RAW or JPEG. When do you need to shoot RAW?
RAW or JPEG. When you are learning photography, whether in a course or teaching yourself, you will be taught that it is best to shoot your images using the RAW setting rather than JPEG. There is good reason for this but it is not a golden rule.
There are many things to consider before deciding whether to shoot RAW or JPEG but before I talk about these lets look at the difference between the two file types.
I suspect I may have already scared some readers off as this is sounding like it is going to get technical. Well, good news. It won’t. If you are looking to go into depth and get technical I will put some links at the end of this article for you to explore. It is more about making a simple selection in choosing what file type to shoot and why.
RAW files are uncompressed files. They are a representation of what the sensor in your camera captured without any pixel loss. They provide the best opportunity for you to edit your files later and find details in highlights and shadows that you didn’t know were there at first glance. Utilising tools like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop you can edit RAW files to get the best result you can from the file.
In the latest version of Photoshop CC you will find the option to edit your RAW file in the Filter menu (Filter > Camera Raw Filter). Once you have opened up your RAW file you will have a range of sliders that you can work with to adjust your image. Try moving the highlight and shadow sliders and see how they effect the look of you image. In fact have fun moving all the sliders and you will be quite surprised how you can alter the look of you image. For better or worse!!
RAW files are big. Depending on your camera they could be 10-20mb in file size. Each one. The more data that is captured in an image the bigger the file size. So an uncompressed RAW file will be the biggest file your camera can capture. Now the benefit of this is fairly obvious. The bigger the file size the better the quality when you print enlargements. Also the more detail captured in the shadows and highlights the better you can adjust your image later to get the optimum result. Simple, hey.
Jpeg files (or jpg, depending on which way you swing), are compressed files. The moment they are captured on your camera your file has lost data and quality. How much data and quality is dependant on which level of quality jpeg you have selected to shoot in. Generally you can choose between High, Normal and Low quality in your settings menu of your camera.
The best way to explain the differences in quality would be to give some real world examples of what you would use the different quality settings for.
High quality jpegs are as close as you can get to RAW files while shooting jpegs. They retain most of the detail your sensor has captured and generally you can get a very good result when printing from a high quality jpeg. You can edit these files using Lightroom or Photoshop’s Camera Raw filter and get similar results to what you would have got if you shot RAW. But not as good of course. To some there is very little difference.
Medium quality will give you a good enough quality image to print to a photographic printer up to around 11×14 inches. I wouldn’t go any bigger than that with this quality and even at that size you may notice a small loss of quality. These jpegs are great for doing Powerpoint presentations that will be shown on a big screen for example.
Low quality jpegs are fine for quick positional images that you want to drop in a layout or for uploading to the internet. And maybe printing 6×4 inch happy snaps on your little photo printer at home.
So what to do now…
Ok. Hopefully by now you have the general idea as to what the different quality images are that you can capture. Now we need to work out when to safely use the different file types.
If you want to cover all bases then just shoot RAW. You can always convert your images to jpegs later and control the quality of the jpeg, low, medium or high. Sounds good in principal. But you will end up buying a lot of external hard drives to store all your RAW images on as they are big files (as mentioned earlier) and in a lot of instances too big for what you need. Depending on your camera you may have two card slots and have the option to shoot RAW onto one card and jpeg onto the other card. I normally use the second card as a backup to the first so if I’m shooting RAW then I’ll capture the RAW image onto both cards. But capturing a jpeg on the second card is a definite option.
If you are photographing functions and events like corporate functions or birthday parties etc, then you should be fine to shoot jpegs and not RAW. Probably medium quality will be enough. Chances are at best these shots will end up on the internet or getting printed as 6×4’s. That being said you should always ask before what the plans are for the photos. If you do a big group shot at a function then there is a good chance they may blow that up so it would be better to shoot high quality jpeg (still no need for RAW). Theatre productions are a tricky one. Chances are they will not be blowing most of the images up but they normally look for a couple of hero shots that could make it to the poster promoting the performance. Also they are normally quite dark so you will be pushing the ISO and trying to get extra detail out of the shadows in particular so it would be better to shoot RAW in this instance. Also you can fit a heap more jpegs on your memory card in your camera than you can RAW images!
If you are shooting small product shots for an online store you could safely shoot high or medium quality jpegs and save a lot of hard drive space, but make sure you confirm with your client before hand that they won’t be using any of these shots to do a major ad campaign including billboard advertising. If that was the case then shoot RAW and convert to jpeg later.
If you have been commissioned to shoot anything, you need to find out how they plan to use the images later. This will help you decide whether you can shoot jpegs or you need to shoot RAW. Remember a high quality jpeg can be sufficient, especially if the lighting is good and you won’t need to try and find extra detail in the highlights and shadows.
An interesting example…
Recently, the news agency, Reuters, issued a worldwide ban on freelance photographers submitting RAW images to them or images that were shot in RAW (or CR2) and then converted to jpeg. Their reasoning is that they want the image to be as original as possible as it is a news related photo so apart from slight cropping and colour/brightness adjustment they want them supplied as shot.
Initially I was very surprised by this but after thinking about it I felt that this was the right thing to do. When you shoot RAW you tend to edit it in Lightroom or Camera Raw in Photoshop and it’s too easy to go overboard with making adjustments. This way photographers are pushed to get it right in camera and get it to Reuters as quickly as possible with little to no editing. Now that’s old school.
I also suspect that the issue of storing RAW images, as we were talking about earlier, comes into consideration also. Given the amount of images they are saving any way to reduce file size would be a huge benefit to them.
A little bit of planning can go a long way to saving space on hard drives later. Shoot RAW if you feel the need or the job requires you to do so. But don’t shoot RAW just because you are a serious photographer and you believe all your photos should start as RAW. You will come to discover that in a lot of instances you can happily shoot jpeg (picking the correct quality for your required purpose) and you will save a lot of storage space, both on your memory card during the shoot and later when you file them away. Remember, if you are not sure but to be safe and shoot RAW.