Most cameras today can shoot pictures in one of two main formats: RAW versus JPEG. The debate about which format to use is as old as digital photography itself and the internet is rife with articles, blogs, videos, and seminars illustrating the differences between the formats as well as opinions regarding which one to use.
Ultimately the question of which is the correct choice becomes steeped in subjectivity. There is no single objective correct answer, which is a lesson I learned over the course of many years. Instead of asking which option is right, the real question should be which option is right for you.
Differentiating between the formats
Understanding the difference between RAW and JPEG file formats is a bit tricky since both appear somewhat similar at first glance. Afterall, when you load either file type into Lightroom or another photo editor you see pretty much the same thing.
However, when you take a picture in RAW you are saving as much data as your camera sensor can possibly collect. Whereas a JPEG file discards some of the data in favor of creating an image that takes up less space on your memory card and is easy to share. With RAW files you gain a huge amount of flexibility in terms of editing the file, and a lot of photographers prefer this as a way to get the most out of their images.
RAW is somewhat comparable to analog film in that RAW files can be manipulated, massaged, and modified to bring to life details from dark areas, recover crystal-clear clouds from what you thought was an overexposed skyline, and improve images dramatically in almost every way.
JPEG files don’t offer nearly as much flexibility, but they do have some significant advantages in their own right. The most notable of which is a much smaller file size and ease of sharing, since JPEG files don’t need to be converted in a program like Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, etc.
The important thing to note is that neither format is inherently better than the other and each has its uses. To illustrate what I mean I’m going to share a bit from my own experience.
Starting from scratch
My own journey through the RAW versus JPEG continuum started shortly after I got serious about digital photography many years ago, in a manner not dissimilar from many photographers. When I got my first DSLR I didn’t know anything about RAW and instead fiddled with different JPEG settings in order to find a balance of quality and quantity.
I eventually settled on the Medium size and Medium compression so as to make sure I could take well over 4000 images before running out of space on my memory card. I had heard about the RAW setting but ignored it since it would only let me fit a couple hundred shots on my memory card which seemed silly compared to several thousand.
As months went by, I became intrigued with the flexibility offered by the RAW format despite the larger size of each image file. I learned to edit my pictures in Lightroom by changing White Balance, boosting the shadows, editing color filters in the black and white mode, and even applying Radial and Gradient filters.
I soon realized that the trade-off in file size was worth it because I could do so much more with my images in post-production. “Who wouldn’t want to shoot in RAW?” I asked myself. I also often engaged other aspiring photographers in the discussion of shooting RAW versus JPEG while believing that RAW was clearly the superior format.
It didn’t take much longer until I was shooting everything in RAW. My kids eating breakfast, my family vacations, formal portrait sessions, random nature shots of animals and leaves…you name it, I shot it in RAW. Shooting in JPEG, I told myself, was for suckers who didn’t know any better!
Each time I loaded yet another round of my RAW files into Lightroom (while getting something to drink and finding a place to put my feet up while the initial previews loaded) I knew that no matter what the pictures looked like I had the absolute best photo quality money could buy.
I was enamored with the RAW workflow and editing flexibility. Shadows too dark? No problem, just lighten them with a few sliders. White Balance a little off? Sky looking a bit too gray? Spots from dust on the lens? Too much noise from shooting at ISO 12,800? All these worries could be erased with a few clicks and sliders, and my images would be
instantly slowly transformed from adequate to awesome.
Cracks in the facade
As the years went on I found myself learning, growing, and changing as a photographer, but ironically enjoying the editing process less and less. I recall the distinct and overwhelming feeling of photographic oppression settling in as I returned home from family trips only to load my RAW files into Lightroom and be faced with hundreds of minor edits to make on each one before I was satisfied with the results.
To combat this I made a develop custom preset that contained basic adjustments such as highlight/shadows, sharpening, and clarity and applied that to every single one of my pictures upon import.
Weeks would often go by before I would be ready to share my pictures because I was stuck in the rut of meticulous editing. Even a simple birthday party for my son’s friend turned into a month-long wait because I didn’t want to share any pictures unless they were adjusted to perfection. With a family and a full-time job, the act of tweaking my images became more of a burden than an enjoyment.
