RAW vs. JPEG

I’m going to address a debate that there is no clear answer to . . . actually, there is an answer: “It depends.”

Ask a handful of photographers which file format you should shoot with and you’ll get some strong opinions on both sides of the debate. Each side has some good points. The problem with the debate is that some folks with strong opinions believe there is only one way – JPEG or RAW. I tend to think that this depends on each photographer’s particular circumstances.

First things first though. Let’s talk a little bit about the basics of a RAW or JPEG image.

The JPEG Image
If you don’t know what kind of file that the images you take are, then chances are you’re shooting in JPEG format. Why? It’s the easiest to work with – you would certainly be aware of a RAW file if you were shooting it. By easiest, I mean you press the shutter button, remove the memory card from your camera, insert it in your computer, and upload, email, or print away.

For those of you that are interested in the technical side, consider the explanation provided at prepressue.com:

JPEG is a lossy compression algorithm that has been conceived to reduce the file size of natural, photographic-like true-colour images as much as possible without affecting the quality of the image as experienced by the human sensory engine. We perceive small changes in brightness more readily than we do small changes in colour. It is this aspect of our perception that JPEG compression exploits in an effort to reduce the file size. Read more . . .

Also consider the compression issues pointed out in this Wikipedia entry.

The RAW Image

A RAW image file contains minimally processed data from the image sensor of a digital camera. Raw files are so named because they are not yet processed and ready to use with a bitmap graphics editor, printed, or displayed by a typical web browser. The image must be processed and converted to an RGB format such as TIFF or JPEG before it can be manipulated. Read more . . .

This means you can’t take a RAW image and immediately put it in to Photoshop without some in-between processing. You are basically developing a digital negative.

The Arguments for and Against
Some say RAW is a superior format because you can do more with post-processing. Others say that if you learn to make a proper exposure the first time then you should need to do much, if any, post-processing. And some swear by JPEGs because of the volume of shots they take (e.g., event photographers). I think that what everyone means in their arguments for or against a particular format is that their format of choice works for them because of their particular needs. This is why I say, “It depends.”

Take Killboy for example. For those of you who don’t know who Killboy is, he shoots motorcycles almost every day of the week at a place called Deals Gap (a.k.a. Tail of the Dragon). People come from all over the country just to ride this section of road on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Make one pass through the 318 curves in just 11 miles and you’ll see why. Killboy takes thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of shots each week. Just think for a moment how you would manage shooting RAW and posting processing 10,000 pictures in one week and still have time to do the same thing the next week. (I went to a mountain bike race 4 months ago and took 1,000 RAW images. I’m about halfway through post-processing now.) Killboy, along with other event photographers, shoot JPEGs because their business model requires it. For them, shooting RAW is logistically impossible.

What if you’re doing a landscape photo that includes the sky or a portrait the uses the sky as part of your background?

The RAW file format usually provides considerably more “dynamic range” than a JPEG file, depending on how the camera creates its JPEG. Dynamic range refers to the range of light to dark which can be captured by a camera before becoming completely white or black, respectively. Since the raw color data has not been converted into logarithmic values using curves (see overview), the exposure of a RAW file can be adjusted slightly–after the photo has been taken. Exposure compensation can correct for metering errors, or can help bring out lost shadow or highlight detail. Read more & view example . . .

You can see the benefits of shooting RAW here pretty clearly I think.

I’ve talked quite a bit about post-processing. When it comes to RAW files, your options are continually expanding. There are several vendors that make RAW conversion and editing programs now. Let’s take a brief look at what they have to offer:

Adobe Lightroom – $199 through 3/31/07; then $299
Lightroom is my personal favorite RAW file editor. I like the layout, controls, and depth of the program. It runs fine on my iMac G5. It’s easy to batch process or convert to JPEG or TIFF. What little Photoshop integration there is functions just fine. As a matter of fact, I use Photoshop a lot less since I started using Lightroom. I’ve been with Lightroom since the first beta and have grown very attached to it. Lightroom IS my workflow. Read more about Lightroom . . .

Adobe Camera RAW – Included with current Adobe Photoshop programs
Adobe Camera Raw is the staple RAW editor for many Photoshop users. To me, it seems clunky and inefficient as a browser/viewer for RAW files. If you bought a version of Photoshop recently, it came with it. If not, you can likely get it for free from Adobe.com. Don’t take my word alone, it’s just not my cup of tea. Read more about Adobe ACR . . .

Apple Aperture – $270
Apple Aperture? What can I say? It’s pretty. It works. And lots of people love it. My exposure to it has been limited because it won’t run on my iMac G5. You need a killer video card to even think about installing this program. Also, it’s only for Macs. Window’s users can move along now.

What little that I’ve done with Aperture hasn’t really sold me on it. When I upgrade to the next gen Macs, I’ll probably stick with Lightroom. Aperture just seems a little to “pretty” to me. I prefer the simple presentation that Lightroom has over Aperture. Aperture just seems like it is trying to do too much. That said, if you’re a Mac user and you like iPhoto, Aperture may be what you’re looking for. It’s like iPhoto on steriods, lots of steroids. Just make sure you’ve got the hardware to put it to use when you buy Aperture. Read more about Aperture . . .

Apple iPhoto – included w/ all current Macs
Apple added support for RAW files in iPhoto 5. When you make edits (and we’re talking basic edits), iPhoto gives you the option of saving your edits as a TIFF file. Not a bad little program, but it’s still a little program. If you’ve got a Mac, you’ve got iPhoto. Give it a shot and see what you think.

Bibble Pro 4.0 – $130
I have absolutely no experience with Bibble Pro 4.0. What I will do is offer some quotes from others who have reviewed/used it:

The Good

It has lots of options and it really does a great job. The best feature I can think of is the “black and white” plug-in which can make the image really artistic and give it a professional touch. The fact that it supports most major cameras and RAW formats adds great value. Also, Bibble is the first independent application to support Nikon’s encrypted white balance information.

The software runs perfectly on Windows, Mac and Linux (check on the system requirements)

The Bad

As always, I have a problem with the price of the product. I know that the guys put a lot of sweat in developing Bibble Pro, but the price seems a little high to me. But, if you really want best quality images, you’ve got to pay the price.

The Truth

Considering the alternatives on the market Bibble Pro represents a good option. I wish I didn’t have to pay that much on the software, but the truth is that it is worth the money. It does a great job with your images and the results are really amazing.

However, I’m going to wait for a while to see what other products will show up before opening my wallet.

Bibble Pro 4.8 is definitely a good choice for processing the “raw” image files and giving them the professional twist we all dream of. Read more from Softpedia.com . . .

We are very pleased that Bibble is back and think it is a good alternative to C1 and Adobe Camera Raw.

Workflow: In terms of workflow B4 is in the same class as C1 and at this time more productive than Camera Raw (mainly due to the lack of integration between the PS file browser and ACR).

Image Quality: B4, C1 and ACR all produce excellent image quality. We are sure there will be strong debates which one is best. In the end it will be very subjective as they are mainly different and not so much better or worse. Read more from OutbackPhoto.com . . .

Canon Digital Photo Professional – Included w/ current Canon DSLRs
When I’m working on my Windows laptop I generally use Canon DPP. It’s not nearly as smooth as Lightroom but it usually handles any minor editing tasks that just can’t wait until I get home. If you’ve got a Canon DSLR, then you’ve probably got this installed on your computer already. Open it up and see if you like it. Read more about Canon DPP . . .

LightZone – $150-200
Never used it. It looks pretty cool though. Perhaps I’ll give it a try. In the mean time:

LightZone is a simple yet powerful image editor. LightZone is easy to learn and let’s you focus on your images. We will follow the development of this editor very closely because we see a great potential using LightZone.

