Choosing Between RAW and JPEG Digital File Formats

In the world of digital photography, nothing is more grating on the ears of a professional photographer than to hear an amateur’s diatribe on reasons for buying the next level of professional or advanced consumer cameras, especially if that someone is speaking in absolutes. One of the key things photographers learn early on is that image capture is a fluid, changing science. No one key fits all locks, as is evidenced by the myriad of cameras currently on the market.

The debate over .jpeg versus the RAW file format has been a devisive argument with professional photographers falling on both sides while consumers are pretty much confused by the concept. The difference, truly, lies in after-shot lab work and how much time one wants to dedicate to improving a picture.

RAW – the “pro” format?
The RAW file has often been considered a professional format for those working to produce advanced graphics layouts for newsprint and magazines as well as posters and similar products. RAW has a wide variety of tonal changes and abilities that can be brought out in a sophisticated image modification program like Adobe’s Photoshop. Therein lies the rub, however, as it requires a fair amount of technical editing know-how to be able to alter the image and create the right picture. Thus, the classification as the “professional” file of choice.

RAW has boatloads of complications, however, that require most photographers to buy multiple paddles to get up the same river. RAW is not the tourist’s friend, nor is it the friend of the professional photographer on assignment who is taking hundreds of shots daily. RAW is for the photographer who will shoot less than 50 or so pics in one day in order to pick from a few choice shots. Those shots can then be power-edited. Keep in mind here that downloading these pics will drive the average person crazy because of the amount of time necessary to complete the process.

Ken Blackwell, a noted professional photographer, shot cards full of RAW and .jpeg images in order to choose the best set-up with a client for a layout on a multi-million-dollar house. At the end of the day, just downloading the .jpeg files was exhausting, and Blackwell and the client decided to ignore the RAW images altogether, opting instead to produce high-quality images from the .jpeg files. The job was done at the end of the day. If Blackwell had chosen the RAW images, he might still be downloading the pics right now. Again, this is not a concern if the images are just a few, but many images will be a workflow killer for a pro and a life-draining experience for the amateur.

This is not to say that RAW doesn’t produce a magnificent image, but just as using a more complex camera generally requires complex knowledge, so, too, go RAW files. A word here, as well, about memory cards – the RAW format will inevitably take up far more space than the .jpeg images.

A final caution with RAW – most RAW formats are proprietary. This is to say that most camera manufacturers are looking to lock in RAW software deals to keep the file format from being universal. It’s not a huge problem at present but may evolve into a debacle in the future.

Jpeg – the cheap way out?
The .jpeg file is still quite a viable file, producing crystal-clear images at high resolutions. Many pro photographers use this format for existing magazine and print work. Just ask the editors at Outdoor Photographer magazine. Some of their most amazing cover work has come from .jpeg files and some photographers, such as Rob Shepard, swear that some cameras will deliver BETTER .jpeg images than can be found in RAW. Keep in mind, however, that this is referring to being better initially, not generally after considerable manipulation work on the computer. The question, then, becomes at what point does the editing occur – at the time of the photo or afterward? If an image needs to be right and filed immediately, .jpeg may just be the way to go.

Where you see the professional practices are in the needs of the shoot – some photographers are “art” photographers that have a very specific subject and a detailed idea of what they want to shoot. Almost all of the RAW images will be stationary items or landscapes simply because of the recording time of the cameras in use. Taking lots of on-the-fly wildlife shots? Don’t use RAW. Learn to use the exposure capabilities of the camera you are holding and shoot .jpeg to get the best effect.

The Beat Goes On�
It’s unlikely that photography will see a cessation of debate over this facet of digital photography. More than likely, it will continue to escalate into hate wars all over the Internet. But the proof is in the pudding – or, rather, the picture – based on what you were seeking in the first place. Each format has its designated niche. The photographer must seek out which will adequately hold his or her vision.

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