RAW vs. JPEG used to be a controversial topic, but now it's kind of old hat in photography circles. That said, I'm going to talk about it today because it's foundational for my upcoming series involving Lightroom 5, so bear with me.
So what the heck is RAW?
When shooting photos, all cameras use one of two formats, JPEG or RAW. On most cameras JPEG is the default image format. If you're shooting with an iPhone or other camera phone, you have no choice. You shoot JPEG and that's it. This post isn't for you. However, if you own a DSLR like a Canon T3i (My recommended beginner DSLR), you're in luck. On these cameras, you can shoot in RAW, which allows you way more room to edit your photos in post.
The reason for this is that RAW essentially takes all the image data captured by your camera's sensor and puts it into a file (.CR2 for most Canon cameras, .NEF for Nikon users) for you to process. JPEG is a compressed file that applies the camera's default adjustments (called a Picture Style) to the image data, then discards the unused data for a smaller file that is easy to share straight off your card (or through your camera's WiFi for you fancy people out there).
To switch to RAW, go into the menu on your camera, and look for the "Image Quality" option. Select it, then scroll down to the option that says RAW. You can shoot both RAW and JPEG simultaneously, but unless you have a specific reason to do so, I would recommend against this. Some journalistic organizations with quick turnaround times sometimes ask photographers to shoot JPEG in order to have photos off to print by the deadlines, so some of those photographers will use that setting to have RAW files to edit later, but most of you will never need that setting.
So why RAW instead of JPEG?
Without ruining my upcoming Lightroom tutorials, I just want to show you an example of the difference between editing a RAW file and editing a JPEG in the exact same way. (Click the photos for Full View)
This is a photo that I took during the Singing Christmas Tree at Bellevue Baptist Church. Several of my siblings participated in the production, and I was there to cheer them on, like a good brother should. However, I brought my camera with me as well, and I got this incredible shot of Mary being visited by the Angel Gabriel. The photo above is the unedited RAW file. As you can see, it's underexposed, highly contrasted, and the white balance is WAY off. Here's the final photo, after all my adjustments were made.
As you can see, there's a huge difference! I lightened the image, reduced contrast to bring the detail out of the shadows, shifted the hue of the smoke, and changed the white balance on the skin to make it more natural looking. Now, when I posted this image comparison on FB a few weeks ago, I got the comment that you could get the same results shooting JPEG as you would with RAW (If you're reading this post, you know who you are, haha). So just for them, I exported the original as a JPEG then applied the same edits to the photo to see how it turned out (please excuse the poor adjustment brushing on the hands. this is just for demonstration purposes).
Keep in mind here that I applied the exact same settings to this photo. There are quite a few differences, so let's dive in (You'll want to bring up the full size versions of these). First of all, the quality isn't the same. Lightening the JPEG brought out a ton compression artifacts in the background panels that look really ugly, while the RAW is nice and smooth after a light pass of noise reduction (applied to both photos). Also, there's a lot more color information in the RAW file, while the blue color channel is blown out in the JPEG, particularly on the back of her headscarf (look at where the color is still that neon purple from the original). Also, the image retains less information overall, resulting in dead looking skin tones, and an overall more desaturated image with crushed shadows and blown highlights. While potentially usable, it's applications are limited. Compare that to the edited RAW on the other hand, which made it into my portfolio.
But what about file size?
Yes it's true that RAW files are huge. The average is around 30 MB per photo. That's why I carry around four 32 GB SD Cards whenever I shoot (which reminds me, I need to buy some new ones soon. I'm wearing mine out).
"But Tim, I don't have enough storage space on my computer!" Then go buy one of these. It's just a little over $50 and it holds a Terabyte of data. That's enough to store over 30k raw photos, which is plenty for most people. I'm personally close to filling up my fourth terabyte of hard drive space, but that's because I do a lot of video work as well (don't even get me started on how big those files are. A RED Scarlet will fill up one of those drives after just six hours of shooting. Yikes!). That drive is the newly updated version of the hard drive that I carry around in my camera bag in case I need to edit photos before I can get back home. Today, digital storage space is so cheap, that there's no excuse for losing quality just to save a bit of space on your hard drive.
RAW is better, hands down. If you're in a hurry to get your pictures out, then shoot RAW+JPEG, but always keep the RAW files for future editing. After all, you never know when you'll take a shot that's perfect for your portfolio!
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