Most serious photographers prefer RAW files to JPEGs. They take more time and storage, but the payback is greater quality and flexibility. It’s not a one-sided argument – JPEGs have some advantages which are obvious, and some which are not – but here are six important reasons why RAW files are the way to go for more advanced photo editing.
1. Recover shadow and highlight detail
This is one of the biggest advantage of RAW files. They contain extended shadow and highlight detail that you won’t get with in-camera JPEGs. Digital camera sensors have a particular weakness with highlights, and with the right RAW software you can recover up to 1EV of extra highlight information to restore some tone in bright skies or bright surfaces and textures.
2. Choose the white balance later
This sounds a small point but it’s actually quite important, particularly with scenes in mixed or artificial lighting where the camera doesn’t not have a preset to match the lighting exactly, and you don’t have time to measure and create a custom setting. In mixed lighting you often need to decide what looks ‘right’ later on. JPEGs use the white balance settings you chose and discard unused color data; RAW files retain all the color data regardless of the camera’s white balance setting.
3. Apply LUTs and Profiles
Lightroom uses Profiles, other programs use LUTs, but they do the same job, ‘remapping’ the tones and colors in the original image on to new tones and colours. The can be used for color effects, vintage looks, custom black and white conversions and more. They work at a lower level than regular adjustment – they’re more like a pre-processing step to give you a better starting point. You CAN use LUTs and Profiles on JPEGs, but the extended color and tone data in RAW files will give much better results.
4. Choose your own noise reduction and sharpening
JPEGs come with the camera’s own noise reduction and sharpening already applied – there’s no way to wind this back. Often this is surprisingly good, but does not always give the best blend of noise reduction and detail rendition. With RAW files, you get to choose these settings yourself, right at the start of he image processing pipeline. With JPEGs, all you can do is try to improve on what’s already been done; with RAW files you’re in control right from the start.
5. Choose the best RAW processing (developing) software
Different RAW converters produce very different results. If all you’ve ever used is Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, you might be surprised at how your RAW files look in other software. RAW software is like old-school film developers – you choose the one that gives you the ‘look’ you like. The difference is that with film development there’s no going back, but with RAW files you can re-process them as many times as you like.
6. Create a 16-bit TIFF for further manipulation
Camera JPEGs are 8-bit images. 8 bits of data is enough to give smooth tonal transitions and high-quality images, but these can start to unravel with very heavy editing and manipulation. Gaps start to appear in the histogram and smooth gradations start to break up and ‘posterise’. If you are going to carry out heavy manipulation, you need a 16-bit TIFF image not an 8-bit JPEG, and the only way to get one of these is to create it from a RAW file. Cameras will usually shoot 14-bit RAW files, so these are upsampled to 16-bit TIFFs during the RAW processing phase (there are no 14-bit TIFFs). Some cameras only shoot 12-bit RAW files (these can still be reprocessed as 16-bit), while others (Hasselblads, for example) shoot 16-bit RAW files.