6 Reasons Why RAW Tops JPEG
If you've been around photography for a little while, you've probably heard of a file format called RAW. Your camera most likely supports it as an alternative to JPEG. So you're probably wondering what all the buzz is about this RAW format, or you're wondering why so many people are proponents of it. I'm here to shed some light on that discussion.
I wasn't always a proponent myself. File size was a major trade-off and I wasn't willing to cope with the much larger RAW files. But then I started working in difficult conditions with poor light, and I wasn't getting the results I wanted. Of course a fellow photographer talked me into using RAW, and I haven't looked back. It really opened up a door in terms of my processing and the overall quality of my photos. I'd like that door to open for you as well, so let's explore some advantages that RAW has over JPEG.
Reasons to Shoot RAW:
1. Absolute Control
You've just wrapped a career defining session with Queen Elizabeth II, a person who rarely gives access to a photographer. Do you let your interns do the post-processing? I didn't think so. Well, you shouldn't be shooting JPEG either because you're giving up control of your photos in much the same way. When you're shooting in JPEG, your camera starts with a RAW image and then processes it based on a predefined set of rules. The information it doesn't need gets dumped, like the hints of data hiding in that blown-out area of the shot, or the data covering itself with those shadows. It's all going to be lost. And who says you want your photos to look like everyone else's? You want to handle the processing yourself. Sure, it's more work in the long run, but the finished product is ultimately yours. If time is a serious concern, most cameras support the JPEG+RAW where it saves both. If the JPEG is good enough, no need to fully process the RAW. Of course you can always use stored routines in Lightroom, Aperture or your favorite editing software.
2. Full Brightness (And Fixing Problems)
If capturing and storing your images in JPG, you're missing a whole bunch of color and brightness detail. A JPEG is only an 8 bit file and it has only 256 levels of brightness. That may sound like a lot, but not compared to a RAW file which can save as 12 bit files at 4,096 levels brightness, or 14 bit files at 16,384 of brightness. The greater depth gives you maximum amount of flexibility when you're post-processing the image. You may still need to export to an 8 bit JPEG for sharing on the web or for printing purposes, but it's a matter of control during processing. You can't edit what isn't there. I liken it to packs of crayons. Sure, you could draw a picture with the basic 5 color set, but you could do much better with the 16 color set. Just imagine what you could do with the 124 color set. Well, RAW is like that big set while JPEG is like that basic kit. This also means that you can correct horribly under-exposed or over-exposed images (read: save otherwise lost images).
3. White Balance Made Easy
Cameras have gotten better, but Automatic White Balancing isn't perfect. Knowing that you'll likely need to tweak the White Balance in post, it should give you a bit more comfort knowing you were shooting in RAW. After all, with the extra brightness (see above), you'll be able to push the envelope on everything that got recorded. In other words, poor white balancing in-camera is not going to be the end of the world, or your photo.
4. Process and Process Again
Speaking of control, you can process the file multiple ways without either method being handicapped by missing data. As an aside: If you're using non-destructive software like Lightroom, you can have multiple virtual edits of the same file. The way Lightroom works, you are layering on a set of processes and commands, but that's not actually touching the RAW file until you export it. So if you have multiple edits of the same file, you're really just adding another entry to the database. RAW files are large, database entries are not. So you're saving disk space too. But back to the main discussion: Having the ability to format a photo any number of ways opens up endless possibilities. A black & white rendition is going to have very different demands than a full-color rendition. You can even create an HDR image from a single base file.
5. Pick A Color Profile
Different color profiles work best for different purposes. For example, I use a different color profile for printing than I would for web graphics. RAW – which is just your base file – allows you to export using any color profile you would like. You can't really do that with JPEG, because in order to deviate from the color profile it's set at, you're going to lose data (see Full Brightness above).
To be fair, RAW is not really all that compatible in-and-of-itself. And each camera brand is going to have it's own version of RAW, some of which are proprietary. But your system will be set up for your camera, so that isn't going to be an issue for you. What I really mean by compatibility is the ease in which you can convert to other file formats without losing integrity. Different applications may require different formats. The publishing industry may wish to use PNG files whereas JPEG is still king on the web. Having such versatility is important.
Our number one reason above was about control, and that is reason enough to shoot RAW. There's no reason you should want to give up any control over your images to a tiny electronic brain. But if for some reason that isn't enough to sell you, I hope the other five reasons were enough to tip the scales. There are going to be times where you simply want to shoot JPEG, particularly for family photos or other fairly simple shots. But for anything you're doing for a client, there is no excuse to use anything but RAW.