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RAW vs. JPEG: 3 Reasons to Choose RAW

This topic is a discussion, not an argument, and the most important thing I can add is perspective. It shouldn’t be something that incites rivalries of who’s better than who or causes you to “un-friend” someone. Possibly it should just end with allowing everyone to make their own decisions…good or bad.

My perspective, of course, starts with understanding the technical differences of camera RAW and JPEG files. Anyone can Google the subject and find volumes of useful and not so useful information.  Let me say up front, I strongly understand the technical math and aspects of this subject, and I am only going to include some of the basics here, but I have provided some links below for those interested in more details.

Okay, there are many differences. The most important one to me is simple. The increased bit depth of a RAW image translates to greater tonal range and image information that a JPEG will never have.

Some tech talk

A JPEG is an 8bit file = 256 colors (tonal range) per color channel; Red, Blue, Green.

This equals 16.7 million possible colors per pixel. Seems like a lot, and it is.

Most RAW files are 12 or 14 bit files. A 12 bit RAW file can measure 4096 tonal values per color channel, or a total of 68.7 billion colors per pixel. Wow!

When the human eye can only discern about 10 million different colors, it seems to beg the question, “Why do I need that much information in my photos?” I’d like to say “Because I can,” and leave it at that, but then where is the fun in the discussion.

Reason 1: I want and need that much information because I do not present my work in its natural state

The reality is, image conversion, manipulation, correction, sharpening, or any alteration you make affects the pixel. The greater latitude you have with the original image, the smoother the shifts in tones after your changes have been made. I often talk, when I teach, about local contrast in a photo, where tones shift from dark to gray. In principle, I have more control if black transitions to white in 11 shades, not 3.

Choose wisely, the RAW image has no inherent color balance. JPEGs do. For RAW, you decide what it will be. Choose wrong or forget and you have major problems attempting to get reasonable color balance. Just a reminder, when shooting RAW and you set your color balance, it is attaching a set of scripts in the Meta data and changing your camera LCD to give you a more accurate preview. I set mine for consistency in editing. All my photos will have the same color “look.” The balance is set when I convert the RAW.

When setting the color balance for shooting JPEGs, you are making adjustments in the camera to help match its sensitivity to a color environment. For instance, we think of a balanced light as having equal parts Red, Green, Blue. This makes Tungsten light orange in comparison. It has an unequal amount of RGB. Less blue specifically. Setting your camera balance to this shooting JPEG creates a higher sensitivity to the blue spectrum and less sensitivity to the reds and yellows for a balance. It is now part of your photo. Choose wrongly and you won’t have enough color information in your photo to recover every detail. This is where technical volumes can and have been written. It’s best learned by trying it. Have fun and burn a few pixels. Make some mistakes on purpose and see what you get. For those who recall shooting film, it’s just like picking the emulsion to match the light, or using correction filters.

Reason 2: For the Color Quality. Even if you set it correctly you can tune in each color layer more precisely

In the advertising world, color match is critical. Often, individual layers must be adjusted separately. It’s not even a brief thought to the photographer and model on set shooting something new and sexy for their portfolio, but turn that into a Victoria Secret catalog with clients on set. Perfect color is important to the client. You are selling a product and those colors are subtle but chosen with great care. Your job goes past the pretty picture; it has to be a technical masterpiece too.

Reason 3: I’m a commercial photographer

Even in today’s tech improved world, 4 color press and news press still take a bite out of tonal range. I need all that is possible and clients demand it. The excuse of drive space and read/write speed is not their concern. There are solutions and they must be put in place. I won’t shoot a JPEG because I can shoot faster than shooting RAW. If I want to shoot faster, I get a camera that can. And don’t limit your thinking, because I’ll bet you all thought of the fastest Canon or Nikon model. Get a RED and pull frames if you need that much speed. Same with drive space. I’ve had bookshelves full of 500 gig drives. Now it’s a 16-terabyte server.

A couple of thoughts. Ansel Adams brought it home with the Zone System. At its core, the Zone system is about the photographer making educated decisions based on subject, contrast, light quality, film structure, processing and development to print. Each step a separate but critical choice that work together for best results.

I’m doing the same thing by choosing RAW.

I’m a realist; I know there are a lot of industries shooting JPEG. I’m sure press photographers at the Olympic Games enjoy some of the coolest technology available. And getting photos out in “real time” puts a lot of pressure on them. Shooting JPEG is part of that solution, and with it comes a new set of concerns. I enjoy seeing the photos and never think to care if it was a JPEG or RAW.

The final word, because someone is going to ask, yes, I did shoot JPEG once. Well actually a few times to test all this stuff, but once on a job. It was the end of a 3-day shoot in Hawaii for Aqua Lung; I was waist deep on a reef, a long ways from a download, shooting my last card on hand. I flipped it to JPEG to squeeze out another 50 frames or so before the sun set.

I repented afterwards to the great God of Belvedere.

Steve Anderson

I have discovered myself through my own images. If you knew me you would see the reflection. Passionate about art and science, my education at the Brooks Institute mashed these two together in a life changing manner. Every day is a wonder. www.steveandersonphotography.com

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