We’re going to look at some of the issues revolving around whether to shoot in RAW or to shoot JPEG. This isn’t as black-and-white a decision as you may think.
Let’s first look at what we’re talking about here. Unless you have had your head in the sand, you know that pretty well all modern DSLR’s (and even some point-and-shoots) have the capability of shooting in RAW. Actually ALL digital cameras can shoot RAW, only some of them can deliver images in it. Some cameras automatically convert everything to JPEG before outputting them. All of your photo club buddies, the forums online, the sales people in the stores and the training sites like NAPP harp at you to shoot in RAW. “Anyone who shoots in JPEG can’t be serious”. We’re here to think about that.
So the RAW file is the basic full image that the camera has captured. Nothing has been done to it – every pixel, every level, everything that the sensor saw, is in the RAW file. A JPEG is the same picture after the computer (your camera IS a computer) plays with it. It does a bunch of stuff to the image that we’ll look at below, compresses it so that the file is smaller, and it does a lot of that by only affecting things you’ll never see. Most of the time.
You can’t use your RAW file for anything. You have to convert it – to a JPEG, to a TIFF, to a GIF, to something else before you can output it anywhere. That means to print it, to look at it onscreen, to submit it to your club competition, even to process it in Photoshop. But it contains EVERYTHING so it’s your best starting point. Sometimes.
A RAW file (by the way, there’s no real standard. Nikon has their NEF format. Canon has CR2. Other manufacturers have their own proprietary formats. Adobe is trying to get the world to go DNG which stands for “Digital Negative” but that hasn’t happened yet. And Sony wanted the world to go Betamax. Remember?) needs to be manipulated. You need to have a program that will do that – the most common are Photoshop and Lightroom, both of which use exactly the same engine: called “ACR” or “Adobe Camera RAW”. Yes there are other programs out there, but I haven’t used them for many years. And here’s where the problem arises.
When you import your RAW images into, say, Lightroom, you choose one of many presets – maybe your own custom one – to do some initial adjustments. Remember, you can’t use a RAW file without adjusting it: the image will be flat, dull, soft focus, and really big.
What prompted the writing of this article was a problem I’ve been having. All my images were oversharpened, but were actually out of focus because of the noise reduction I had to do to compensate, and were fraught with artifacts. I only discovered this when I tried to submit images to Shutterstock where they are REALLY fussy – another article will cover this topic – and they all got rejected. I was at the point where I figured there was something wrong with my camera and was preparing to bite the bullet and ship it to Nikon (along with my credit card info, making sure I had lots of available credit limit!). Then someone suggested that I shoot some comparisons between RAW and JPEG so I did: and almost fell out of my socks until I figured out what was going on.