Learn the pros and cons of Raw and JPEG files and find out why it’s not always better to shoot Raw.
What is Raw, or RAW?
You may have seen Raw spelt in all capitals like RAW. Both ways of spelling is correct, but don't mistaken the word for an acronym. Raw is basically the raw analog data from the camera that needs to be converted into digital through a converter such as the Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in.
When to use Raw or JPEG
There are pros and cons of both Raw and JPEG files and there are actually reasons other than file size why not to use Raw.
Use Raw if:
- you need to post process the image
- the scene contains high contrast
- the image will be enlarged beyond the camera sensor's resolution
- the white balance cannot be properly set with the camera
- you can't decide whether to use Raw or JPEG
Use JPEG if:
- all the Raw files won't fit in your memory card
- you don't want to post process the image
- you want to develop the photos right away before you get to use a computer (some photo finishing labs still do not accept Raw files)
- you are using continuous shooting mode and want to take as many photos as you can before your camera's buffer is full
Most cameras that support Raw files also support a mode called Raw+JPEG. This mode stores both images into the memory card so you get the best of both worlds. However, it takes longer to store a Raw and JPEG file into a memory card than just one Raw or JPEG file. Whenever you are using continuous shooting mode and need to capture a fast sequence of images, stick with JPEG or Raw.
Common Raw vs JPEG Debate Topics
The Famous 16-Bit
One of the most popular features of Raw files is that they're capable of holding 16-bit of color data compared to JPEG's 8-bit. However, most digital cameras only produce 12-bit Raw files. Is it really that big of a difference? Lets have a look at the comparison table below:
8-Bit 12-bit 16-bit Tones per channel: 256 4096 65536 Colors: Over 16 million Over 68 billion Over 281 trillion
As you can see from the above table, there is a really is a big difference between the bits levels. With that said, however, 8-bit is still produces excellent results and is usually good enough for most photos unless they contain delicate colors that need adjustments.
Raw files can provide greater exposure adjustments than JPEG files; over 50% more exposure detail (depending on the sensor capabilities). When adjusting exposure in a JPEG file, the highlights and shadows gets clipped resulting in lower details.
Because Raw files contain a wider gamut of color, the white balance can be corrected without any noticeable loss in detail. Using Raw converters such as the Photoshop Camera Raw plug-in is easier and produces better result. On the other hand, the white balance of JPEG files can be easily corrected without much noticeable loss in detail.
Raw files are commonly mistaken to produce images that aren't as sharp as JPEG files. The reason for the misleading information is because most digital cameras sharpen the image before creating the JPEG file. This in-camera sharpening effect can be adjusted in Raw files to produce the same results. The noise reduction can also be reduced in a Raw converter tool to increase sharpness.
Image Up Sampling
Raw is known to produced better results when up sampling an image. If the JPEG file you are working with is at the maximum quality setting, the results are unnoticeable. I have tried upscaling a JPEG with Photoshop's Image Size tool and a Raw image using Photoshop's Camera Raw plug-in, but I was only able to see the differences when zoomed in at 300% or higher. Even then, the differences are very subtle. The Camera Raw plug-in produced smoother results, but both were very similar.
Most raw conversion tool allows adjustment of the level of noise reduction. This can be handy, but if noise can be much better handled with Photoshop CS2's Reduce Noise filter or independent noise reducing software such as Noise Ninja or Neat Image.
JPEG files are smaller and get stored into the memory card faster than Raw files. When using continuous shooting mode to capture a sequence of images, use JPEG. Digital camera have a buffer and when the buffer is all used up, the shooting stops. Because of the longer writing time, Raw files do consume more power than JPEG files, but unless your camera's down to the last drop of juice, this isn't a reason to use JPEG files over Raw files.
The Future of Raw and JPEG
As memory card size increases and price drops, it is becoming more and more common to use the Raw+JPEG feature found in many digital cameras. And with faster memory card speeds and larger buffer depth, it may one day be reasonable to use the Raw+JPEG in continuous shooting mode.
Adobe's DNG Format
The DNG (Digital Negative) format was introduced by Adobe as a universal Raw format. There are many different Raw formats, such as CRW (Canon), NEF (Nikon), DCR (Kodak), etc.. The problem with having many different types of Raw formats is not only because it's confusing, but because the formats may one day be discontinued making them hard to use. Currently, the DNG format isn't available in any digital cameras and there are no word about it also. While Adobe promised to always support DNG files, hopefully the DNG format will be available in the next generation of digital cameras.