Processing in Camera JPEG v RAW file Processing

The arguments around shooting JPEG or RAW are less clear as cameras become more sophisticated and more capable in processing RAW data. Todays cameras produce excellent results when processing RAW data into a JPEG image that is saved on your camera’s memory card.

An often heard argument from photographers, is that “RAW files contain more data than JPEG files and therefore in terms of post processing your images, you should shoot RAW, but this is not really correct!

Yes, RAW files have more data than a JPEG file but that is because a JPEG file has already been processed. You cannot process a JPEG file, you may edit it to a certain degree but not process it.

The diagram below shows the basic workflow from taking an image to processing it. The key-point in terms of processing the RAW data is that you either let your camera processor do it and save the file as a JPEG, or you save the RAW data to a RAW file and process the RAW file with your preferred image editing software.

Image Processing Workflow

RAW files provide you with more flexibility when choosing how to process your images and you set or apply the following edits according to your taste.

  • White Balance.
  • Brightness.
  • Contrast.
  • Sharpening.
  • Highlight / Shadow recovery.
  • Noise reduction.
  • Converting to JPG, DNG, TIFF.

With JPEG files all of these edits are applied when the RAW data is processed, they are based on your camera settings and can include other settings like,

  • Picture profiles – Landscape, Portrait, Vivid etc…
  • Automatic Shadow & Highlight recovery or enhancement.
  • In camera effects like, Black & White photography.

Because the RAW data has been processed and rendered as a JPEG file it can no longer be processed and all settings are baked in. JPEG files represent the final image and that is why you have to get things right in camera before taking the picture.

The benefit of shooting JPEG is that camera manufacturers spend a lot of time evolving and calibrating camera settings, image sensors and image processors to produce great images straight out of the camera (OOC).

RAW files ignore most of the parameters set by your camera and you the photographer have to decide how you want your final image to look. Once you have finished applying edits and corrections to your RAW files, you have to process them and normally output them as a JPEG, DNG, or TIFF file. And just like the JPEG file that has been processed by your camera, the JPEG file processed by your image editing software will contain less data than a RAW file and also represents the final image in terms of processing.

Comparison between a camera processed JPEG and image editing software

You cannot see the RAW data from your camera until it has been processed, what you can do though, is take a RAW file and turn off all edits and corrections to see what it looks like. This is an interesting exercise in comparing an uncorrected RAW file with both a camera JPEG and a RAW file processed by an image editor, take a look at the three following images.

Here are my exposure settings, and for this exercise I shot both RAW and JPEG. I also took a spot reading from the brightest part of the sky then dialled in +2 exposure compensation to ensure that I retained detail in th sky and to set the sky as my brightest highlight.

The first one is the RAW file with no corrections or edits.

RAW file output as JPEG, no correction settings

Now look at the OOC JPEG, this is the same RAW data processed in camera, I used a Lumix G9.

Out of the camera JPEG

I was shooting into the light, as you can see my G9 has done a good job in processing the image, setting and applying the following,

  • White Balance.
  • Brightness.
  • Contrast.
  • Sharpening.
  • Highlight / Shadow recovery.
  • Noise reduction.

And here is the RAW file processed with DxO Photolab. If you shoot RAW then DxO PhotoLab is the best RAW file convertor out there.

RAW file processed with DxO Photolab

Which processed image you prefer is a matter of preference, I could have opened the shadows more in the processed RAW file.

The real point of the exercise is to show that if you get your exposure right and exploit your cameras functionality, it is not always necessary to shoot RAW.

You should learn to exploit your cameras technology and functionality and also know when it is preferable to shoot RAW over JPEG. These days, I shoot RAW when I need to work with high ISO as vendors like DxO provide photographers with great noise reduction technology. Or, when I need to have more control over processing my images.

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