“Windy Day’ – Red squirrel. An image like this is best shot in RAW so that you can choose how to process for the highest quality. If you let your camera decide how to process into a JPEG, you’ve got nowhere to go afterwards.
Ever since I can remember, the RAW vs JPEG debate has rumbled on. It tends to prompt black or white opinions despite the answer not being as clear cut as you might think.
In fact there are good reasons for using both formats in different circumstances, depending on what and how you’re photographing.
I’ve been teaching photography workshops for several years now and I still find it useful to talk to people about the pros and cons behind each format. When you buy a camera, more often than not its factory default settings will have you shooting JPEG. I’ll discuss here when that’s a good idea and when you need to switch to RAW. Or indeed when to plump for both together.
The Raw Truth
RAW is the format your camera stores its native information in. So when you press the shutter button, this is the raw information that the camera saves; the whole photo in all its glory. Some examples of RAW file extensions (when you look at them on a computer) are .NEF (Nikon), .CR2 (Canon), .SR2 (Sony) and .ORF (Olympus).
The principal reasons for shooting in RAW are quality and flexibility. RAW files keep the highest amount of information that your camera’s sensor records, which allows you to process that into meaningful images later in RAW processing software such as Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture, DxO Optics, Capture One etc. These RAW processors allow you to interpret the image file the way you want it whilst retaining maximum detail, colour and dynamic range. Once you’re happy with the processing, you can then export the image as a JPEG, TIFF or other image file for printing, sharing or web upload.
Having all the image data to hand gives you more flexibility when working with the photo on the computer. This means you can alter the image (exposure, colour, shadow detail, highlights, sharpness, etc.) to a greater extent than you could if you shot in JPEG.
Almost Perfect, But…
So, we’ll just shoot in RAW all the time then, eh? Well, let’s consider JPEG format for a minute. What we are actually doing when shooting JPEGs is asking the camera to throw away some of the raw information. Surely that’s just daft. Why would you want to throw away any of your lovely photograph?
Well, in many cases, raw files can be very large indeed. They take up a lot of room on your SD / compact flash card. Not only that, but the sheer processing required to move this amount of data around inside your camera can slow it down considerably.
Where this really comes to the fore is when you need to shoot a whole sequence of images in quick succession. This can produce a phenomenon known as buffer lock-up where the camera refuses to take any more pictures until it has finished writing all of the image data from its internal temporary store (the buffer) to the data card. This can vary considerably between different cameras.
At best this can be an inconvenient hiatus as the camera stops you from taking any more photos for a second or two. At worst, the camera may completely lock you out for tens of seconds while it shuffles all the data off to the card. By this point the critical action will have passed.
Have a look at this demonstration between a fast camera (Nikon D4) and a much slower one (Nikon D800E) taking continuous RAW files: