What You Really Need to Know About RAW v JPEG

So, it happened again on a Facebook group I follow, someone asked; “Can someone tell me why I should shoot RAW and not JPEG”? Instantly, there was a flurry of replies spouting the benefits of shooting RAW and why RAW is better than JPEG. And of course, there were those who advocated JPEG over RAW, there were as many arguments for as against, none of this really helped the person asking the question.

Key Difference between a RAW file and a JPEG

The problem with the discussion and recommendations was that people missed the fundamental difference between shooting RAW verses JPEG. And that is, JPEG files are processed by your camera and RAW files need to be post processed. Clearly, there is less data to use in a JPEG file because it has been processed into an 8bit file! The same would be true of a JPEG file derived from a RAW file post processed by your favourite photography software.

The key point is that a JPEG file does not need processing, your camera has already processed the RAW data based on your cameras settings and produced the JPEG.

Difference between shooting RAW and JPEG

JPEG’s represent the final image or product, and that is why when shooting we need to get things right in the camera as a JPEG cannot be post processed. We do have some latitude to make some tweaks to our JPEG but that is not the same as post processing a RAW file.

Dynamic Range and Camera Sensor

Photographers often say that they work in RAW as it gives them more control over the final image, and that there is more data to work with than when working with a JPEG file, and that is true because you are working with the RAW data and not a processed file. However, the real value of working in RAW and processing a RAW file is that you can

  • Adjust or correct white balance
  • Adjust exposure
  • Balance highlights and shadows
  • Apply sharpening
  • Tune contrast
  • Apply denoising

If shooting JPEG, you need to take care of all of these things in camera, especially white balance and exposure as you cannot change these later.

However, if you think about it, when you photograph a scene your camera captures the RAW data, and you the Photographer decide what you want your camera to do with that RAW data

  • Process and save as a JPEG (processed by your camera based on your settings).
  • Save as a RAW file (to be processed by you).
  • Save as a JPEG plus RAW file.

If the brightness and contrast of the scene that you are photographing exceeds the dynamic range of your cameras sensor, then it does not matter if you shoot RAW or JPEG, any data outside the range of your cameras sensor will not be usable. This is how we get blown out highlights or no detail in the shadows.

Photographers argue that shooting RAW means that you can bring back more of the highlight and the shadow detail when post processing a RAW files as you have access to more data than when shooting JPEG, which in theory is correct. However, your camera has access to the same RAW data when converting or processing the data into a JPEG. Therefore, the key to processing your files in camera (shooting JPEG) is to make sure that you exploit all of the technology built into your camera in terms of

  • Picture profiles
  • Exposure metering
  • Adjustment to in camera contrast
  • Colour adjustments
  • White balance
  • Highlight and Shadow adjustments

Most good pro-consumer and professional cameras allow you to do this. I have a Lumix G9 and G8 my camera has the following functions to help me get the best from the RAW data and my cameras sensor

  • Picture profiles – I have mine set to Natural
  • Exposure meter – I use spot metering and meter the brightest value in my scene and apply exposure compensation of + 2 or 3 stops
  • i-Dynamic – Automatically applies contrast and exposure adjustments to high contrast scenes, tries to maintain detail in highlights and shadows
  • Highlight / Shadow – This function is like a curves adjustment, allowing me to modify the curve, lifting or darkening shadows, brightening or pulling down highlights.
  • Noise reduction – used to reduce noise when shooting with high ISO settings

This is the equivalent of post processing your files, except that you are doing it in camera. If you set your camera up right then you may never need to shoot RAW, there are times though when shooting RAW is beneficial

  • When using high ISO settings and where noise may be a problem
  • When colour balance (white balance) is difficult to get right in camera
  • When you want to process your files yourself and have full control over your workflow and processing the RAW data from your camera.

Camera menus and functions can be confusing and take time to learn, one of the benefits of shooting RAW is that most camera settings are ignored and you are less likely to make mistakes when setting up your camera. The flip side to that is that if you set your camera up correctly you may never need to shoot RAW.

As photographers we need to learn to assess the brightness and contrast of a scene, then optimise our exposure and settings to ensure that we get the best image that we possibly can, irrespective of whether we are shooting RAW or JPEG. There is no substitute for getting things right in camera. It is like building a house, if the foundations are wrong then no amount of building rework will make things right…

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