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RAW vs JPEG

DSLRs allow you to choose between saving your images as a .JPEG or a .RAW file.  There are benefits to each, but ultimately we're big fans of .RAW, and we'll tell you exactly why.  

Your Camera is a Big Factor

When your camera takes a photo light travels down the lens, into the body and is recorded on the sensor.  After the sensor has recorded the image, the camera can proceed in two different directions.  

  1. The camera uses its internal processors, much like a computer, and converts the raw data into a .JPEG image, storing it on your memory card.  
  2. The camera does not process the image any further, and stores the raw data on your memory card.  

The processing power of each camera varies greatly.  Although both an inexpensive beginner camera and a high end pro set up can take a picture, what happens to that picture once the sensor absorbs it is a completely different story.  The more powerful the processor in your camera the better your camera will be at converting images from their raw data into .JPEGs. 

That being said, if you have a pro camera you're likely shooting in RAW anyways; and here's why.  When your DSLR saves the image as a RAW file, without processing, it's considerably easier to manipulate a photo that has not already been manipulated elsewhere.  When you take your RAW photo and manually process it in something like Adobe Lightroom, you're going to have much better control and a much more accurate view of how things should appear.  

That leads us into our next point

RAW Photos Are Easier to Edit

Almost all aspects of RAW photos make them easier to edit just about anything about them.  RAW gives you the greatest control over your photography. 

For that reason, if you're comfortable with making some photo adjustments (if you're not we can help!) afterwards, as a beginner shooting in RAW format will afford you the opportunity to better tweak your photos after the fact, giving you a better chance to match up with the pros.  

Better Control of Brightness

We're not talking exposure type brightness either.  This brightness relates directly to the depth of your photos.  When it comes to brightness RAW wins out, no contest, due to a limitation of the JPEG file type.  JPEGs record pixel colour in an 8 bit format, while RAW records colour depth in 12 bit or 14 bit.  Higher bit depth means the image is able to record different levels of brightness much more accurately.  

Although the differences in bit depth don't seem like much at first glance, they can be staggering.  An 8 bit JPEG is able to display an image in a total of 256 colours, while a RAW image is able to display between roughly 4,000 and 16,000.  

But what is bit depth?  We know a digital image is made up of pixels, but even those pixels have to be made up of something too.  If an image, like a JPEG for example is described as 8 bit, it means that the colour of each individual pixel within that JPEG is made up of 8 different colours.

In the case of a 12 bit RAW photo, each pixel would be created by blending 12 different colours instead of 8.  A higher bit depth means a better representation of brightness within a particular colour, resulting in more colours available to create the pixel, resulting in a much truer representation of the image.  

Not only will higher bit depth result in a truer image, it also affords considerably more freedom when making adjustments afterwards.  When you process the image on your computer, using something like Lightroom, you can then work with 12+ bits per pixel instead of 8.  

File Size

How this affects you will be determined largely by your equipment, specifically your memory card.  RAW files are large and bulky.  All JPEG files are compressed versions of the original data.  JPEG is a lossy compression method, so once your photos are converted to JPEG there's no going back.  

That being said, the fact that JPEGs are compressed means they won't eat up all your memory as quickly.  To help mitigate this storage issue, many enthusiast or pro level DSLRs now come with dual memory card slots.  And with good reason; a JPEG file might range from 7MB to 15MB while a RAW file would usually be 30MB or more.  

Non-Destructive Editing

Since all RAW images must be converted to another file type to export it, your edit will be non-destructive.  You won't be saving over the RAW file itself, since you'll be exporting as a JPEG, TIFF, or whatever suits your project best.  

Downsides of RAW

We've heard plenty of great reasons to be shooting in RAW.  Aside from the size, there's a few other things to look out for.  

RAW files are not able to be viewed in most photo viewing applications in their current state.  They must first be processed into a JPEG, TIFF, PNG or whatever best suits your intentions.  

The thing about RAW files, each camera manufacturer has their own RAW file type.  Nikon uses a .NEF file type and Canon a .CR2.  Although it's unlikely that Canon or Nikon would go out of business, if for any reason the manufacturer ceases or is unable to provide support for their file types, a situation could arise that the proprietary RAW file is unable to be decoded and viewed. 

For this reason it's a good idea to process all your RAW files within a reasonable amount of time, so you can more reliably store them for the long term.  

Continuous Shooting Speed

RAW files are larger and contain a lot more data, which is usually a good thing.  However if you're photographing fast moving objects, JPEGs are usually the way to go.  Their file size is considerably smaller, allowing your camera to record and transfer more images from the sensor to the memory card in a much shorter period of time.  

When JPEGs Are Appropriate

There's still a few situations where you'll want your camera to take save pictures as a JPEG. 

At a casual barbecue that you decided to bring your camera to last minute probably doesn't need to be shot in RAW either.  Remember RAW photos need to be processed before you can do anything else with them.  

If you're working with a client, you may need to provide them with a same day slideshow for a project.  Most slideshow clients won't have the additional software required to read and display a RAW photo.  

The good news, many DSLRs now have an option to save the image in both RAW and JPEG formats.  Some dual memory card cameras have an option to automatically store the RAW files on one card and the JPEGs on the other; which can make it a lot easier when sorting your files afterwards.  

Conclusion

You should have all the information you need to know whether you want to shoot your photos in RAW, JPEG, or both!  If you think we missed anything, hop into the comments below!

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