Raw vs. JPEG: Which should you shoot and when?

Your digital SLR or high-end compact camera gives you the option of saving your photos as Raw files or as JPEGs.

Which should you pick?

It’s an old question, but it isn't as easy to answer as you might think—and the factors you have to consider get more complicated every year.

It all starts with Raw data

Every digital camera’s sensor generates raw data. The question is, what happens to that data? If you have a point-and-shoot camera, you may not have a say in the matter. But if you have a high-end compact or a DSLR, you do.

So, do you let the camera’s processor convert the raw data into a universally recognizable JPEG file? Or do you ask the camera to save the raw data—all of it—in a Raw file so you can process it on your computer? Do you want your photos “ready to eat” or are you willing to take 'em home and cook 'em yourself?

Raw capture should be a no-brainer

Raw files have what appears at the outset to be a decisive advantage: They preserve considerably more data than the JPEGs made from them.

Retaining more data means having more options during post-processing. Working with a Raw file, you’ll have a greater chance of recovering highlights in overexposed clouds, rescuing detail from areas of shadow or darkness, and correcting white balance problems. You’ll be able to minimize your images' noise and maximize their sharpness, with much greater finesse.

And by keeping the Raw originals, you’ll have more than one chance to perform the conversion. If you have the Raw file, you can go back to it later and make a new and possibly better JPEG from it. I’ve reprocessed Raw files that I captured years earlier and gotten much better photos from them than I could have originally, because Raw processing technology has improved.

In stark contrast, if you let the camera handle the Raw-to-JPEG conversion for you and discard the Raw data, you don't get any do-overs. An in-camera JPEG is like a translated poem whose native-language original has been lost.

JPEG straight from the camera, a high-end compact (Panasonic DMC LX3). It’s a nominally decent exposure, preserving highlight detail at the expense of detail in the shadows. But it’s an unusable photo.
Fortunately, I was shooting Raw + JPEG at that moment. This is the best version I got from processing the Raw file myself in Adobe Lightroom 3.
A year after I took the photo, I discovered the amazing, Mac-only Raw Photo Processor. Running the Raw file through RPP, I was able to recover detail that even Lightroom’s converter hadn’t found. The downside: RPP is slow and has a difficult learning curve. For this picture, it was worth it.
(Photos: William Porter)

So why doesn’t everybody save Raw files?

Despite its clear theoretical superiority, Raw capture is not universally embraced, even by advanced enthusiasts and pros. If Raw is so darned good, why doesn’t everybody use it?

One old knock against Raw was that Raw-to-JPEG conversion was difficult; and even today it takes a little extra effort if you use a premium, dedicated Raw converter such as the awesome Raw Photo Processor. But if you have good photo-processing software, working with Raw files is usually no more arduous than working with JPEGs.

The other knock against Raw files is that they’re bigger—sometimes much bigger—than high-resolution JPEGs. This still matters occasionally, especially if you get to an event and discover that you have only a 2GB card in the camera, not the 16GB card you thought you had. But generally the size of Raw files isn’t much of an problem. These days I work with 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB SD Cards in my cameras, and I store my photos on inexpensive hard drives whose capacity is measured in terabytes. Storage is cheap.

Nevertheless, there are a few reasons to consider letting your camera do the Raw-to-JPEG conversion for you.

In the first place, all Raw files require some processing on the computer—maybe not much, but some. But with JPEGs the situation is different: Given a little luck (and perhaps some futzing with the camera’s settings for contrast, saturation, and sharpness), you may be able to use photos directly from the camera. This is why the JPEG format remains a favorite of news photographers.

And though in-camera raw-to-JPEG conversion does result in considerable lost data, in many cases that lost data isn’t very important.

The primary reason that many photographers continue to use JPEG, however, is simple: In-camera JPEGs are often extremely good. True, the reviews of every new DSLR that comes along blow up test JPEGs to expose some flaw. But practically all DSLRs on the market—and most high-end compact cameras, too—produce richly detailed JPEGs of excellent quality.

How does the camera's dinky processor compete with the massive brain inside your computer? It doesn’t. But while your system is designed to do a zillion different things, the camera’s processor is designed to do just one thing. And for the most part, it does it well. As the Greek poet Archilochus observed, the fox knows many tricks, and the hedgehog only one—but it's a good one.

The soup thickens

A few new reasons for selecting your camera’s JPEG option have emerged. Some new cameras have special processing features that are available only if you let the camera save JPEGs. Features such as multiframe noise reduction, sweep panorama (found in Sony cameras), and lens distortion correction, as well as creative effects such as in-camera black-and-white or “watercolor” are simply unavailable for Raw files.

Of course, you can achieve most of the results that these features deliver, despite shooting Raw images, if you’re willing to do some work on the computer. That’s how I operate, still. But I have to admit that using the in-camera feature is a lot easier.

A “sweep panorama” taken at the Grand Canyon with the Sony A580. I could have shot five or six photos and stitched them together on my camera; but the sweep panorama feature gave me the same effect in seconds, and all I did was sweep the camera from left to right. This feature is JPEG only: It won't work if the camera is set to shoot Raw. (Photo: William Porter)

Is the answer 'both A and B'?

Your camera may have a compromise option: Raw + JPEG. This choice generates two files for each shot you take: one Raw and one JPEG. I’ve tried it more than once, and I can't stand it—not because two files take up even more space, but because dealing with duplicate master files on a computer is an organizational headache. Still, the option is there. If you don't like to commit one way or the other, give it a try.

Ultimately, deciding between Raw and JPEG remains annoyingly difficult. I have been strictly a Raw shooter for many years, and I expect that I’ll continue to leave my cameras set to Raw for some time to come. But I confess that I've been flirting with the JPEG options in my cameras. And what once looked to me like a no-brainer, now increasingly seems to be a question with no single right answer. I hate when that happens.

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