JPEG vs. RAW: the Eternal Debate

January 19, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

If at a minimum you consider photography a hobby, you're most likely familiar with the seemingly endless debate between shooting JPEG and shooting RAW.  JPEG and RAW are file formats that your camera records images as.  JPEG is the world's most common and standard file format.  Pretty much any device (your LCD TV, your computer, your smartphone, etc.) can read a JPEG file and will display the file as an image.  Fewer devices can read RAW files.  Your smartphone won't record in the RAW format and neither will your point-and-shoot, most likely.  So what's the big deal?  First let me say that I was a JPEG only shooter for many years.  Not really seeing the reason to shoot in RAW and not having the correct software to even "read" RAW files, I never thought twice about shooting all my images in the JPEG format.  Soon enough, as my photography developed and I spent more time studying, shooting and learning, I frequently came across heated debates about shooting JPEG versus shooting RAW.  Heated may be an understatement.  The more articles on this topic I read, the more I couldn't believe how much people cared about these two file formats.  I eventually upgraded my software to Photoshop CS3 and for the first time in my life, I had the ability to "read" a RAW file.  In other words, my computer could actually open the RAW file and render it as an image, something it could never do before.  One evening, while a gorgeous sunset developed in Austin, Texas, I decided I would shoot my first RAW image.  I've been hooked since.  Just for grins, here's my first RAW shot I just mentioned:

In case you're wondering, JPEG stands for "Joint Photographic Experts Group" and was first developed in the 1980s.  Yeah, I don't really care about that either.  But I mention it because you would think RAW must stand for something too, right?  It doesn't.  It isn't an acronym like JPEG and RAW shouldn't be in all CAPS.  But the name "raw" is interesting because it essentially means just that: the "raw" file hasn't been manipulated in any way, unlike a JPEG file, which has been processed and manipulated based on parameters determined by the camera, and most likely set by you at some point.  Again, what's the big deal?  Well, for most photographers it isn't a big deal.  You snap a shot with your point-and-shoot or your iPhone or you DSLR for that matter, and it looks good.  Who cares what image format it was shot in?  Like I said, I was a JPEG shooter for many years and put little thought into the file format.  Until I shot raw.  A JPEG file is a format that compresses the original file data and applies any manipulations to the data based on whatever parameters have been set in your camera.  Take for example the iPhone 5, a phone, I mean camera I use everyday.  The shots are crisp, contrasty and punchy.  But who determined how much sharpness to apply to the shot?  Or how much contrast?  Or how much saturation?  The software on the iPhone did.  I had absolutely zero input.  I just made sure my focus was set and then I took the shot.  If the shots look good, who cares, right?  That's what I thought...for many years.  Shooting raw essentially gives you an untouched file to work with, with no loss of data (for the most part) and a file that can stand up to being manipulated in post-processing.  JPEG images lose this ability.  Yes, they can be edited with software, but the effects of editing can be disastrous.  Don't get me wrong.  If you don't spend time editing your photos, then stop reading and check out my galleries on the main page.  But if you're interested in seeing the difference between an image shot in the JPEG format and the same image shot in the raw format, keep reading.  We had a quintessential Colorado bluebird day yesterday and on a hike with my family I decided to record the same image in both formats so I could write this blog post.  Take a look at the shot...JPEG on the left, RAW on the right.  Check out the larger version to better see what I'm talking about: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dinger/12033149244/sizes/k/in/photostream/

Right away you can probably tell a difference.  The JPEG shot on the left, I'm guessing, looks better to you.  The sky is bluer, the color is punchy, and the image is sharp.  Why the heck would you want to shoot in raw then?  While the default setting on your camera most likely produces pretty good JPEG images, the single most important thing you're missing out on by shooting JPEG is detail.  This image was shot with my Canon 6D, a "full frame" 20 megapixel DSLR.  I used my new Canon 40mm f/2.8 STM lens as well.  20 megapixels gives impressive detail.  Why would I want to sacrifice that detail and not get the most out of the file?  Hopefully these comparisons below will make you realize you wouldn't want to either.  Take a look: 

Check out the larger version to better see what I'm talking about: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dinger/12043679535/sizes/k/in/photostream/  This is a crop at 100% view.  Again, the image on the left is punchier, contrasty and sharp.  Do you notice the incredible detail loss, though?  If you look at the foothills leading up to Pikes Peak, the foliage in the JPEG file has zero definition, whereas the foliage in the raw image has plenty.  Look at the houses and buildings in the foreground.  Same issue.  Here's another example:

Check out the larger version to better see what I'm talking about: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dinger/12044572756/sizes/k/in/photostream/  The detail of the shingles on the roofs of the houses is completely gone in the JPEG crop.  In the raw image, you can still make out each individual shingle.  Pretty impressive. 

 

This topic only matters to you if you care about editing your images with software after you take them.  With easy post processing, you can make your raw image look better than the JPEG file and you end up with a file that has richer color, better color depth, better tonal roll off, better highlight roll off and much better detail.  Yes, you can apply the same edits to your JPEG file, but it will quickly fall apart.  JPEG files that are edited like raw files become noisier, posterized and "blocky" pretty quickly. 

 

Are there successful professional photographers that shoot only JPEG?  Absolutely.  And their clients probably don't complain.  If you're looking for the file format that gives you the most flexibility AFTER you take the shot, raw is the way to go. 

 

Benefits of shooting raw:

1.  Better color depth

2.  Better detail

3.  Files that can withstand heavy post-processing

4.  Better detail

5.  Ability to correct white balance (do you ever have shots that come out way too blue? )

6.  Better detail

7.  Ability to correct exposure (do you ever have shots that come out way too dark?  Or bright?)

8.  Better detail

9.  Better print quality

10.  Better detail

 

Downsides to shooting raw:

1.  Image file sizes are MUCH bigger than JPEG file sizes, which means less raw shots can fit on your memory card and your computer's hard drive fills faster

2.  You need the right software so your computer can recognize your raw files.  There are plenty of free software programs (RawTherapee, for example), so you don't have to shell out $$$ for Photoshop CC

3.  Shooting raw may slow down your camera (this is dependent on your camera's buffer, its ability to write images to the memory card, and also on your memory card)

 

If you've made it this far, great!  Thanks for hanging in to the end.  If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me.  I can best be reached at justinpetersonphotography@gmail.com  If you've enjoyed this blog post, share it with your friends.  Check out my previous blog post about depth of field and f-stops and what they mean to your photography (http://www.lifeilluminatedphotography.com/blog/2013/12/depth-of-field-and-f-stops-what-it-means.  My next blog post will discuss shutter speed.


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