OK, now that we have covered the basic concept of workflow, let’s ask the painful questions… and start with the RAW vs JPEG one. Let’s have a quick look at the arguments on both sides.
RAW format is for snobs!
The engineers who designed your camera know better how to extract the best out of your camera sensor. Why would you waste hours of your time post-processing each of your picture for an enhancement that exists only in your head? Go out and take pictures. Plus when the great picture is here, you will miss it anyway because you have filled all your memory cards with raw files.
Defending JPEG format, you must be a troll!
You paid a fortune for a camera and you would only exploit half of it? Remember, a photographer’s goal is to take pictures and the absolute best pictures. Now the only way to do that is shooting in RAW and fine tuning your images with a quick and well organized post processing. Now if you are not smart enough to have enough memory cards (at their current price), then there is nothing anyone can do for you.
A more balanced summary
So what is the deal here? Basically, RAW (wiki) format is the raw (indeed) ouput from your camera sensor. There has been no processing in camera which means:
- you can fine-tune the white balance in post processing without loss
- you can retrieve details in shadows and highlights that would be lost in the in-camera processing
- you can fine-tune the amount of sharpness, saturation and so on without depending on your camera settings
So the raw format offers more flexibility in post processing, but also has a cost:
- the file size is much bigger (4-5 times more than a JPEG)
- every file needs post-processing (at least conversion from RAW to JPEG or TIFF) before you can do anything with it (share on the web, print…)
If you shoot JPEG, the camera processes the (RAW) datas with the best of its possibilities. The advantages are:
- Your files are smaller – think about a 2 weeks trip with no access to a computer
- Your files are ready to use
- The default settings are fine in 95% of cases
- In camera processing deletes quite a bit information from what is available out of the sensor
- Correcting an important color cast due to a badly adjusted white balance will really deteriorate the overall color richness of the picture
- 255 255 255 white areas have no detail and will not provide any, no matter how much post-processing you apply to them
In summary, RAW offers more flexibility at the cost of more time in converting / post-processing and more space used in the memory card. JPEG, though fine in most cases, is destructive and what is lost in the processing is lost for ever.
What to do, then?
Now, instead of writing the “Final Universal Decision (FUD)” to the RAW vs JPEG dispute, let’s share a few ideas, bullet points that I came to realize over time:
- I think Pentax hit it on the nail with its K10D that has an extra “raw” button to quickly switch between RAW and JPEG. While it is true that for every day use, JPEG is good enough, for the portfolio grade images, RAW is a great help. So shooting a mix of RAW and JPEG makes a lot of sense. How do you know when RAW will be worth?
- It is especially handy to have a RAW file when the dynamic range of your image is high: with RAW, you can retrieve highlights detail that would be completely lost in JPEG and avoid the cutting phenomenon (pure white, very unaesthetic).
- The other time where a RAW file is really interesting is to fine-tune the white balance. Correcting a color cast in JPEG will further degrade the image quality and color richness while starting from a RAW will preserve highest possible quality output.
So to sum up, I shoot in JPEG most of the time. But when I feel a good image opportunity coming up or when the dynamic range is high or the white balance tricky, I switch to RAW. I will also be more prompt to switch to RAW if I know I can save my memory cards on a hard drive tonight.
And just to keep things in perspective:
- Default RAW post-processing can be turned into an automatic task (as we will see in the next entry).
- Some of my best pics are based on a JPEG file and the prints are stunning, too.