Almost any photographic expert will tell you that you should shoot RAW files not JPEGs, and that RAW files are innately superior. The trouble with this kind of wisdom is that it’s repeated and passed on without question.
It seems obvious. RAW files contain all the data captured by the sensor, as 12-bit, 14-bit or sometimes 16-bit files, whereas JPEGs are 8-bit images that contain a truncated version processed in a nanosecond inside the camera according to the settings you chose at the time. Bits and bit depths explained.
Let’s be clear. RAW files are better for post-shot manipulation. There’s no question about that. But JPEGs and in-camera processing are better than people imagine, and these too have their place.
This idea of RAW superiority is reinforced by the fact that ‘amateur’ cameras shoot only JPEGs, and only serious cameras like compact system cameras and D-SLRs can shoot RAW files.
So let’s look at some of the common perceptions around RAW files and see if they really are as clear-cut as they seem:
01 RAW files are better for white balance adjustments
They are only better in that they let you choose the white balance setting later. This can get you out of a hole if you didn’t choose the right one when you took the picture, or if you didn’t have time. But don’t expect a third-party RAW converter to match the camera’s white balance presets, even if you choose the same temperature and tint settings. You get flexibility, but you don’t necessarily get accuracy.
02 RAW files give you more dynamic range
It depends on the camera. I shoot a lot with Fujifilm cameras that have automatic dynamic range extension, and the camera produces dynamic range almost as good as I can achieve from the RAW files in Capture One or Lightroom. Pentax D-SLRs offer dynamic range extension options which are equally effective – and they don’t produce the flat-looking images you often get after shadow and highlight recovery in RAW converters. Nikon D-SLRs have an Active D-Lighting mode which adjusts the exposure and shadow recovery in tandem to produce more balanced JPEGs with high-contrast scenes. Your RAW converter may do a better job with some manual work on your part, but the differences may be smaller than you expect – see what your camera can do first.
03 RAW files are better for noise reduction
Camera makers have got pretty good at in-camera noise reduction. Some models produce a nasty ‘watercolour’ effect at very high ISOS that you can certainly improve on, others strike a very good balance between noise and detail that it can be hard to match, let alone improve on, using a RAW processor. Remember that the camera maker knows its own hardware inside out. So don’t assume RAW files will always be better for noise and detail – check.
04 You need to shoot RAW for lens corrections
Not true. Lightroom and DxO can apply their lens correction profiles to JPEGs too. Having the RAW data may, in theory, produce slightly better results, but it’s hard to prove in practice.
But hang on. Many cameras now can apply corrections to JPEGs during processing and, again, the camera maker knows its own hardware inside out, so these corrections are pretty good. Nikon D-SLRs fitted with Nikon lenses can correct both chromatic aberration and lens distortion automatically, whereas their RAW files are uncorrected. The same applies to Sony cameras and almost all mirrorless models. Unless the corrections are baked into the RAW file and your software can aply them – your RAW files start out worse than the JPEGs.
05 RAW files give better contrast, colour and saturation
In theory, having the RAW data available means you can apply more extreme adjustments without image degradation. In practice, it’s rare for a RAW converter’s initial conversion to match the contrast, saturation, depth and colour fidelity of the camera’s JPEGs. They usually start from a little way back, so you have to work a little to get your RAW file looking as good as the JPEG, and you might not be able to make it look better. If you’re not intending to carry out any serious manipulation, a camera JPEG can give you a better result out of the box than a RAW file.
06 All the pros use RAW files
Most do, much of the time, but not always. Many will shoot RAW+JPEG so that they can quickly send a JPEG to the client but keep the RAW file in reserve in case they need it – which they may not. Sports photographers will often shoot JPEGs rather than RAW because the camera’s internal buffer takes much longer to fill up. If you’re a sports professional, it’s often more important to know that the camera can record a long burst – and be ready to shoot the next one immediately afterwards – than it is to have RAW files.
07 Publishers demand uncompressed TIFFs, not lossy JPEGs
Not true. I work in both print and online publishing, and the universal currency is JPEGs. They’re small enough to email and they don’t clog up our desktop machines or server space. The difference in quality is not significant – in fact it’s rarely even visible. And the limitations of the printing process itself will cover up any tiny differences there might actually be. For art publications or exhibitions, you might want to go with a TIFF file, but the real value of TIFFs today is as a high-quality intermediate format during editing.
08 JPEGs degenerate every time you save them
JPEG compression is lossy, and continually editing and re-saving an image will soon reveal a progressive quality loss IF you use a low quality setting just to prove the point. So there are two things here. The first is that if you use a high quality compression setting, this generation loss is much slower. The second is that nobody works this way anyway. You wouldn’t scan and edit a print when you have the negative, so any photographer would return to their original JPEG to create a new edited image, not a previously edited one. If you always work from your original JPEG, generational quality loss will not be an issue.
09 JPEGs have artefacts
Yes and no. Yes they do if you use silly low-quality compression settings just to prove a point; no they don’t if you use Fine or High quality settings. High levels of JPEG compression can produce a loss of fine detail, ‘scratchy’ edges around objects and ‘block’ artefacts in areas of even tone, which is why you shouldn’t use them. But often when people complain about JPEG artefacts, they are often confusing them with the limitations of cameras in general and 8-bit file formats. Cameras with single layer sensors need to use a color filter array and a demosaicing process to capture color, then interpolate this color data and sharpen the image up at the same time. You’ll see sharpening artefacts and noise in RAW files and TIFFs too. If the sharpening seems especially crude in JPEGs, the camera will almost certainly have a setting for reducing it. In processing, if you increase the contrast in even-toned areas in a JPEG, you may get banding or posterising. That’s because JPEGs are 8-bit files and there’s not enough tonal depth for this kind of work. This would happen with an 8-bit TIFF, too. It’s the 8-bit part that’s the problem, not the file format.
10 RAW files are best for archiving
This true if you always want a ‘digital negative’ to fall back on, but RAW files have disadvantages for everyday image cataloguing and searching. You can’t directly edit a RAW file, and this has consequences. The first is that any editing adjustments you make will be visible only in the software that you used to make them – until you export the image as a JPEG or a TIFF. The second is that you can’t embed keywords, captions or any other metadata. This has to be stored alongside the RAW file in a ‘sidecar’ file, or in your cataloguing software’s library file. These are two key image characteristics that are both software dependent and easily ‘disconnected’ from the RAW file. JPEGs are much more robust. JPEGs look the same in any software, you can embed keywords and other metadata and you can use and share them straight away without processing.