Life can be confusing at times, particularly when you’re faced with a choice of two or more options. (Is it just me, or would it be a far better system if cafes and restaurants only ever had one item on the menu? Imagine the time it would save trying to decide what to have…)
You’re often faced with options in photography, options that really do need to be thought through carefully; make the wrong decision and you could regret your choice at a later date. A good example of this is whether to shoot Raw or JPEG. (Though there is a get-out clause, which we’ll return to in a minute.)
First though, let’s take a look at the difference between the two file types.
JPEG (from the Joint Picture Expert Group, who defined the standard originally) is by far the simplest option to choose. When you shoot JPEG you can use your photos immediately in a wide variety of applications, such as social media or Word documents. JPEGs are everywhere. The photos accompanying this article? JPEG. That Powerpoint presentation you slept through? JPEG.
Another advantage to JPEG is that the files are compressed, so they don’t take up too much space on a memory card or hard drive. Although Raw files are usually compressed too, it’s never to the same degree as JPEG; Raw files often take up twice the space as an equivalent JPEG.
Raw files are far less immediately useful. In fact they can only be opened in software designed specifically to support them. To make matters worse Raw files have to be exported to another file format – ironically often JPEG – if you want to use your photos in another application.
It gets worse though. Unlike JPEG, there is no one definitive Raw format file type. Camera manufacturers use their own algorithms and methods to create Raw files, so a Canon Raw file is a different beast to a Nikon one. New cameras often have their own slightly-tweaked flavour of Raw too. This means that software developers often have to scramble to update their applications to support new cameras.
So, you might be wondering, why you’d even consider choosing Raw. JPEG really does have a number of very useful advantages.
There is one very good reason why you’d shoot Raw: control. JPEGs are ‘finished’ files as they are processed directly by your camera. You can alter their ‘look’ before shooting by altering the white balance, picture style and so on. But once a JPEG has been written to the memory card it’s more difficult to change things. (Well you can, but it doesn’t take too many alterations before image quality is compromised.)
Raw files aren’t ‘finished’ in the same way. A Raw file is essentially all the data captured by a camera at the moment of exposure and neatly packaged up. For this reason Raw files have far more ‘information’ in them than JPEGs. (The compression I mentioned earlier plays a small part in this. JPEGs use ‘lossy’ compression, which means that fine detail is lost. Raw files – generally – use lossless compression.) Raw files can be altered repeatedly with fewer compromises to image quality. Set the white balance incorrectly? Not a problem with a Raw file. Want to switch to black and white and back to colour again? You can do that too. You are doing the work of processing the file, rather than the camera. So, if you want to hone and polish your photos then Raw is very definitely the option to choose.
The downside to this is that you can spend your life working on Raw files. (Or it least it can feel that way.) My simple rule is to shoot Raw when each individual photo from a session may need to be tweaked, and shoot fewer of them too. (When shooting landscape photos, for example). And then switch to JPEG when a large number of images need to be shot in one go. (Whenever I shoot sports/action or social photography, for instance.)
The get-out clause I mentioned above is that cameras often allow you to shoot Raw and JPEG at the same time. This is useful because you get both a ‘finished’ photo and one you can merrily adjust to your heart’s content. The only downside is that your memory card will fill up more quickly than when shooting either Raw or JPEG. This is less of a problem if you have a high-capacity memory card though. All you have to do then is find something to occupy yourself with as your photos are copied from the memory card. Personally, I like to go and make a cup of coffee. Or would I prefer tea?
David Taylor is a British award-winning landscape and travel photographer, who was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne and now lives in the ancient market town of Hexham, Northumberland. He took his first photograph at the age of 14, when his parents gave him a Kodak Instamatic for Christmas, and he has been taking photographs ever since.
His landscape photos have been used in publicity materials by local businesses, councils and tourism organisations, such as the Northumberland National Park Authority. He has also supplied images and articles to both regional and national magazines including Living North, Countryfile, Black & White Photography and Outdoor Photography.