Opinion: JPEG vs. RAW, which is best?

The decision to use JPEG format or RAW is a never ending debate and there truly isn’t a right answer. However, I thought I’d add my 2 cents to the topic. There are situations where one format works better, which I go into a bit in the linked Youtube video. I’ll also include a summary below.

Here is my video discussion the two photograph formats:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3uLvdkcS9w

RAW:
– Lossless format (all data from the sensor is stored in the file.
– Ability to store 16-bits per channel (usually 12 or 14 bits of actual sensor data) for around 280 trillion colors.
– White balance is easily modified in post processing. (of course, if there are multiple light sources with different color temperatures neither format can easily be “fixed”)
– General level of post control is high, and in turn some features in the camera are not available in RAW. That means for photos you intend to send directly to a final place, JPEG might be better.
– Larger files than JPEGs.
– Dynamic range due to more bits per channel and recovery potential is higher.

JPEG:
– Lossey format that discards data to compress the file.
– 8-bits per channel, for around 16 million colors.
– White balance is fixed into the photograph and is more difficult to modify afterward.
– General level of control in post is lower.
– Dynamic range and ability to recover data is lower due to less color data saved.
– Smaller files that are better for high speed shooting.

These days when I do photography, I’m not as quick to take a large number of frames as I would in the past. Digital photography is cheap, but it isn’t always the best idea to “run and gun” with the camera. I try to focus a bit more on quality and not quantity. Even so, cameras are fast and memory is cheap enough that using RAW for high quantity shooting isn’t much of a problem. Take each shot with purpose and intent.

Do you prefer absolute control or letting the camera develop your photo? While it is a good goal to get exactly what you want out of the camera, it isn’t the whole story. RAWs from the camera generally look a bit more bland and less finished than a JPEG from the camera. This is because some features used to develop the photo in the camera only apply to JPEG format. The camera engineers give you things like adjustment sliders for sharpness, saturation, white balance, hue, and shadows/highlights adjustment. These do similar things to what controls in a RAW processor does, but with less fine grained control and fewer forms of control.

For situations where you found a perfect composition, but the scene contains large dynamic range, it’s probably a good idea to consider RAW. In this situation you can underexposure and modify the result in post, giving you the ability to achieve what you imagined and intentionally wanted. I don’t see this as wrong or untrue to photography because you use your tools in the way you want to achieve your desired result.

I use RAW most of the time. Even in situations like high speed shooting, current DSLRs and memory cards can manage well enough. If you are doing something like sports, feel free to use 10fps, but don’t do it for a minute. Anticipate the shot and imagine the result you are trying to achieve. Take a second burst or half second burst can be just as effective as a long winded JPEG stream of a few hundred shots. There are occasions I will use JPEG, but that doesn’t happen often.

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