this RAW vs JPEG article, I will explain the difference between these two formats. I will also explain their utility in your photography.

What is a RAW file anyway?

Contrary to what many people might think, a RAW file is not a viewable image format. Nor is RAW a consistent standard between different cameras, as individual manufacturers use their own proprietary data formats; some manufacturers even change the format between camera models. Adobe made an attempt back in 2004 to standardize the RAW format (DNG). However, has only been adopted by a few camera manufacturers.


It is more correct to think of a RAW file as an undeveloped negative from an old film camera. Whereby all the data is there to create an image, but it cannot yet be seen until it is processed. In order to see a RAW file, you need some form of software to convert it into a readable image. Programs like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop will do this for you. If you just want to take photos and share them directly to the web, then the RAW format isn't optimal. This is because you have to do some processing on a computer first.

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Following this undeveloped film analogy, you can think of the RAW file as being unprocessed, or in image terms uncompressed. RAW files are much larger than JPEGs of the equivalent picture size. A RAW file contains significantly more colors compared to a JPEG file. RAW files typically contain 12 or 14 bits per channel; which equates to 4096 to 16384 color shades). A JPEG on the other hand typically has 8 bits (256 color shades.

This gives the first clue as to why photographers favor RAW vs JPEG. All these extra bits per channel increases the photographers' ability to post-process an image without visual detriment. An example being the introduction of noise and artifacts into the final result. It also gives extra headroom to recover images that were slightly under or over-exposed. This is because details in dark shadows or highlights can be recovered.

Why does JPEG have fewer color shades than RAW?

JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group and was created in 1992. JPEG uses a mathematical method for compression technique to reduce the size of an image to a manageable size. It does this by trading storage size with the quality of an image. Typically this is about a 10:1 reduction in size. This reduction gives a virtually non-observable loss in quality for most people's perception. Consequently, the JPEG format has been used worldwide and become an industry standard.

We can directly surmise a few things from the above:

1) The compression of the image is why there are fewer color shades in a JPEG vs RAW equivalent. Basically, they have been lost in the process of compression.

2) If you intend to use pictures directly from the camera without any post-processing, then a JPEG is fit for your purpose.

3) If you do intend to post-process your pictures, then you are limiting your ability to do this by using JPEG. This is the reason I alluded to above that RAW gives you more headroom.

What other differences are there between RAW vs JPEG

When a camera produces a JPEG, it isn't just reducing the size of the image. A more correct name for this is Tone Reproduction. A camera also automatically processes the image. Some of this processing is based on your camera settings, and some are normalized. In either case, this typically includes:


1) White Balancing - To adjust the temperature of the image according to the ambient light conditions.

2) Noise Reduction - To increase the visual smoothness of the image by reducing the amount of detail.

3) Tone Reproduction - Reducing the dynamic range so that the image can be view on low-resolution monitors.

4) Colour Translation - To convert the image into a standard color space (e.g. RGB)

5) Defective Pixel Removal - To replace pixels from known bad areas on the camera sensor with interpolations from elsewhere.

The above list gives you the second clue as to why photographers favor RAW over JPEG. As you can see there is a lot of processing going on in a JPEG that is not within your control. By keeping the original RAW file, you get to apply these processes selectively and creatively. For an analogy, I go back to the old days when photographers developed their own negative. A creative photographer wouldn't for one minute want to take their negatives to a high street shop for development. Doing this would significantly limit their creativity!

Summary

As a summary of the points outlined in this article, I have created the table below.

So, to answer the question, "Do I need to shoot in RAW or JPEG", then my  answer is that:

If you are a creative photographer, don't mind getting into post-processing, and/or want maximum editability from your images; then RAW is the way to go. But if you just want to take photographs and share them, assuming you have a modern digital camera, then this automatic processing will undoubtedly be done in a sympathetic way. In this latter case, JPEG will give you perfectly adequate results.

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Reference material for this article: Wikipedia RAW image format: Wikipedia JPEG image format


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