Photography for Beginners Part 11: RAW vs. Jpeg

Each post in this series builds on information discussed in previous posts. See the Photography for Beginners page on the menu for links to all the posts.

Part 10:  Focal Length

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This post is intended for beginning photographers who already have a camera that records RAW files, or who have been camera shopping, and want to know what all the fuss is about because they keep hearing the term “RAW” bandied around and don’t know what it means.

If you’ve done much reading about photography or research on buying a camera you’ve probably already come across mention of RAW files and how “you should always shoot in RAW.”

I’d never heard of RAW until I started looking for a camera in 2013 to replace my little pocket point and shoot, and my initial understanding was so basic as to be misleading. What I understood was that you need a camera that has RAW capability because RAW produces higher quality images than shooting in jpeg.

But here’s the vitally important fact that I was missing: RAW files have the potential to create higher quality photos. RAW files in and of themselves are not better images (right out of the camera they usually look worse than jpegs), and they don’t always produce a detectable improvement over images shot in jpeg.

To understand why we’ll first discuss what each file type is.

JPEG

A jpeg camera image file is a (mostly) finished product. The computer in your camera has built-in image processing software that automatically alters the image captured with the sensor to create a hopefully pleasing end result.

The camera’s processing engine tweaks color, noise reduction, sharpness, dynamic range, white balance, etc. Then the camera compresses all that digital info into a jpeg file, which is what you transfer to your computer to view and store.

While the image is intended to be a finished product, you can still do some light editing (post-processing). Edits like cropping and horizon straightening are no problem. You can also make some simple adjustments to things like brightness, contrast, saturation.

But how much post-processing you can do to a jpeg file is limited because the file retains less digital data than was originally captured by the sensor. If the jpeg contains serious flaws they can’t be fully corrected or eliminated in post.

Think of it like a cake. A jpeg file is a baked cake fresh out of the oven. You can put on a light coat of frosting and basic decoration to make it more visually pleasing and tastier, but the underlying cake itself is done and can’t be changed. It’s quick and easy, but you have to hope the cake was prepared correctly to begin with.

Modern camera jpeg engines produce good to excellent results much of the time. The final image will usually be perfectly acceptable for typical uses like sharing online or making prints for friends and family.

RAW

A RAW file contains all of the digital info captured by the camera’s sensor. Minimal in-camera processing is done to create the image file.

What this means is that the file you transfer to your computer is much larger than a jpeg, and it most likely won’t look as nice. It’s up to you to do all the processing to get the image to look as good as possible.

Because RAW files retain all the digital data captured by the camera’s sensor it’s possible to correct a lot of different kinds of flaws, and you have much greater flexibility in terms of enhancements to white balance, color, sharpness, noise reduction, etc.

Using our cake analogy, a RAW camera image file is the gathered ingredients to make the cake batter. The ingredients can be adjusted before being baked. Plus, you can do a much fancier decorating job on the cake. You can end up with a much better cake this way, but it takes a lot more time and effort to make it because you’re starting earlier in the process.

RAW files provide a clear advantage over jpegs if you plan to create large prints, you take a lot of high dynamic range photos that need extra processing, you do a lot of low light photography, and other similar situations in which extra effort is required to produce high quality photographs.

What does this mean in the real world?

It means that RAW camera files can only produce higher quality photographs than jpegs if you own and know how to use sophisticated image editing software.

Post-processing is a completely different skillset than photography. It requires technical aptitude, learning new terminology, an artistic eye, and experience in order to produce good results.

Some people take to it right away because they have a natural talent for it and love processing photos as much as they love taking them. Some people have a steeper learning curve and/or don’t enjoy processing that much, but feel the extra effort is worth it in order to create the best images possible. Some people struggle to master the software and/or don’t have the necessary artistic eye. They spend a lot of time and effort to produce a final image that looks no better (or maybe even worse) than a SOOC jpeg.

You don’t know which category you will fall into unless you give it a try. And by try I don’t mean working on a couple photos and then giving up because it’s too complicated. Like with any other skill, you have to study and practice for a while before you know if you’ll be any good at it.

What is needed in order to process RAW files?

*  A good image editing software program that handles the RAW file format your camera model produces. (Camera manufacturers create their own proprietary RAW formats.)

*  A high quality computer screen that you can calibrate.