What I came to realize after years of doing this was that I simply wasn’t interested in reaping the benefits of shooting RAW for my own personal photography. For client work, I continued to shoot RAW in order to make sure the end results were as good as they could possibly be.
But for nearly all of my own personal pictures, I got to a mental state where I simply didn’t care about editing each and every single picture. Occasionally I would make some cropping adjustments, but I realized I was pretty happy with the results I was getting straight out of my camera.
I didn’t dare shoot in JPEG though because Real Photographers Shoot RAW…or so I thought. I didn’t want to admit that RAW wasn’t really doing much for me, and I thought shooting JPEG was tantamount to admitting I didn’t know what I was doing. That I couldn’t handle the ropes of what it meant to be a true photographer, a true artist.
A revelation occurs
This state of confusion and self-doubt continued until late 2017 when I came across this video from Tony Northup.
Watching that was somewhat of a revelation and helped me realize that I wasn’t any less of a photographer if I shot in anything but the RAW format. While there’s certainly something to be said for capturing images in the highest possible quality, there is also something to be said for speed and convenience – both areas in which JPEG excels.
What I have realized as I looked back over my images from the past several years is that I’ve gotten significantly better at the aspects of photography that shooting in RAW can’t fix at all. I’ve learned about composition, lighting, capturing emotions, when to shoot, how to ask for permission from strangers, and even how to share images online in a more effective manner.
I have learned to put my camera down and enjoy the moment, and I’ve learned that not everything in life needs to be photographed ad infinitum. RAW can’t help if my kids are out of focus or if my angles are bad, and I’ve learned to pay better attention to my light meter and exposure settings so I don’t need to recover highlights and shadows in post-production like I did when I started out.
Permission to be imperfect
More importantly, I have come to a place as a photographer where I don’t need each and every one of my pictures to be perfect. When I look through photo albums from when I was a kid almost none of the images are ideal. Many are a little under or over-exposed, the framing isn’t always right, and there’s plenty of red-eye issues that could use fixing thanks to my dad’s copious use of his external flash. But it’s the emotions, the feelings, the memories, and the people in those images that really matter the most to me.
When I scroll through images from 15 years ago when all my wife and I had was a cheesy little pocket camera, I don’t care that most of them are low-res JPEG files. It’s what’s in the pictures that matter, and nowadays I’d rather spend my time capturing good photos than editing my RAW files.
Enabling the JPEG option on my camera has felt like a breath of fresh air, and I’m back to enjoying photography in a way I haven’t done in years. I’m experimenting with my Fuji camera’s built-in ACROS and Classic Chrome film simulations, and I’ve even created what basically amounts to a Lightroom preset in my camera by adding some highlight/shadow/sharpening adjustments using the various menu options. It’s great fun, requires no extra Lightroom editing, and I’m back to enjoying photography the way I used to so many years ago.
Above all else, it’s important to understand that shooting in RAW versus JPEG does not have to be a strict dichotomy. It’s taken many years, but I now feel comfortable knowing when to use RAW, when to use JPEG, and understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each. Even though I mostly shoot JPEG for casual snapshots I’ll occasionally switch over to RAW if I think the situation demands it.
Finding a solution that works for you
The reason there is no answer to the question of whether to use RAW or JPEG is that every photographer must figure out his or her own approach. For me, shooting JPG is just fine in most situations. One could argue that I’m not getting as much out of my images as I could be, and perhaps that is indeed true.
But if using RAW causes me to dread the process of editing and abate my photography altogether then I would say shooting RAW actually results in me getting less out of my photos than I could be if I were using JPEG.
I should also note that many cameras can offer the best of both worlds by letting you shoot in RAW+JPEG mode. If you like the JPEG file, great! And if not, you have the RAW file which you can edit to your heart’s content. If you’re on the fence this might be an option to consider, but beware that it will fill up your memory cards much faster than you might realize.
As I close I want to offer one final piece of advice, or rather, reiterate a point I hinted at earlier. Don’t let anyone tell you that your method, approach or viewpoint is not valid. If you like RAW, great! Go ahead and use it. If you prefer JPEG, you are no less of a photographer than someone who swears by RAW.
I would recommend learning as much as you can and experimenting with available options so you can make an informed decision. But at the end of the day, if you like the results you’re getting from your approach then, by all means, go ahead and do it. Now stop reading, get off the internet, pick up your camera, and go out to take some photos!