So, JPEG or RAW? We still haven’t answered that question.
Raw, as we noted in Part I, requires post processing to become useable. “But, wait a minute,” you say. “If it requires processing, how come when I review my raw shots on my camera’s LCD, they look positively great!”
Gotcha. The raw image you took is not what you’re seeing. Remember, raw only records the data registered by the individual pixels, and that means only the light striking the sensor is really recorded. Then, appended to that raw file, is a bunch of information detailing the following user settings: white balance, contrast, color saturation, sharpness, and a few other things that would have been processed into the actual image had you been shooting in JPEG. When your camera “displays” that “raw” image on the camera’s LCD, it retrieves the appended user settings and replicates those settings in the displayed image, so what it’s really doing is giving you a processed image.
But since white balance, contrast, color saturation, and sharpness aren’t really pixel-related information, none of that stuff gets displayed off the camera without processing. This can be a good thing. Suppose you took raw photographs in bright sunlight when you belatedly realize that you forgot that your camera was previously set to Shade? Well, that’s bad. You’ve just ruined your prize shot of Honolulu taken from atop Diamondhead after you spent an hour or so climbing up there.
Good news: No, you haven’t. That setting—white balance—isn’t made at the pixel level. You can change the white balance manually in post-processing using your computer and the raw processing software that came with your camera.
Load the raw file into the raw image conversion software, change the white balance after the fact, and when you convert that raw image to a JPEG there will be absolutely, positively zero difference between the image you just manually processed and the image that would have existed had you taken it in JPEG format with the white balance set correctly in the first place. In other words, all you’re doing is using your computer to apply the processing that your camera would normally have done internally when shooting a JPEG. If instead the shot had been made with the correct white balance, then all you would need to do is convert the existing raw image to JPEG using the raw file’s appended camera setting information. This also works to make changes in any other non-exposure related user setting, such as contrast, color saturation, and sharpness.
So, taking pictures in raw is sort of like having a second chance to get the shot right . . . within limitations. Raw manipulation fixes all that appended user information perfectly, but it’s less capable at fixing mistakes in exposure—information that was derived from the light striking the sensor at the pixel level. Those exposure basics are of course sensitivity to light (ISO), shutter speed, and the amount of light being passed through the lens (aperture). Raw is far less forgiving at fixing these problems because that’s the information recorded at the pixel level. Still, you do have at least a bit more leeway fixing basic exposure problems in raw than you do with a JPEG image because raw records several more stops’ worth of dynamic range than does JPEG. The reason for this goes back to the greater bit depth of the raw file over that 8-bit limit for JPEGs that we discussed in Part I.
By the way, you’re not really “converting” that raw file. It still exists untouched on your hard drive after the “conversion.” All you’ve really done is duplicated it into a processed JPEG. So, if you screw up the processing, no harm has been done to the original image.
Before we move on back to JPEG, I promised to let you in on the secret to getting around JPEG’s 8-bit color depth to take full advantage of the much greater color and tonal range offered by your camera’s raw files. The way to do this is to forego conversion to JPEG altogether. Instead, use the raw conversion software that came with your camera to convert to something called TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) which records at either eight bits or an incredible sixteen bits depending on what you select. That’s far more information than even the 12- or 14-bits recorded in your camera’s raw file. Unfortunately, this eats up a huge amount of disk storage space, so you only want to do this if you’re a professional photographer or you’re making a poster-sized print of a specific shot. Otherwise, stick with the 16.8 million colors you get with JPEG. You won’t miss it when displaying your photographic gems on a computer display or when ordering normal sized prints, and you probably wouldn’t be able to see the difference unless you start blowing up pictures to well over 16×20 inches.
JPEG image files can also be fixed, but to a much smaller degree and with far less leeway. That’s because you’re manipulating the already processed image rather than merely reinterpreting and converting pixel-level image data. And don’t forget, that JPEG image was already compressed to begin with by the camera’s internal processing. Any additional manipulation you perform degrades the image every time you save it. Also, user settings such as white balance are locked in, so while you may think you’re changing the white balance, in actuality all you’re doing is digitally shifting the image’s existing colors. That’s a dirty way to do it, and this “shifting” is far more limited than the ability to apply an entirely different white balance to the individual pixels in a raw image file. It’s kind of like the difference between dying a white shirt red (raw), and just putting a red lens in front of your eyes to give the illusion that your white shirt is red (JPEG).
So, which is better, JPEG or raw? I said before that we would definitively answer this question . . . sort of. As with much in life the answer is an unequivocal, “It depends.” Don’t you just hate that?
For the vast majority of people who want a point-and-shoot camera without all the complexity of learning actual photographic theory or how to manipulate all the settings on their camera, JPEG is definitely the way to go. Let’s be brutally honest here. If you can’t be bothered to take your camera off automatic, you sure as heck aren’t going to want to sit at a computer later and manually do the “processing” that your camera does automatically when you’re shooting in JPEG for . . . every . . . single . . . picture. Besides, unless your computer monitor is properly calibrated for color correctness, chances are what you “process” on the screen is going to wind up being less accurate than what your camera’s internal processor would have given you to begin with. In that case, you may very well wind up thinking you have a perfectly processed image that you converted from raw, only to find out that the resulting poster you had printed has a horrible greenish tint to it that didn’t show up on your uncalibrated monitor.
And even if you’re an experienced photo nut with over forty years of experience with this art form, you’ll frequently find that JPEG shooting will handle your photographic needs probably 95% of the time or better. That’s certainly the case with me. In fact, I will say right here and now that the vast majority of camera users can safely buy a camera with absolutely no raw capability and will probably never miss it. Rather than trying to learn the intricacies of raw, these people would be much better off learning proper exposure techniques and when to take the camera off AWB and manually set in a specific white balance before taking the shot.
That doesn’t mean some of you won’t want to shoot in the raw, at least occasionally. It’s great to have the capability if you’re willing to dedicate the time to learn the techniques necessary to take full advantage of it. And there will be photographic situations where raw simply must be used. Perhaps you’re in a confusing light situation—a halogen lighted room with sunlight streaming in through shaded windows, for instance. What to do? Sunlight setting? Shade perhaps? Go with the Light Bulb balance? In such cases, raw can be invaluable in post-processing the correct white balance later. Or, perhaps you’re on the trip of your dreams and you want that “second chance” raw affords you when taking that once-in-a-lifetime photograph. You certainly wouldn’t want to have to climb back on top of Diamondhead just because you blew the white balance, would you? That’s when you might wish your camera had raw image capability, but with a little care in properly setting up your camera you still wouldn’t need it.
So, in conclusion, my recommendation is to go with JPEG for nearly every shot you take. As you get a bit more experienced, and if your camera has the capability, you might want to experiment with raw processing as it can be fun. On a limited basis. Sometimes. But you won’t want to sit at a computer and individually process the 1,247 shots you took on your last vacation. That is definitely not fun, and it may very well destroy your enjoyment of the hobby. And if your camera doesn’t have raw capability? Don’t worry about it. Certainly don’t go spending good money just to acquire that capability unless you have a true need for it. As I said, the vast majority of you will never need raw unless you’re a professional photographer. And the amateur who does occasionally need raw will still be shooting JPEG most of the time, unless they have way too much time on their hands or are just lousy at camera settings.