Before we can dive into the differences between RAW and JPEG photography, the main thing you must understand is the difference between compression and non-compression file formats that are available to you. Depending on how you edit your files and what format you choose to save your file as – it can tear crucial data out of your file.
So this brings us to the fork in the road; do you use JPEG or RAW?
The terms are not mutually exclusive. You can shoot RAW and still end up with a JPEG, you will just have more control over how it looks instead of relying on the processing of your camera.
JPEG – JPEG is a compressed format. When the camera is set to automatically save photos as a JPEG, the camera is processing the image. The maker of your camera and what model you use can greatly affect how the jpeg produces in the end. Some cameras may blow out the highlights in the photo, some may not capture enough light thus seeming dark. The fact remains the same – once an image is saved as a JPEG, much of the data that the camera is capable of creating and retaining is lost. Also, depending on the camera & settings you are using, some companies make their cameras process the images even more so you may notice the sky potentially being bluer than it was the day you shot it, or that rose is a blood-red when you expected a more maroon color. This is what happens when you don’t do the processing yourself and you let your camera handle it.
RAW – This format is what is referred to as compression-less. With this format, the camera captures the image but does no processing to it. The camera hardware still affects how much detail you are able to capture, but the end result is an unprocessed file. When looking at a raw file, it may look extremely dark, or not be what you saw when you looked through the censor. Believe it or not, this is still a better option! You will need to process it yourself since the camera is no longer doing it, but it gives you so much more control over everything. You will need a photo editing program like Photoshop or Lightroom to open, edit, and export RAW files in various different formats (we will go over two in this article). RAW files are in some cases even admissible in court as RAW is an untouched, unedited file.
Here is why it is always better to shoot RAW- though it is always more effort to do so;
If you go out shooting and capture 150 photos with your camera set to JPEG by default, for the purposes of this example (with our imaginary camera) your photos would all range 10mb-20mb. This is totally an acceptable file-size for most applications. The images look good! They are colorful, white balance looks good – so you are happy. Then you go to edit the image because you think it is a little bit too dark. You go into your levels to brighten the image but all of a sudden the image seems blown out. Like there is not enough data in the bright areas so you are just getting pure white.
When you shoot in RAW, the sensor captures as much of the data as possible without processing/compressing the image giving you the freedom to go in and increase brightness without fear of blowing the image out, or losing much detail in the shadows, contrast/saturation – it gives you more control over all of these settings as it leaves more data for the program you are using to interpret.
To be clear it is possible to push a RAW file to the point where it also blows out the highlights, or for it to not have captured as much detail as you wanted in the shadows but at least then you know that this is happening due to the limitations of your camera hardware and not because you lost data due to your camera compressing your photo sacrificing data to save file size. The camera’s processing also may highlight a part of your image that you did not want to be highlighted. Photography, in general, is a very subjective process so being able to make the call how far to push certain aspects of the image is critical.
“So what am I supposed to do?”
Shoot RAW save TIFF – The beauty of RAW files is that they are the purest untouched highest data versions of your files. So your original RAW file should always remain untouched. You can always open your RAW files in Photoshop and then export them as TIFF files. This way you have a new uncompressed TIFF file but you always retain the original untouched RAW file particularly if the working file is corrupted or overwritten by mistake.
“Whoa wait…a TIFF file now? I thought we were talking about JPEG vs RAW?”
This is true. But remember the apples and oranges comment?
If you open your RAW file in Photoshop and you edit it to a point that you are happy with, and you go to export it – you can ALWAYS export as a JPEG! This is totally a valid option. Converting to JPEG within your editor instead of letting the camera do it just gives you more control over what data gets scrapped and what areas of the photo you can change/work on.
“But TIFF…you said TIFF.”
Exporting as a TIFF is typically the preferred method for most large-format printers as it is an uncompressed file format. This means that at no point will you lose any data when exporting your original RAW file unlike you would with the JPEG. A TIFF with identical DPI as a JPEG will be larger in terms of megabytes 100% of the time. Also keep in mind, if you are used to shooting JPEG and switch over to shooting RAW and saving TIFF – your storage usage will increase exponentially so keep this in mind when making the switch. A file you shot as a 30mb JPEG could become a 900mb TIFF after just a few tweaks/edits.
So to summarize;
- Shoot RAW to retain maximum data-capable by your camera
- Once you edit the image to your liking (in whatever editor) export into two potential formats;
- JPEG – Smaller file-size. Acceptable for web, social media, smaller prints.
- TIFF – Max file size. Typical for large-format printing. No data loss.
Retaining control is what gets you the best print. Don’t give up control – and don’t limit the amount of beautiful photo data you can capture just because JPEG’s process faster!
Make sure you utilize your camera to its full potential!