RAW vs Jpeg – is one definitely better than the other ?

As with almost every decision in digital photography, in the RAW vs jpeg dilemma you should consider the final use of the images and balance the effort involved with the quality of the results.

Shooting RAW has some definite advantages:

With most cameras you will be able to see an increase in detail rendering, also in the dynamic range, but usually only if you look at the images close enough. This is due to the need of a very fast conversion to be done in camera, and even if dedicated processors aare used, often the quality of a straight conversion of a RAW file using the original software on a computer will be superior of an orignal jpeg from the camera. Lately, the “good” DSLRs minimized this difference, some of them making it pretty invisible.

The main advantage of RAW is the fact that the white balance, tone (contrast), color (saturation), sharpness settings and in the Fuji S3/S5 case the dynamic range setting are not locked, but can be freely modified in post processing without seriously* altering the image quality.

Also, the range of exposure correction that can be applied without deteriorating the image is far greater when using RAW.

Some RAW users highlight the fact that if you archive the RAW files, you will be able to work on them with a better conversion software, should one appear in the future.

For those reasons, the RAW file is often referred to as a “digital negative” which can withstand a lot of correction after the shooting, as opposed to a “slide” which has all the characteristics locked, for good or the worse.

*even if you are told that RAW is RAW, it seems that some manufacturers apply some settings at the analog/digital conversion of the signal, so before saving the RAW files. My take is that the best idea is to shoot with both exposure and white balance as close to ideal, so only minor tweaks will be done in conversion.

Drawbacks of shooting RAW vs jpeg

The RAW files are bigger than jpegs, even if the camera is capable of shooting compressed RAW in a timely manner, so require more space on the cards, more buffer in the camera, more space on the computer.

Image management is a bit more complicated also, choosing the “keepers” could take a lot of time especially if you shot a few hundred of frames and you have to deliver the proofs in a hurry to the client.

Than, the RAW files have to be converted to tiff or jpeg to be used. This opens a can of worms as to which converter will be used, as well as the horse power of the computer used.

RAW converters

All camera manufacturers offer some software which allow RAW files conversion, some offer two flavors of the converter, usually a (very) limited free version and a professional one which allows much more options and batch conversion. Ex. Nikon View can be used to (primitively) convert NEFs, but only Nikon Capture will unlock all the marvelous possibilities of the NEF format. A similar situation is at Fuji, with Fuji FinePix Viewer and Hyper Utilities. Both “pro” software offer a module for shooting tethered to a computer.

From Photoshop 7, Adobe offers the Adobe Camera RAW Converter which is used by many photographers, mainly because of the improved workflow. My opinion is that even the camera manufacturer conversion software may look (and be) slower and clumsier, the image quality is in most cases visibly better.

Just recently, Apple entered the game with Aperture, which is a very interesting piece of software intended to offer a very fast workflow for RAW shooters, both for organizing and converting images. Apart from the steep price and huge hardware requirements, Aperture has yet to prove it’s ability to convert RAWs as well as the competition and to add some more cameras to the list of supported models.

Shooting jpegs

Is much more easier because the files are smaller, so more files will fit on the same cards, the camera buffer will allow more images, the files are ready to use (if the exposure and white balance was nailed during the shooting).

Shooting jpegs is very well suited to social photography, events, weddings, sport and all assignments were hundreds of images are taken in a hurry. Provided that the photographer is competent enough to get the exposure and white balance as close as possible, the jpegs can withstand the small amount of post processing needed to get them from good to excellent images.

For example, for social photography I use a Fuji S3 and shoot 6 Mpx jpegs. This makes a bearable task to trash the bad images from several hundred frames, than make the proofs for the client and only when the order is received the files will receive the final processing.

RAW vs jpeg conclusion

Shooting RAW vs jpeg may be a very personal decision. I use RAW for quality critical images and jpegs for event type shots which are usually taken in large quantities and will seldom be enlarged past 5″x7″.

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