A very common dilemma amongst inexperienced photographers is whether to shoot in JPEG or RAW format. Most of them decide to use JPEG and I don’t blame them; it has smaller file size and is compatible with all PC applications, unlike RAW format which requires special attention. But if you care for image quality and wish to control the way final photo will look like, RAW is essential.
Let’s talk a little about what happens after you push the shutter button. Each time a JPEG photo is created in camera, software applies a set of predefined rules for various aspects of image settings. Those settings are regularly some sort of compromise, able to produce usable photo in each situation, but excellent photo in no situation. Do you really want to allow some software engineer who wrote the camera firmware to make decisions how your photos should look like? Photography is art, and if you are serious about it, you should be in charge of almost every aspect of its creation. That’s why we have RAW file format. With it, it is possible to adjust all the setting like saturation, sharpness, colors etc. on a PC. Well, you can also do that with JPEG file format, but image quality will suffer.
Here are the main reasons to shoot in RAW:
1. Digital negative
Although some photographers don’t like to use the “digital negative” phrase, RAW file system is the closest thing to crude unprocessed data you can get from your camera. As such, it can be regarded as a basic starting point of every image manipulation.
2. Stop worrying about camera settings
A very common dilemma amongst inexperienced photographer is on behalf various setting in their camera. White balance, saturation, sharpness, noise reduction, various effects (BW, vivid, natural, portrait, landscape…), dynamic range expansions… the list is endless. How should you use them regarding on circumstances? It’s a challenge even for professionals. And there is the problem of forgetting that you changed some parameter and accidentally keep shooting what will become ruined JPEG files. RAW file system lets you forget all that and decide later on your PC. Isn’t that a life (photo) saver?
Bear in mind that you are learning all of your life. RAW processing might be a mystery for you today, but there is a very big probability you will learn to use it in future and then will be happy you kept all of your old photos in RAW format. You will be able literally to breathe a new life to them.
This power plant photo is a good example how a bland and boring photo transforms into something special. Manipulting a JPEG image to this extent would cause a wide range of problems from noise, posterization and inability to get rich colors.
3. Non-destructive editing
Adjusting RAW images actually does nothing to the original data. You are just creating a set of instructions how the converted JPEG will look like. You can experiment freely with your images; there is no fear of ruining the original – with just one click you can reset all the options. I’m sure almost everyone at least once accidentally hit the “Save” button on a JPEG file and lost the original.
4. Extract the details
JPEG files have all the noise reduction already applied. In most cases, especially on higher ISO settings, it creates awful blotchiness and blurs all the fine details. RAW lets you choose the level of noise reduction in post-processing (dedicated computer software is always better at that than in-camera processing).
In the high ISO example above, image on the left is out-of-camera JPEG. There might be no noise, but details are wiped out. RAW image format (on the right) allows us to control the balance between recovered details and noise reduction.