*  A fast processor and plenty of RAM so your computer doesn’t choke while working with very large files.

*  A large hard drive to store the very large files.

You can see that all four of these involve spending money if you don’t already have what’s on the list. If you’re on a tight budget you can download a free image editor and work with the computer equipment you already own. It will make things more difficult, but at least you can get started.

Once you’ve learned enough to know if extensive post-processing is important to your photography you can decide how much money to invest in upgrading software and hardware.

How do you learn to post-process images?

The good news here is that learning doesn’t have to be expensive.

You can watch instructional videos on YouTube for free. Look for videos that use the same software that you have whenever possible, because features and terminology vary from program to program.

Watch videos from a lot of different content creators at first. Then focus on teachers who make videos that best fit your learning style.

As a supplement to free videos you can purchase one or more books. Ebooks tend to be inexpensive and display nicely on tablets, but a lot of people prefer a hard copy for this kind of thing and they cost a bit more.

If you learn best in a classroom setting you can look into what your local college extensions offer. Classes of this type cover a lot of material and will get you off to a good start. It will cost more, but could save you a lot of headaches and frustration if you’re not good at the self-taught thing.

Some camera stores offer short classes on specific editing topics for free or a small fee. You also might be able to find inexpensive classes at local community centers.

Should you shoot in RAW?

All over the web you see people who write about photography stating emphatically that you must shoot RAW. For advanced enthusiasts this is somewhat to mostly true. But as a beginner it’s a question only you can answer for yourself.

As a beginner there is so much to learn about photography and your camera that taking on learning an additional skill at the same time might be too overwhelming. That’s perfectly okay. Shoot in jpeg, have fun, and enjoy your photos.

If you are at a point where you are looking for ways to improve the quality of your photos and want to tackle post-processing, give it a try. If you like the results, advance that skillset alongside advancing your photography skills. If you hate it or aren’t any good at it, go back to shooting in jpeg, understanding what limitations that puts on you.

There is a have your cake and eat it too option. If your camera can record RAW files, it should also offer the option to shoot RAW + jpeg. If you set your camera to do that you will get both a RAW file and a jpeg file for every exposure you snap.

The advantage of shooting both is that you have the jpegs to start with, and the RAW files are stored to work with later on when you’re ready. The disadvantage is that this doubles the number of files you produce, and makes deleting crummy photos a bigger pain in the keester.

There are a lot of experienced photographers who take this middle ground approach. They shoot RAW + jpeg, and for a lot of their photos just tweak the jpeg file a bit and call it good. They use the jpeg because in many situations processing the RAW file takes extra work to get an end result that’s not any better than the jpeg. So why bother?

When a photo was taken under challenging conditions, or it’s an important photo, they use the RAW file and give it the extra care and attention necessary to produce a superior photograph.

A similar approach beginners might want to consider is shooting jpeg only most of the time, but switch to RAW + jpeg when you’re shooting in challenging conditions or it’s an important shoot. This cuts way down on the sheer number of files you have to deal with, while also making sure you have the RAW files when you might really want or need them.

Do I shoot RAW?

No. I’m a jpeg shooter.

My reasons are:

I haven’t yet wanted to put in the time and effort needed to learn editing concepts and how to use complicated software.

Good software isn’t cheap.

My computer hardware isn’t up to the task, especially the screen. (I’ve put all spare money into cameras and lenses in recent years.)

I don’t often take a photo that’s worth the extra effort and I don’t want to sort through and delete the multitude of unimportant RAW files. As my photography skills improve this could change.

I’m an expert procrastinator. Post-processing can be time-consuming and unprocessed, very large RAW files would just pile up on my computer to be worked on later. (Later in my world too often ends up being never.)

Though I do occasionally shot RAW + jpeg as insurance for down the road.

RAW vs. JPEG?

It’s up to you. You know yourself better than any photography blogger, so don’t choose based on “everyone” saying you must shoot RAW.

Choose what makes you happiest at this point in your photography journey. Base your decision on what you’re most comfortable with at this time, your skills, your interest level, and the types of photos you take.

If you’re content with jpegs, great. If you want to push your photography to the next level with processing RAW, that’s great too. If you want to change your mind at any point, you can!

The only person you need to please is yourself.

Part 12:  Image Quality

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