RAW vs. JPG – Is RAW Really Better All The Time?

I consistently get asked which is better, RAW or JPG.  For a long time, my answer is “always shoot in RAW”.  But, the more I teach and the more I read, I’m thinking is changing a bit because it’s not a black and white (no pun intended) answer.  First of all, we’re talking about a file format.  Is it really that big of a deal?  My answer… depends.

First, for those that don’t know, what’s the difference?  A RAW file is not truly an image file.  You must have software such as Aperture or Lightroom to see it as an image.  The files are proprietary to the camera manufacturer (except DNG files, which is another topic).  They are uncompressed (ie, a 12 megapixel camera will create a 2 megapixel file).  The advantage is that they are the complete data from the camera sensor and have a higher dynamic range.  This means you can recover data from blown out highlights and shadows in post processing much more easily.  The downside is that they inherently are lower in contrast (ie, flat looking), not as sharp and MUST be processed in software to look good enough to print or even post online.

On the other hand  JPGS are readable in any software.  While they are compressed and fairly small, they are processed in camera so they can be a finished image straight out of the camera.  They are sharper, higher in contrast and do not always need corrections.  What???  That’s right, I said it, much of the time, JPGs don’t need further processing if you compose and expose the image well in camera.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that the majority of people out there should shoot in JPG.  Why?  90% of those currently taking pictures do not post process their images let alone print them.  If you are a professional or fine arts photographer, by all means, shoot in RAW.  You are going to do post-processing anyway.  But if you are one of those folks who NEVER post-process, shoot in JPG.  If you shoot in high ISO all the time, shoot in JPG.  If you never print your images and simply put them on Flickr or Facebook, again, JPG is the format for you.   RAW files require work.  They ALWAYS, and I mean always, require at least increased contrast and sharpening.  RAW files NEVER look good straight out of the camera.  Yes, they give you more flexibility in post processing but this only matters if you are willing to do the work on your computer.

Yes, I’ve turned a 180 here.  Most of the students in my continuing ed classes and workshops just want to know how to do basic adjustments, keep their photos organized and get them out on the web.  For you guys, JPG is perfect.  If you like to spend hours in post-processing, like me and many others, then shoot in RAW.   If you have space on your cards and hard drives, shoot in both JPG and RAW if your camera will allow.  This is the best of both worlds.  If your JPG files looks great and just needs some minor tweaks or cropping, your golden.  If you have a shot you love and it needs a lot of work, you still have the RAW file to make major corrections with.

Bottom line… if you want to free yourself from post processing, go head and shoot in JPG.  Nobody will think less of you.

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