RAW versus JPG: Digital Camera File Format Faceoff

RAW and JPG are different ways of creating photos in a digital camera. Each has advantages and disadvantages. In the Blue corner we have Wolfcat who argues in favour of the RAW file format and in the Red corner we have Neerav who argues in favour of the JPG file format.

Pro-JPG Argument

For some background so you understand where I’m coming from: I love to take photos, mostly of urban streets, wilderness and wildlife.

I take 99.9% of my photos in JPG format and have used these successfully to create A4 posters, a photo book, sold photos for use in technology websites and magazines to accompany my articles, and had some displayed in an art gallery on 32-50inch TV screens.

I understand that RAW has some technical benefits but for the vast majority of photographers out there JPG will be the best option because:

  • for 99% of people JPG image quality is already far more than they need
  • it’s convenient because images don’t require any post-processing
  • the vast majority of keen amateur photographers don’t have the time or inclination to sit at a computer for hours after a day spent taking photos, post-processing RAW camera files into JPG photos manually one by one.
  • RAW files cannot be immediately shared to the Internet because they require processing with a computer that is reasonably fast. When I take photographs at events I can share the best JPGs to Flickr within minutes using my cheap, underpowered netbook computer,
  • the more affordable digital cameras used by keen amateur photographers are noticeably slower at taking RAW format photos than JPG’s. I guarantee “RAW only” hardliners have missed out on photo opportunities because their camera takes time recording each massive RAW file,
  • JPG file sizes are far smaller and therefore take up less space on your camera card, in your photo archive, and when transferring them internally on your home network or on the internet.
  • Arguments that storage space is getting cheaper are irrelevant. Try calculating how many camera cards you’d need to store 100 photos/day, every day for a month on holiday and you’ll see what I mean,
  • JPG files can be viewed on any desktop or laptop computer as well as many electronic devices including smartphones, TV’s, dvd/bluray players etc,
  • RAW encourages lazy “i can always do it properly on the computer” photography. I own Photoshop CS5 and find it useful, but much prefer to get the camera settings right first time in the camera and not have to spend time fiddling later

There are over a hundred different variations of RAW file formats needing special software to convert them to JPG. Often new cameras record in a RAW format that can’t be opened by older image processing applications like Adobe Photoshop.

If you must use RAW then DNG is the best RAW format for archival purposes. The US Library of Congress classified proprietary RAW files as “Less desirable file formats” suggesting that DNG be used instead.

The only times I would ever consider using a RAW format such as DNG are:

  1. if I was being paid to do a commercial photography job. Even then I’d use DNG+JPG which takes each photo in both formats so I could use the JPG’s immediately and the DNG’s only if required.
  2. If I was on holiday and paying lots of money for a unique one off experience eg: hot air balloon ride then I’d set my camera to DNG+JPG.

I leave the final word to respected amateur photographer and camera reviewer Ken Rockwell:

If you shoot hundreds or thousands of images in a day shoot JPG and don’t worry. The quality is the same for almost all intents and purposes as raw, and the raw files would take gigabytes or tens of gigabytes and resultant hours to download, convert, catalog and burn to backup CDs. In fact, if you shoot this much then JPG can give better quality since attempting to shoot this much raw will constipate your workflow and you could miss making some images entirely as your cards fill up. You’d always be running out of memory cards or time waiting for the access light to stop blinking.

If you love to tweak your images one-by one and shoot less than about a hundred shots at a time than raw could be for you. In fact, if you prefer the look you can get from raw (it may be different from JPG in some cases depending on software) you can let your computer batch process images and save the results as JPGs, too. I almost never shoot anything in raw, and when I do I never see any difference for all the effort I wasted anyway. (I can see differences if I blow things up to 100% or bigger on my computer, but not in prints.)
JPG vs RAW – Get it right the first time (Ken Rockwell)

Further reading
The RAW Flaw – Luminous Landscape
Are Raw Files Forever? – Luminous Landscape

DNG – Sustainability of Digital Formats – Planning for Library of Congress Collections
Still Image Preferences – Sustainability of Digital Formats – Planning for Library of Congress Collections
Raw as Archival Still Image Format: A Consideration (University of Connecticut Libraries)

Adobe TV – Advantages of DNG format

Pro-RAW Argument

First confession I shoot RAW and JPG. However 99% of the time I just ignore the JPG files, cause I never use them, never see them and they just end up taking up space on my harddrive.

I’m a keen landscape shooter. I like to document the world around me looking for that unique angle on this great country we live in. Whilst I shoot in colour.. I’m a huge fan on the black and white as well for real story telling.

