Monday, July 16, 2012

When to use RAW or JPG? My Opinion On The Subject

There seems to be a lot of opinion out there on what to use when saving your images to memory card on camera.  Thought I might as well throw my own opinions out there and offer up when and why I would choose JPG or RAW.

In the end, can you tell which one was shot using RAW or JPG??

Some people advocate shooting RAW 100% of the time, others see no need in RAW at all and are content with shooting JPG - even going so far as saying that everything should be done 100% correctly in camera.

First - let us look at a quick pro/com list of RAW and JPG:



RAW sensor data - as RAW software gets updated, so too can your image processing.  RAW also give you a lot more information to work with, generally 12 or 14 bits of data.

More latitude for corrections - If you want to push/pull the exposure tweak more detail out of the shadows or highlights - this is your best option.

White balance - is not embedded in the RAW file, so if you or the camera get it wrong - it doesn't matter.  This can be corrected in post processing(most of the time).

Space - more data = need for more space to store the images.  RAW files can be 10MB-30MB or more depending on the mega pixels rating of the camera you are using.

Processing - not so much processing power of the machine you are working on, but the commitment to learn how to process RAW files to their fullest potential.

Slower capture rate on camera - even with fast memory cards, your burst rate on the camera will be lower than if shooting JPG.  Not so much a concern for portrait photographers, but might be for sports shooters.  Generally his can be from 1-5fps.



Space - lower file sizes mean less space per image taken on the storage device.

Processing - if you set up a picture control/JPG processing settings in camera you love - then the majority of the processing for that image is already done.  This also helps in the back end work flow speed as well.

Burst rate capture - most cameras are optimized to shoot their fastest burst rates in this mode.  Anywhere from 4-11fps.  Great for sports shooters or any other application that needs the high frame rate capture.


Processing - the majority of the processing has already been applied and it will take some work getting things changed in post processing - at least more so than in RAW.

White balance - this is applied to the image at the time of capture in a JPG and can be a pain to correct later(there is more to this that we will get into later).

Less latitude for corrections - with only an 8 bit file structure to work with, you start off with less data for processing, which can limit the extent of which you can manipulate the file compared to RAW.

OK - so after all this - what you really want to know is - when do I use RAW versus JPG, right?

I use RAW whenever:

  • I know I will be doing a lot of post processing manipulation on images.
  • I know that the the dynamic range of the scene is more than the JPG engine can handle and I might want to pull the shadows detail out and/or bring back the highlight details.  This is especially true when I do not have a filter, speed lights or potential for bracketing(for HDR) to manipulate the situation.
  • The images are just too important to leave the processing of the files to the in camera JPG engine.
I use JPG whenever:
  • I am shooting sports and need a high burst rate to capture the fast moving action.
  • I have a very controlled environment and can have all the variables nailed down or at least controllable.
  • I do not plan to do any or very little post processing.
  • I am on vacation and memory card space is an issue and I have no way of off loading the files from the camera.
  • I need a quick turn around of the images to the client.
  • I need to print on site.
Now, these are just some of the things that I think about when I start shooting.  I do not shoot a whole event, job in one format.  These are not hard and fast rules - more like guidelines.  I've started out shooting in JPG for some things and if the variables of the shoot change on me, so do the settings.  You've got to be as dynamic as the situation.

Here is an example of a time I needed to shoot RAW.  San Diego on vacation with the family.   Had to fly out and having a tripod was not feasible.  Was shooting with the Nikon D50 and did not want to shoot multiple exposures hand help for HDR.
So I tried shooting over and under exposed shots - did not like the results.
Exposing for the sky left the foreground elements too dark

Exposing for the foreground left the sky burned out and unrecoverable.
Then, I shot RAW and processed in Lightroom.
I was able to pull back the highlights and bring out the shadows, did some prudent noise reduction work and was able to salvage this image:
Shot RAW and did an average exposure with a touch more to the underexposed.
I hope that this post has helped you think about your shooting settings and you will think more about your situation as it unfolds and use the right file format for the shots.

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