RAW vs. JPEG

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There’s no shortage of debates in photography circles. Choose a subject – whether it’s one camera over another, color versus black and white, available light versus speedlights, or any number of other contentious subjects* — and there’s likely to be a wide difference of opinion. One such subject of debate is whether to shoot in RAW or in JPEG.

To figure out your options, let’s start by laying out some basic definitions. A RAW file is just that. It’s raw; it’s how your camera’s sensor “saw” what was in front of it, with very little intervention on the camera’s part. These are generally large files, since the camera takes in quite a bit of information once you’ve pressed down the shutter. It’s also undeveloped; it’s up to you to render a final image, sometimes via the camera’s built-in processor and sometimes via an external program like Aperture, Lightroom, GIMP, or Photoshop. A JPEG, on the other hand, isn’t raw; it’s been “cooked” by your camera’s processor, so the development takes place in-camera. The files are much smaller, usually because of compression applied during development, and you have a much smaller degree of control over the final result, absent postprocessing.

The difference between RAW and JPEG isn’t just one of size; it’s about the amount of information the file contains. Since I like analogies, let me give you another one. Let’s imagine that RAW is Macbeth. JPEG, being a compressed version of the RAW file, has much less information. So we’ll call that the Cliff’s Notes of Macbeth. Now let’s say you want to make changes, or crop, that file. Well, if I’m cropping Macbeth, it turns out that I can get rid of quite a bit of it and still have it make some kind of sense. With the Cliff’s Notes, however, I don’t have quite the same degree of freedom; those cuts –those edits and crops – take information away from something that’s already had quite a bit stripped away.

Processing a RAW file, then, “summarizes” based on much more information. The end result can be very close to the original, or can be very small; the point, however, is that you have control over the end result at each step in the process. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s not unlike the difference between developing a roll of film in your own darkroom versus sending it to CVS or Walgreen’s. Sometimes you get lucky sending your film out, but sometimes the results aren’t what you would have chosen, and if you’re particular about how your photos look, that’s not generally something you want to leave to chance.

Yes, RAW takes up quite a bit of memory, and yes, it can be a time-consuming process learning how to get your development workflow where you want it. With that said, it also gives you the kind of control and freedom that JPEG doesn’t always give you. If you want that control, try RAW. If you’re not sure, or if you want backups while you’re getting the hang of your RAW workflow, delve into your camera’s settings; nearly every camera that I’ve seen with the ability to shoot in RAW has an option to shoot JPEGs in tandem with RAW images. Use that, and you’ll always have “backups” of your originals.

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