In our previous post, we looked at RAW vs. JPEG image formats. While this may have been news to some, professional photographers will roll their eyes and say, “Duh!” while at the same time spending way too much time processing images they capture. While each format is useful RAW is clearly, absolutely, the superior format. Don’t let anyone tell you that JPEGs are just as good as RAWs because the bottom line is that they are not!
Truth is, however, you shouldn’t use RAW “just because you can.”
On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of thinking a JPEG is just as good as a RAW file. There is a vast difference in the amount of information retained in a RAW file compared to a JPEG. The best thing a beginning photographer can do is to experiment with the different formats themselves and see how the camera and the computer process the files, and in turn the visual information, differently.
While RAW is the superior format, shooting in RAW may not be necessary or desirable at every occasion. Both formats have their uses, and working photographers use both formats frequently. Here are some basic guidelines that can help you determine if you need to be making your photographs in RAW or JPEG format.
Journalistic shooting (RAW)
Journalistic photography is fast moving with constantly changing lighting, scenes, backgrounds, subjects, etc., and these need to be shot in the RAW. No photographer (no matter the experience level) has the ability to shoot the “perfect exposure” every time. Imagine the chaos if you required your subjects to stop crying, smiling or laughing, just so you can dial in just the right amount of exposure compensation, or manually set your settings. Now try to imagine the chaos of trying to get the perfect pose from animals! Impossible. Shooting RAW allows you to quickly shoot while having enough information to fix possible exposure issues later. Journalists, wedding photographers, event photographers, etc. need to be shooting RAW.
Likewise, landscapes, nature, and virtually any scene that has a high Dynamic Range require shooting in RAW to allow you to have additional post-production flexibility to darken (burn) the highlights, while raising (dodging) the shadows, and properly tone-map an image.
When JPEG is Acceptable or Best
JPEG is immediate processing so when you need to display a same-day slideshow for a client, or you want to have them available for immediate proofing, then you should shoot in JPEG. If you need post production flexibility and the ability to immediately use the files, then switch to RAW+JPEG so you have both.
When shooting for the Web JPEG is best because you don’t really need perfect images. You also don’t need to have the post production flexibility of a RAW file. After all, is a small 500-pixel image selling a car on Craig’s List going to do a better job if it were a RAW file? Most likely not.
JPEGs also take up less storage space, so if your computer space or memory card is limited, switch to JPEG.
To Save Time Processing Images: Use JPEG
As a photographer, you have the option to use JPEG or RAW for your own personal use. However, just because you are a professional photographer, it does not mean that all of your photos need to have the same quality, tonal range, or flexibility as your professional images. In more casual situations, such as a family member’s birthday or pets playing in the backyard, it makes more sense in the long-term to shoot in JPEG. If every single photo you take is RAW you will be running into storage difficulties before too long, storing so many external hard drives that soon your closet may consist of little more. If you are traveling internationally and are in situations that will be difficult, if not impossible to re-shoot, then it makes sense to shoot RAW.
JPEG is great for rapid succession burst shooting. For example, when photographing live action sports, photographers often are using burst sequences shooting in rapid succession. This allows the photographer to shoot many images in a very short amount of time, often many frames per second. If shooting RAW, the camera’s buffer will fill up very quickly. This means that the camera will stop to process the buffered images, thus making the photographer unable to continue shooting. The camera is transferring those images from the buffer to the memory card and, therefore, can no longer actively capture images during that time. Shooting JPEG will allow for a lot more shots prior to filling the buffer. In this situation, it is best to switch to JPEG, dial in all of the exposure and temperature settings within camera and fire away.
As you can see, there are times you will want to shoot RAW and a time you will need to use the JPEG shots even though RAW is available. The rule here is that you don’t want to be spending crazy amounts of time processing images when the differences are going to be negligible and go unnoticed. Know your audience, know your situation, know your use for the images, and select appropriately. You will make the right choice … I can almost guarantee it!