* LightZone provides right now the easiest way to learn and use a layer based workflow (which we recommend for some years in our e-books)
* For advanced users LightZone provides a powerful photographic tool to optimize photos.
* Be aware that LightZone works differently than other editors. This will require some time to master. Try to experiment with selective operations in regions because here LZ can make a difference. Read more from OutbackPhoto.com . . .

Macworld notes:

Pros: Simulates analog photographic techniques; powerful built-in image browser; true non-destructive editing; powerful rendering engine eliminates the need to store multiple copies of an image; excellent blur, sharpen, and saturation tools; takes up only about 10MB of disk space.

Cons: Lacks important retouching tools; region selection tools need refinement; regions that bleed to the edge of the image area are tricky to select, slow performance when multiple regions and modification tools are active; some important tools are accessible only through option- and control-click. Read the rest of the Macworld article . . .

Picasa – Free

Picasa is more like a great photo organizer than it is a photo editor. It does have some features to fix photo mistakes. The greatest feature of this product is its organizing capabilities. It is also one of the easiest to use programs we’ve reviewed. The screens are simple, friendly and intuitive. There are also some limited ways to share your photos including a unique online sharing method called “Hello.” Read more about Picasa . . .

These are just a handful of RAW editing programs available. If you’ve got a DSLR, chances are you also have a proprietary editing program that is unique to your camera’s RAW format (e.g., Nikon uses the .NEF format; Canon uses the .CR2 format). I encourage you to shop around for what suits your needs in the RAW editing department.

So, What Should I Use?
Simple. You should use what works best for you.

If you want to have total control over what the final image looks like, then shoot RAW.

If you take lots of photos, don’t have time to spend time post-processing your shots, or you simply want to take what you get, then shoot JPEG.

If you don’t know what RAW has to offer, then give it a try. You may never go back to shooting JPEGs. I know I haven’t. I’m a hobbyist at best and I’ll never shoot another JPEG if I can keep from it. I might have pictures sitting around untouched for a few months, but I’m unwilling to give up that amount of control to my camera’s processor. Granted, I don’t do it for a living and never will.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or anything to add, I’d be happy to engage in a discussion or update the post.

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Comments

  1. Ron says

    a very even handed article with a lot of great info. I am looking for help with processing RAW photos in a more efficeint manner.. batch processors and the like. I am on a windows platform. i have been using Acdsee pro, but it is sooo time consuming. As it stands, i only shoot RAW when its important, but i would like to shoot RAW more often. I just need help with processing. any thoughts or suggestions?

  2. says

    a very even handed article with a lot of great info. I am looking for help with processing RAW photos in a more efficeint manner.. batch processors and the like. I am on a windows platform. i have been using Acdsee pro, but it is sooo time consuming. As it stands, i only shoot RAW when its important, but i would like to shoot RAW more often. I just need help with processing. any thoughts or suggestions?

  3. Eric says

    Ron,

    I\'m a big fan of Lightroom. I think you should download the trial and give it a shot. I think you\'ll find it quite intuitive. It just makes sense. I love programs that work the way you wish stuff would. Adobe nailed it with Lightroom. I\'ll try to dig up some more online and print resources for a post on Lightroom soon. Feel free to drop me a line if you try it and have thoughts on it – or any other programs for that matter.

    Cheers!

  4. Eric says

    Ron,

    I’m a big fan of Lightroom. I think you should download the trial and give it a shot. I think you’ll find it quite intuitive. It just makes sense. I love programs that work the way you wish stuff would. Adobe nailed it with Lightroom. I’ll try to dig up some more online and print resources for a post on Lightroom soon. Feel free to drop me a line if you try it and have thoughts on it – or any other programs for that matter.

    Cheers!

  5. kermit says

    Another nice feature of the Nikon D40 is that it allows you to take both RAW and jpeg at the same time.

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