  1. There is only one kind of RAW. The kind your camera shoots. I shoot with a Nikon D90, so I get .NEF files. I really don’t care about other RAW formats. Why, because that is like saying I drive a Diesel powered car, but there are too many kinds of Petrol to confuse me.
  2. Quality doesn’t matter. No of course it doesn’t, unless you care about the photo. Unless that photo is a touch under/over exposed, the white balance is out, the horizon line is a few degrees of centre, the lens you used has a certain type of distortion that throws out straight lines or the highlights are a bit over exposed. Any of these mean you are going to want to “fix” the photo.
  3. Sure Ken Rockwell can shoot in full manual mode and get White Balance and everything perfect every time, never needing to touch Photoshop at all to fix any image…. But are you Ken Rockwell.
  4. You’re are sure that you know what the correct colour temp for each setting is, because you shoot in a perfectly stable environment, with colour charts and controlled lighting every time. Nope didn’t think so. Guess what you are going to want to correct that photo.
  5. Batch Processing is your friend. I use Lightroom3 to processes all my RAW images. If they are similar I can spend time on one image get the settings right and apply them to hundreds of photos in a few minutes.
  6. Raw is non destructive, you aren’t dealing with a lossy compression like JPG you have all the information to play with. You don’t have to trust the camera to guess what you wanted, you have complete control. JPG is also 8bit colorur. The RAW files I shoot are 12bit colour.
  7. Cost of storage is cheap. I have an offsite backup of my photos on a 1.5TB drive that I purchased for $98 dollars. I run a few 4gb cards and can shoot around 240 images per card. And I always take a harddrive with me on trips to backup the images anyway, that drive is a USB powered HD that is 880gb which cost me $120.
  8. JPG is easier. Yes it is, but then so is buying a pizza from the supermarket compared to making one at home. The one you make at home will have all the toppings you want and be to your taste, not the cheapest food to make the pizza.
  9. And finally how often do you need to “get” the shot up straight away. If you are really doing that, you are shooting from a mobile phone anyway. Most of the time you are going to have access to something to process the image regardless. ( I know I do )
  10. If you only store the JPG’s in 6 months time or a years time when someone spots that great image and wants the full size image for print… what did you do with it, oh yes that is right, you compressed it put lots of effects in photoshop and compressed it again.

While I do agree that JPG is easier to use, just because it is easier doesn’t make it better. I like to ensure that the colours on my image are visually correct and that the tones reflect the mood of the image. Say I want a black and white image, shooting RAW gives me complete tonal control much more than JPG ever can. And all for very little work!

And I’ll leave the final word to these images….

The JPG VS the RAW.

RAW VS JPG ( JPG Version )

This RAW took me a minute to tweak in Lightroom 3.
RAW VS JPG ( RAW Version )

Further Reading
Why Shoot RAW – Photography Review
When to Shoot RAW – Macworld
Understanding Raw Files – Luminous Landscape
Photo Lightroom -Adobe
Open Source Raw Processing Win, Linux

How To Shoot RAW without Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt by Michael Tapes

This article has also been published on Wolfcat’s blog where you’ll find comments by his readers

3 thoughts on “RAW versus JPG: Digital Camera File Format Faceoff”

  1. I received a lot of comments about this article on Twitter, mostly from professional photographers and journalists who are in the 0.1% group of people for whom taking photos in RAW makes sense.

    I think their comments mostly miss my point, which is that photography is now democratized and a *huge* number of people own cameras that can shoot RAW but they lack photographic ability, don’t have Photoshop to be able to edit and convert RAW photos and don’t have the time to do so either.

    If these people take all their photos in RAW all it does is guarantee more storage space used and time required to convert them later on a computer.

    They’d be far better off shooting in JPG and improving their knowledge of composition, ISO, f stop, exposure levels etc to take better photos in a variety of situations instead of wasting time with RAW.

    I’ve listed the comments below:

    @natecochrane: It depends how important your memories are, @neerav If they matter & you have the kit, shoot RAW. Many print titles demand RAW. The best way to think of RAW is as a digital negative. You could reprint from a photo but it was never as good as the neg. Another way to look at it, @neerav is you’re building an inventory of images – do you want to limit their utility & saleability? Shoot it right, shoot it once, shoot in RAW RAW opens possibilities – you may not need them but would you want to limit yourself when you don’t have to? Even casual users benefit from RAW because even if they can’t exact the full benefit at the time, they may later with skill or help. And I have never experienced any slow down by shooting RAW on my cameras. Of course, people’s speeds may vary. Shoot RAW when u can. In the end it’s not RAW vs JPEG – it’s Pro (or prosumer) vs casual-hobbyist amateur. Which one you?

    @Leighlo: I don’t think RAW encourages lazy photography, @neerav. Quite the contrary. I think it encourages people to learn more. The argument has always been negative versus slide (E6). Negs had more control in darkrooms. Same thing.

    @coaten: @natecochrane @neerav RAWvJPEG? It’s a dumb argument. It’s like 4WD v sedan. A non-issue. You pick the right file type for the job at hand. 0.1% of shooters? If you say so. OK, just read it all. Why did you not address the difference in colour depth? And that Rockwell quote is old, old, old. I’m sorry but that article is, IMNSHO, disinformation. Try “shooting to the right” with RAW/JPEG. See which gives you the better edit. That’s colour depth at work. Quite happy for 99.9% of shooters to do JPEG. Indeed, I encourage it. Go forth and shoot JPEG!

    @siddarthdas: Great Read! Sticking to RAW

    @timangerphoto I tend to agree, except I think a larger % of people cld benefit from using RAW. @neerav makes a good pt abt live blogging event – cert. saves time & web doesn’t need RAW quality. But long term implication?

    @garystark Exactly. Get it right, in the camera. RT @natecochrane Shoot it right, shoot it once, shoot in RAW

  2. I’m a decidedly amateur photographer but I’ve sold more than a dozen images commercially and two have been used for book covers.

    I started out shooting RAW but stopped because:

    – it’s a time-consuming hassle to process. I’d rather shoot than Photoshop.
    – the differences in quality and artefacts are so minimal as to be inconsequential.
    – there’s no demand for RAW images, even in publishing.
    – it’s a closed format that doesn’t play nicely with many programs (actually hardly any)

  3. Shooting RAW is a no brainer . The extra Dynamic range the extra colour depth is worth the extra hassel. Processing 500 plus images a day in Adobe lightroom with the ability to batch process doesn’t take as long as you think once you get used to it. Lets face it you had to import your jpgs anyway. RAW may take a little longer but you can be working on them while still importing into lightroom.
    For the modern photographer RAW is the way to go.

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