In my online travels, I often see photographers inquiring about the positive and negative benefits of shooting in the RAW format. Generally, the answer from photographers “in the know” is just shoot RAW because it is always better. This is not always the case.
The answer to shooting RAW or not, like many things in photography is: it depends. If your reading this, I will assume that your camera has the ability to shoot RAW format images and you are looking for more information. Deciding on the proper format really depends on what you want to get out of the shot, the abilities of your camera as well as the amount of storage space you have at your disposal. Before we delve into the nitty-gritty details about shooting in RAW versus JPG, lets discuss what the differences are in the two formats.
Some things to consider before we start
Cameras evolve at the speed of light it seems. Sensor Size, resolution, format and a myriad of other factors all go into the proper calculation of image size or file size. So with that being said I will cite some basic examples of file size or format definitions in this article, but be aware that your mileage may vary and compression, storage and processing for different manufacturers can affect the base numbers used in this article.
The Basics of RAW
Let’s say that your camera is capable of shooting RAW images, but you have it set for JPG. When you click that shutter the camera is going to do its thing: focus, evaluate the light, calculate the shutter and aperture for what it thinks is the best exposure for your image; then it will write the image to your memory card saving the color space and white balance settings along with adding a basic amount of sharpening. The image that you see on the back of your camera moments later will be fairly representative of what you will see when you load the image onto your computer at home (this scenario assumes shooting in one of the auto or semi-auto modes. ). When the camera is set for RAW mode capture, it will still do most of the steps for a JPG, with an exception at the end of the process. During a RAW capture the camera will save the information in a largely unprocessed format. Because the camera is not making decisions for you during the saving portion of the capture (and thereby throwing away data that it feels is not important) the RAW images will tend to be significantly larger in size than JPG. I will not cover large, medium and small RAW format capture because it’s not a feature available on all cameras that shoot RAW, and I generally recommend that you either shoot JPG or RAW not a variant format like Small RAW.
Rather than putting on my cheerleading outfit for the RAW format lets discuss the negatives of each of the formats. First and foremost: RAW is big. Really big, you can expect a RAW image to be more than twice the size of your JPG images on most cameras. RAW images require more processing than JPG images do, and of course more storage because of their size. So shooting RAW is going to impact the pocketbook not only on the storage at home, but be aware that you will not be able to hold as many images on each memory card. RAW images also take longer to write to the card because of their size, so your camera will not be able to shoot as many images in a row (high speed or burst mode) depending on the make and model of your camera. Because RAW images are mostly unprocessed, they tend to come out of the camera looking a bit flat. This can be easily resolved with some temperature, exposure vibrance and clarity adjustments in camera raw, Aperture or Lightroom.
The biggest negative for JPG images is the restrictions one will see when processing the images. This is due to the camera making the decisions for you when saving the image. JPG is a compressed file format, that is why the file sizes are so small compared to RAW images. During the conversion to JPG, the camera looks at the highlights and shadows in your image and throws out the data based on a algorithm. The net result is smoother highlight and shadow areas in your image as well as smaller file size.
Do I need to shoot in RAW?
A better question may be Do I need to shoot in RAW all the time? This of course depends on what you will use the image for, as well as the capabilities of your camera. Now before I go any further it should be said that there is always a chance that you might get “that shot” at any time, you know the one that shot that will be printed in 20X30 and hung on your wall? Whenever you take a shot in JPG, mode your limiting the post processing that can be done with the image. I use a general rule of thumb followed by many but not all photographers. If I am shooting sports or in a situation where the speed of the capture is important, I generally shoot RAW. As an example I shoot my son’s basketball or lacrosse games sometimes, and I always use JPG mode for those. The quality is more than adequate and not as likely that I would use it for a fine art installation. I also tend to use JPG for birthdays and family gatherings. Anything else, studio work landscapes or shooting vehicles is always done in RAW. This is my guideline and yes I have been bit a few times with it, but it’s a chance I take.
Not scared off yet? well good. So with all those negatives about RAW why would you want to consider shooting in RAW? For me it’s simple, the RAW format comes out of the camera largely unprocessed, when I load it into Lightroom a small amount of capture sharpening is applied automatically but that is about it. All of the data from the camera’s sensor is still intact in the file. Unlike a JPG image, the shadow and highlight data is still there and I can push the limits of the image much farther than I could with JPG. The shadow slider and highlight slider will reveal much more useable information than it would in a JPG processing scenario. It is easy to change the white balance to give a warmer or cooler color cast when using RAW. You just end up with a lot more options and flexibility when processing a RAW image than a JPG.
Concerns about RAW
RAW is not all perfect. The biggest concern with RAW is file longevity. Consider this, if you found a rare concert at a garage sale on a Betamax tape how hard would it be to get it transferred to a format you could watch? Impossible? no, but inconvenient. The thing is, that file formats get left behind as software progresses. RAW files are proprietary file formats from each manufacturer, and photographers are at the mercy of image processing software companies like Adobe to keep supporting their cameras RAW format. Don’t let that scare you off though. Adobe has created a file format that “should” last much longer than your camera’s RAW format files. The format is called DNG and it stands for Digital Negative. There are converters that are continually updated to convert RAW images from the manufacturer to DNG. So if your camera suddenly drops off the supported list there is still an option. If you use a image categorization program like Lightroom, it has the option to convert your images to DNG on import. This is the best option as you can have the software also roll the RAW image into the package which gives a double sense of security. This is the way I import all of my files today.
As a general rule, the benefits one gains from shooting in RAW outweigh the negatives. With more flexibility in post processing and the price of storage falling seemingly by the day RAW is a good option for shooting almost anything.