For a long time in photography, there has been somewhat of a debate between shooting in RAW versus JPEG. Well, maybe debate is the wrong word. Usually, it is a matter of experienced photographers encouraging beginners to start shooting in RAW and stop shooting JPEG. There isn’t much question that RAW files are superior. Those who don’t edit their files probably don’t really see the point of RAW files though. Therefore, there are plenty of people who shoot both RAW+JPEG
Usually, this question gets presented as an either/or proposition. In other words, you have to make a decision, looking at the pros and cons of shooting RAW files and JPEGs. But if you could have the advantages of both, however, wouldn’t that be the way to go? You can, actually!
Take a look at your camera’s Quality or Image Quality setting in the menu. Most cameras will allow you to set you to put that setting on both RAW and JPEG. By doing so, aren’t you getting the best of both worlds?
Let’s take a look. But first, let’s review the advantages of RAW files versus JPEGs.
When you take a picture, your camera is actually taking the data that it receives from the image sensor and creating a file. In the early days of digital, a group of experts got together and agreed on a file format everyone could use. It is called JPEG and stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group. The idea is that everyone would use the same format and thus it would be easily shareable. And you know what? That has worked out pretty well. JPEGs are more or less ubiquitous. If you just pick up your camera and start shooting, you are creating JPEGs. It is the default of virtually every camera. It is also the format of virtually every picture you see online.
But when your camera creates a JPEG, a few things happen. The first is that the camera compresses the picture data so that the file size is smaller. A JPEG will only use about a quarter of the data that your camera captures. That means that a large chunk of data is actually discarded. Some of that is color data, which is done by reducing the number of available colors (there are still a lot of colors available in JPEGs though). Where you’ll see the biggest impact is in the highlights and shadows, where some detail may be lost.
In addition, the camera will add some processing to the picture. The camera manufacturers know that you want your pictures coming out of the camera looking sharp and colorful. Therefore, they will add some effects, like sharpness, contrast, and saturation to them at the same time that the JPEG file is being created. That is nice in that the pictures generally do look at little better, but the downside is that you aren’t in control of the process.
And that brings us to RAW files.
The RAW advantage
In most cameras, you can go into the menu and change the file format to something called RAW. No, there isn’t really some sort of universal file format called RAW. Rather, each camera has its own way of bundling the data that it receives from the image sensor when you take the picture and creating its own proprietary file (NEF for Nikon, CRW or CR2 for Canon, RAF for Fuji, etc.), which is called a RAW file. Right away, you can see an issue with this, in that these files are not easily shareable. In addition, these files are huge, typically 3-4 times the size of JPEGs.
So why does nearly everyone recommend shooting RAW then? Because they are simply superior files. Whereas JPEGs discard data in order to create a smaller file size, RAW files preserve all of that data. That means you keep all the color data, and you preserve everything you can in the way of highlight and shadow detail.
In addition, whereas the camera adds processing when it creates JPEGs, that doesn’t happen when you create RAW files. That means you are in control of the process. You can add whatever level of sharpness, contrast, and saturation (and other controls) you want. The camera isn’t making those decisions for you.
Sure, these files are bigger, but they are way better. Further, you can always create a JPEG from your RAW file later, which you can use to share online while still preserving all the underlying data of the RAW file.
Shooting both RAW files and JPEGs
So RAW files are the way to go, right? I mean, you are preserving all that color data and highlight and shadow detail. And you are in full control of the processing of your picture. But what about if you are not going to process your photos at all? Wouldn’t it make sense to then shoot JPEG since it is the file that looks best coming out of the camera? Or what if you need to send the photo from your camera right away?
Why not take both? Your camera will likely have a setting allowing you to do both so that every time you take a picture the camera is creating a RAW file and a JPEG. That would allow you to have all the advantages of both file types. How might that benefit you? Here are a few ways I see:
- You can use a JPEG immediately: First of all, you can use JPEGs immediately. Let’s say you have Wifi in your camera or want to otherwise share the photo immediately. JPEGs make sense for this. RAW files don’t. They aren’t easily shareable and they don’t look the best coming out of the camera anyway.
- Future-proofs the photo: What if you are creating RAW files with your Canon camera and in 10 years Canon goes out of business? Will your RAW files lose support over time? This seems unlikely, but it is enough of an issue that Adobe has been pushing its own cross-platform solution called DNG (digital negative). However, if you have a JPEG, this will never be an issue. Everyone is shooting JPEGs and they aren’t going anywhere.
- You can see how the camera processes: If you have a JPEG sitting next to your RAW file on your computer, you can see how your camera decided to process your photo. In other words, you can see how much sharpening, contrast, and saturation was added and, if you like it, mimic that effect when you do your own processing. This can be helpful when you are just starting out and trying to decide how much processing to add to your photos.
- LCD preview: When you look at a photo on your LCD, you are seeing the JPEG version of your photo. You can add different processing via the Pictures Styles. That includes things like Black and White. So if you want to see effects while maintaining the integrity of the RAW file, then taking both can be beneficial.
Why not shoot only RAW?
But wait a second, you might think. Surely these are really minor advantages. Why bother with all that? Why not just use the RAW file?
Yes, these are really minor advantages, but at the same time, what is the cost? Virtually nothing. Over time, data has gotten cheaper and cheaper. Adding a JPEG costs virtually nothing. Memory cards these days hold hundreds or even thousands of pictures, and they are now pretty cheap. You can now get a 64GB card for about $35. You can get hard drives that store terabytes of data for under $100. These prices continue to come down as well. Compared to the RAW files you are shooting, the JPEG just takes up a tiny bit of data. So while I agree that adding the JPEG doesn’t add a lot, it also doesn’t cost a lot.
There is one other aspect I haven’t mentioned though and that is speed. Remember that your camera has to write all this data to your card. If you are just taking a few pictures at a time (or one at a time), this will not be a factor. But if you are someone shooting sports or wildlife with a serious need for the maximum frames per second, then there will be an additional cost. The time to write the additional file will slow you down a little bit. In that context, I could definitely see foregoing the extra file. But for most of us, this won’t apply.
Why not shoot just JPEG?
At the same time, there are some photographers who will think to themselves, “Well, I don’t process my pictures, so I might as well just shoot JPEGs to get the best looking file I can straight out of the camera.” To those that don’t process their pictures, I would first say, “You should be.” You don’t need to make dramatic changes or make them look surreal, but you can do wonders with some tweaks.
In any case, just because you don’t do any processing of your pictures now doesn’t mean you won’t ever process your pictures. In a year or two, you might change your mind. When that happens, you don’t want to be kicking yourself for not having obtained the best files possible.
Best of both worlds
I have been shooting RAW+JPEG for several years now. Do I actually use the JPEGs? Admittedly, almost never. I always edit the RAW files and usually don’t touch the JPEGs. As mentioned, however, the JPEGs don’t cost me anything so I am sticking with this setting. In addition, there were few times when I was on the road and wanted to send photos straight from my camera so having the JPEG turned out to be useful.
So that’s how it works for me. But ultimately the decision on what type of files you want to create is up to you. What do you think? Is shooting RAW+JPEG the best of both worlds of a waste of space?