In this blog post I'm going to show you why I shoot RAW instead of JPEG and the differences between both. There is no easy way to say whether RAW or JPEG is better for you. In the end, you have to think about your workflow and what you want out of the final image. If you want to tinker with your image to get that perfect exposure that you see on magazine covers or gallery walls then raw is for you. If you want to bracket many exposures and layer them into an HDR to achieve that ethereal look, then you guessed it, RAW. The image above was processed from 8 different raw files.
But if you just want to take personal family photos, post them online to Instagram or Facebook and not spend hours and hours learning how to use Lightroom, Photoshop, Photomatix, etc then JPEG might be a better start. Let me explain the basics between each first.
A JPEG is:
- a smaller file overall, often just a fourth the size of an original RAW file (or smaller)
- a standard format that just about anything can read (Facebook, Email, Microsoft paint, Photoshop)
- has much lower dynamic range
- requires little to no sharpening (if taken in camera)
- generally requires little to no processing later IF you make a correct exposure in camera. You cant always do this if you are shooting into the sun, or shooting a very high contrast scene
A RAW file is:
- a much larger file (a bad thing if you are strapped for storage space or just shot a wedding and took 3000 images)
- the raw data from your cameras sensor (uncompressed)
- a digital equivalent to a film negative
- requires special software to work with. (Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, Canon DPP, Nikon Capture NX 2, Photomatix, etc
- has MUCH more dynamic range
- allows you to modify such things as exposure, white balance, color, sharpening, etc later
- requires sharpening later
- if processed correctly can look far better than a jpeg taken in camera. Some are strongly against this as it is manipulation and not a natural image. They also think it makes it easier to cheat when you are learning. If you take a bad exposure in camera you can more than likely save it later by "fixing" the raw file. Others in the digital movement think its the next step for photography to take because you can achieve ultra realistic results. Think HDR, panorama, etc.
Now that you know the differences let me show you a recent JPEG straight out of my Canon 6D camera. (below)
So, its not a bad shot, but with the high contrast of the lights on the hills and the darker shadows of the valley, its hard to show accurate color and dynamic range. The ground is exposed but at the expense of the sky being blown out. The 'old' way to fix this would be to use a graduated neutral density filter and a slower exposure. That in turn requires a tripod, more gear, and time. Some of the kits which come with various sizes and colors are upwards of $200 and not another expensive thing I want to carry around on a daily basis. I also don't usually carry a tripod unless I have to.
My exposure was: ISO 500, f8, 1/250 at 70mm
Below is the processed RAW file after just 10-15 minutes worth of work in Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud (CC). As you can see, I pulled the highlights down out of the sky. You can now see how pretty the clouds were. I used the old method of dodging and burning on the cliffs that have sunlight on them which in turn adds more depth and color. I applied a sharpening mask (RAW files require sharpening) to give it more depth and contrast. And finally I cropped just a hair off the top of the image. All of these edits were applied in photoshop using Luminosity Masks.
Here is another image after RAW processing. This is a prime example of the need for bracketing and later processing. Shooting directly into the sunset it would be impossible to expose for both the boats and the sunset in one shot. Using the original 2 raw files and luminosity masking, I was able to 'paint' the two exposures together. Much more control over using a simple program like Photomatix to do it for you.
Below are the two raw files I used to end up with the one above.
Like I said earlier, no one can say if RAW or JPEG is better for you. You must think about how much time you are willing to spend in the "digital darkroom" on your images. In my opinion its no different than the days of film where you'd spend just as much time in a darkroom perfecting your shot. I hope this gives you an insight into the possibilities of digital photography. Coming soon I'll be posting a guide on doing basic edits in Adobe Lightroom 5. If you have questions comment below and i'll do my best to answer them!