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If you own a digital camera capable of shooting in RAW mode it’s worth considering whether you should use it at all…some of the time…or all of the time.  The decision should be made on the basis of a number of factors and it should go without saying that it’s helpful if you understand the advantages and disadvantages of choosing RAW or JPEG when taking pictures.  Well, perhaps it should go without saying, but it won’t, precisely because I’ve been amazed to discover how many photographers have made the decision for what can only be described as dubious reasons.

What is RAW?

For a good, comprehensible technical explanation of the RAW file format, I direct you here.  For our purposes, you can think of a RAW file as the functional equivalent of a film negative.  It’s a format, proprietary to each camera maker, that amounts to an unprocessed original image.  To be used, the RAW file must be transformed to a non-proprietary format, which is what compatible RAW conversion software allows you to do.  You are, as a practical matter, developing your digital negative when performing the RAW conversion process.

If you shoot in JPEG mode, the camera is essentially developing the digital negative for you, based on pre-established, (frequently) customizable settings.  How much control you have over the in-camera settings varies from model to model, but the point is that the choices—whatever they are—have to be made before image capture.  With RAW mode, you can make your development decisions after taking the picture, and the amount of control you have over this process is vast.

Main Advantages of RAW Over JPEG

  1. We’ve already touched on the biggest advantage immediately above:  developmental control.  Exposure can be tweaked (up to two stops in either direction—which, in all honesty, is beyond “tweaking”), white balance can be adjusted without penalty.  Anyone familiar with a RAW converter (Adobe Camera Raw, for instance) knows that there are numerous other fully-reversible-without-penalty adjustments to an image that can be made as part of the conversion process.
  1. As I alluded to in an article I posted here last month, with images in the RAW format, as image processing software improves and your personal knowledge of the digital darkroom increases, you will always have access to your originals.  With RAW files, image postprocessing is not fixed in time, so the end product can be improved—sometimes dramatically.
  1. Converted RAW files are 16-bit images while JPEGs are only eight.  This provides you far more leeway to make post-conversion adjustments without nasty artifacts (such as noise or banding) showing up.  In general, RAW files have a significantly higher image quality ceiling than JPEGs.

Main Disadvantages of RAW Capture

  1. Time: depending on what you want to do with the image, RAW capture can needlessly slow you down.  At a minimum, RAW files have to be converted; JPEGs do not.  JPEGs emerge from the camera in final form, ready to be used, which simplifies your workflow.
  1. RAW files are, on balance, much larger than JPEGs, so you can fit fewer of them on a memory card and they are more likely to clog your camera’s buffer and slow down your shooting.
  1. Even when it comes to image quality, depending on what your end goal is, RAW capture can be overkill.  For small prints and Web postings, for instance, you are unlikely to see any image quality benefits from shooting in RAW mode.

So What Mode Do You Use, Big Shot?

When I’m out in the field, I shoot in RAW mode exclusively.  Literally every image I have posted as an accompaniment to my entries on this blog (and my own) are derived from RAW captures.  But keep in mind my circumstances:

First, I’m shooting with the intention of preserving the option of creating large prints from each image I produce.  I will use images in other forms from time to time—Web posting, slideshows and the like—but that’s not my primary consideration.  The point is that I’m valuing image quality over and above a lot of other factors—time, convenience, file size, etc.—that are important issues that may (completely legitimately) rank more highly for others.

Second, my subject matter is made up of mostly cooperative elements—things that don’t move all that much.  As a result, I’m very seldom concerned about filling the camera’s buffer.  If you’re into candid or action photography of any kind, you may find yourself valuing these factors and may want to consider whether RAW is your best choice.

On the rare occasions when I’m snapshooting, I use my wife’s point-and-shoot and am perfectly happy to have the convenience to capture JPEGs.

The bottom line is, I’ve made my format choices based on a careful calculation of my own priorities.  The only thing about my approach that I urge you to follow is the “careful calculation of your priorities” part.  Your considerations may be the same as mine, but they may very well differ.  That’s perfectly okay; the key is to make a reasoned choice based on an understanding of the file format options available to you and how well they fit with your proclivities.

Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday.  To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog:  Lightscapes Nature Photography.