The Realities of RAW

“Is it better to shoot Raw or JPEG?” It’s a question I hear often yet there‘s no quick and easy answer. Although the image quality from a Raw file is superior to a JPEG and the Raw format is less degrading, it merits a closer look to determine which might work better for you.

Compression is applied to all digital image files in order to make them smaller for storage purposes. By selecting Raw in your camera’s Image Quality settings, the compression is “lossless” meaning all the capture information is preserved giving you the maximum amount of data to work with for editing and printing. The JPEG format, on the other hand, uses a “lossy” type of compression - some capture information is discarded from the file before it is written to the memory card.

File Processing   -  All digital images, whether JPEG or Raw, are processed; JPEGs are processed in the camera using the cameras built in software, while Raw files are processed after the fact by the photographer. This gives Raw shooters total control over how their images will be rendered and although it requires the extra work of post processing, the advantages are well worth it. However, if you would rather be anywhere but in-front of a computer monitor and would rather avoid learning the software skills needed to process Raw files, then stay with JPEGs and enjoy their ease of use and the freedom they offer.

XMP files store the metadata and travel together with the Raw files. (NEF are Nikon's Raw files.)

Metadata and XMP files  -  Both Raw and JPEG files contain information (referred to  as metadata) about how the image was captured such as the ISO setting, shutter speed, aperture, the camera model, the lens and it’s focal length, the date captured, etc. A Raw file will contain the  above metadata AND the unprocessed data from the sensor such as the white balance setting, tone, contrast, sharpening and a JPEG thumbnail for a quick preview.

The data from the Raw capture travels with the file as an XMP file and needs to be processed in Raw conversion software before it can be saved as a JPEG, TIFF, PSD, etc., or edited, printed or shared. Any changes to the settings of the Raw file are saved in the XMP file as an instruction set to be carried out by the editing program. The original file remains unchanged and can be processed many times, each with a different outcome if so preferred. (Very similar to a film negative - it can be reprinted many times but the original/negative never changes.)

Raw files offer much greater flexibility when correcting errors in capture settings than do JPEGs. Anyone who’s ever tried to correct the color cast from a JPEG shot with the wrong white balance knows how difficult and time consuming this can be even with the great and mighty Photoshop.

Software   -  Most cameras that capture Raw files come with software that at the very least will allow for viewing and some minimal processing but it’s worth looking into some of the more robust Raw conversion software programs, a few of which are listed below.

  • Adobe Lightroom is one of the most popular programs as a Raw file processor but it’s also one of the most powerful programs for organizing and cataloging your images.
  • Adobe Photoshop* including Elements version 3 and above, provide the plug-in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR).  *Older versions, CS & CS2, may not support newer camera files
  • Apple Aperture is available for Mac users.
  • Nikon’s Capture NX  is a great program but will only read the Raw files from Nikon (NEF)
  • Phase One’s Capture One is also a great program for organizing and cataloging your images.

Most of these programs offer the time-saving option to process many images at one time (batch processing) as well the ability to apply settings to the files as they’re downloaded. For example, the photographer can apply contrast, tone, sharpening and saturation as well as embedding their copyright information to the Raw files at the time of import or download by using presets they create. With one or two clicks of the mouse,  these setting can be applied all at the same time.

When Raw files are first opened, they appear flat, lacking contrast and saturation - quite different from when they were viewed on the LCD screen on the back of camera because the LCD screen displays the JPEG with the in-camera processing applied.

Raw Format    One drawback to the Raw format is the lack of standardization between camera manufacturers; each use their own proprietary format which is not publicaly documented or shared. There is concern that as new cameras come out and older ones fade away, there may come a day when programs in the future will not be able to read many of the proprietary files from the past. The JPEG format on the other hand, is a universally accepted; regardless of their age, JPEGs can be used with any program on the market, old or new.

Adobe has attempted to standardize the Raw image format with their DNG format (Digital Negative DNG) and although camera companies have not adopted this, it shouldn’t prevent us from taking advantage of it on the back end. Once Raw files are downloaded, they can be saved to the DNG format ensuring they’ll be supported in the future giving our children and grandchildren the ability to access the images we are capturing today. (More info on this can be found on the Adobe website, www.adobe.com

Once upon a time I was reluctant to switch to Raw even though I knew the quality of the file was superior. I wasn’t comfortable with the conversion process, and I didn’t relish the thought having to learn new software. Unwilling to give up the ease and freedom that JPEGs gave me, I sat on the fence for a while and was lucky because my camera gave me the option to shoot both (Raw + JPEG)Thankfully, it wasn’t long before I learned how to use the Lightroom program and when I compared my processed Raw files to my in-camera processed JPEGs, the difference convinced me and I stopped shooting JPEGs altogether.

The Pros and Cons of Raw vs JPEG.

PROS Raw

  • The complete (lossless) data from the camera’s sensor is captured.
  • Gives a higher quality file (usually 12 to 14 bit) and can be edited as 16 bit. This gives 65,536 levels of information to work with in processing and editing as well as expanded dynamic range (details in the shadows & highlights).
  • Photographer controls how the final image is rendered making adjustments with powerful post processing software.
  • The Raw file can be processed several different ways but the original remains safe and unchanged.

CONS Raw

  • Takes up more storage space on memory cards and computer
  • File must be processed before it can be edited, printed or shared and this can take time.
  • Need to learn how to use Raw processing software.
  • Saving Raw files to the memory card may take more time than JPEGs - not ideal for continuous shooting or burst mode (sports or fast action).

PROS JPEG

  • Smaller file size takes up less storage space on memory cards and computer.
  • Files are ready to use right out of the camera.
  • If capturing in burst mode or continuous shooting, JPEG files are written to memory card faster than Raw images.

CONS JPEG

  • Some original capture information is discarded.
  • Less information to work with in editing. Usually 8 bit (256 levels of information) with a lower dynamic range.
  • Camera software decides how image is processed.
  • Each time a JPEG is saved, some info is discarded, and the file degraded.

Is it better to shoot Raw or JPEG? It’s a question each person has to answer for themselves. Weigh the options, consider the pros and cons and decide which is best for you.

TERMS 
Raw – No acronym, just ‘Raw’ meaning unprocessed in the camera.
JPEG - Joint Photographic Experts Group, an image compression standard.
XMP - Extensible Metadata Platform, technology allows data about a file to be embedded into the file itself.

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