RAW vs JPEG

Whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG is a question that photographers have been challenged with since camera manufacturers first started to offer RAW image recording. The perks of shooting in RAW are many, but they come at a price.

This won’t be a typical essay on the pros and cons of different image formats. I’ve seen enough of those. Both have their place, and that’s why they both exist and continue to be offered side-by-side in the menus of most relatively serious cameras. I’ll be outlining what the differences are to me, and why I would choose to shoot in a certain format under certain conditions.

RAW files are large, which makes them problematic. Their weight will fill up the camera’s buffer quickly, stopping the shutter just in time to watch the decisive moment fly by, uncaptured. As RAW files are 3-4 times the file size of JPEG files, you’ll never have enough storage. I find myself shuffling files between a pile of external hard drives so often that it’s almost become part of my daily routine.

JPEG files are ready right out of the camera. They’re pre-sharpened, have white balance, exposure, and colour adjustments baked in, and they’re already compressed.

Now let me get this out of the way – I still always shoot in RAW.

Once you compare a RAW file to a JPEG file in Lightroom, you’ll always shoot in RAW, too. A RAW image can be recovered even if it’s five stops underexposed. It’s something I’m still amazed by, I’ll sit there moving the exposure slider to the right and left over and over in lightroom for hours. It might not mean anything to someone who always nails their exposure at first, but think again. They’re full of untapped tones. Because RAW files are a record of everything that the sensor in your camera captured at that moment in time, with no extra processing applied to them, I suppose you could call them unfinished.

This makes for extra steps in post, but gives the photographer peace of mind. White balance is never an issue, as it can be adjusted in post. Images come out with a wealth of colour information that can be tweaked and adjusted to one’s heart’s content. A botched exposure can be recovered, and that image might be one of your best from the shoot.

For me, it’s the flexibility that makes the file size worthwhile. When I’m shooting in unpredictable conditions, with lighting that changes drastically and often, I am definitely shooting in RAW. At a concert or a dance performance, I can’t guarantee that my exposure is going to be perfect, in fact the universe will guarantee that it probably won’t be. Shooting in RAW lets me feel a little more comfortable, knowing that the images will be usable even if they’re off by a couple stops.

On the other end of the spectrum, when shooting conditions are perfect, even controllable, that’s an even better time to shoot in RAW. That’s when it really pays off. Landscape photography or studio work are good examples of when you would really want to milk it for pixel-perfect image quality. Although the most determinate factor in image quality is the quality of the lens that the photograph is shot with, tuning your camera to the ideal settings is very important. An image that is shot at the camera’s base ISO, in RAW, and exposed to the right of the histogram will yield the best image quality that your camera and lens can produce.

Now it might seem like JPEGs have no place in your camera’s settings menu, but they do have one major benefit that keeps them there. File size. File size effects frame rate. Being lightweight, they don’t fill up the camera’s buffer as quickly. Sports photography is all about getting the shot, so shooting in JPEG will allow for increased frames-per-second and longer bursts before the camera begins to complain, and more shots can be recorded on the same size memory card. If exposure is perfect, there aren’t any drawbacks to that technique.

Personally, I would still shoot in RAW when shooting sports, and just focus on capturing the decisive moment. The only reason I would shoot in JPEG is if I didn’t have time or budget for editing, because the photos are ready to go right out of camera. That’s my reason for shooting in JPEG. When I need to take photos of something I’m selling, and I don’t want to take them with a phone, but don’t want to spend an hour editing either, then I’ll shoot in JPEG.

I often compare it to using film. If it’s important, I shoot on film because the negatives are a physical representation of that moment in time, recorded in silver on a gelatin base. Everything, everything is stored in that frame. With digital cameras, the closest you can get to that level is by shooting in RAW.