Talk about a galvanizing topic! Among photographers from hobbyist level through professionals the debate about shooting in RAW or JPG format occupies a lot of space on photography bulletin boards. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what is ‘proper’ or ‘professional’.
Many entry level hobbyists are confused if not overwhelmed by image file formats. If they have experience with digital compacts likely all they have come into contact with are JPG’s. Now they are confronted with RAW, TIFF, JPG and a whole lot of dissenting opinions.
Let’s attempt to clarify a few terms right up front. What is a RAW file? As the name implies, a RAW file is the raw ‘take’ off of the camera’s imaging sensor. The image file is saved without any in-camera processing or parameters applied. RAW files are also uncompressed which means one bit of image file data equals one bit of storage in memory. On a 10 megapixel camera the typical RAW file will occupy from 11 to 15 megabytes on the memory card or the computer. (There are reasons that the stored file is larger than the megapixels of the camera would imply, but right now let’s skip that).
What is a JPG file then? A typical JPG file from a camera differs from a RAW file in two major ways. First, the JPG starts with the same raw information as above, and then the camera applies all of the user’s camera selections such as sharpness, white balance, color or B&W plus more options depending on the camera. After processing the image data with the user selections, the file is compressed and saved as a JPG. On a 10 megapixel camera, JPG files will run from 2 to 4 megabytes in size on the memory card when ‘High Quality JPG’ is selected.
While JPG files are created in a standard computer language and format, RAW files aren’t. Each manufacturer has its proprietary RAW format. In fact they don’t have to call the files RAW, Nikon names their raw data files NEF. Not only does each manufacturer have their own RAW language, they change it internally from camera to camera too.
With all of the different RAW files in use it’s a good thing that each camera is supplied with its own RAW file reader in the box. This helps explain why you can send a JPG to a friend and they will see the image but if you send the RAW they will likely be unable to open it.
So if RAW files take up so much more storage space and they can’t be opened and viewed by someone without the proper viewer, why bother with RAW in the first place? The reason for most photographers to capture a RAW file is that it is to digital photography what the negative was to film photography.
By using the RAW file viewer and editor supplied with the camera the user is allowed to redevelop their images. It provides a way to have much more control over the finished print. And since RAW files aren’t compressed like a JPG all of the captured detail is saved and preserved.
To follow up on the file size and storage issue with RAW files, in my opinion it’s not that much of a problem. Memory is cheap with quality DVD’s priced around 79 cents each. A terabyte sized USB drive sells for about $140.00 – that’s enough room for over 69,000 RAW files from a 10MP camera. Storage cost is about 2/10ths of a penny per image file on either a DVD or a USB drive.
The one nagging problem with shooting in RAW is that the photographer is forced to sit at a computer and change all of the RAW files into something usable. Certainly, there are ways to batch process large groups of RAW image files at once which saves time. But some folks hate computer face time – that includes amateur photographers and professionals alike!
There is an allure in shooting to capture JPG’s. The photographer sets the camera to capture the images the way they want them to look. The sophisticated computer inside the camera manipulates the raw image data to fit the desired outcome and it’s all done, no computer time needed. Yes, the JPG is compressed but it looks darn fine up to an 11X14 print and on a computer screen who could tell without zooming in to some high magnification (pixel peeping)?
If it were that easy there wouldn’t be an intense debate. However the correct answer is the one that fits the photographer’s needs, time and interest.
1) Be practical, look to purchase a camera that allows the photographer to capture both a RAW file and a high quality JPG of the same image.
2) Photographers should become familiar with their camera’s RAW editor / converter software. The use of RAW tools presents great growth potential for the beginning DSLR shooter
3) Learn to shoot, compose, expose and capture images as though there is no such thing as Photoshop or Correl. Even if you enjoy the photo editing process this will cut down on the time spent correcting basic mistakes.
4) Plan on using the captured JPG file for most purposes while keeping the RAW around for the times you need to go back to the negative and rework the image. Later, as the photographer’s skills develop they may want to apply advanced editing techniques to older images.
5) Keep in mind how proprietary RAW formats are. There is every chance that today’s RAW file won’t be readable in 20 years because the correct viewer is no longer availabe. It’s already happening to some of the original DSLR’s.
From the OpenRAW website: To date, the vast number of RAW formats have been hidden by the transparent support offered in RAW converter software, provided by both the camera manufacturer and various third parties. At the time of writing, the open source dcraw converter currently supports more than 200 formats. However, as manufacturers lose interest in their discontinued products, and drop support for them, the true impact of all of these “dialects” will be felt.
Photographers will find their older images inaccessible, as future software versions lose support for older cameras. In the worst cases, entire brands may disappear, as has already happened with Contax.