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JPG and RAW comparison - when you should shoot in raw

I’m about to post some new tutorials on photo-editing and editing aurora photos. All of my tutorials will be focused around the editing of RAW photos, so I thought it would be good to motivate why you should be shooting in RAW instead of JPEG. If you’re already shooting in RAW, great! You don’t need to read this, go find something else to read. If you’re not, or if you’re not sure what RAW is, keep reading.

Many cameras allow you to shoot in RAW+JPG mode. This can be a good way to go if you are just starting out and are worried about processing or don’t want to spend time post-processing photos. It will require more storage, but at least you’ll have photos you can come back to edit if you change your mind in the future. You’ll be very thankful if you have that perfect shot that you just can’t seem to get the right lighting or color.

There’s a million posts on why you should shoot in RAW. I’ll try to keep this short.

Well, should you really shoot in RAW?

Let’s begin by saying, not everyone needs to shoot in RAW. Maybe you have just a little point-and-shoot camera or camera phone. If you don’t want to think about your photos beyond clicking the shutter, maybe applying some filters, and posting to social media, then shooting in RAW will just add extra steps.

However, If you’ve purchased a nice DSLR or mirrorless camera with exchangeable lenses, you’re probably a bit more interested in photography. Shooting in RAW will give you control over your photos in post-processing like having your own darkroom. If you have purchased a camera with a genuine interest in photography, I’ll go out on a limb and say you want to be shooting in RAW.

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What is RAW

A raw image data file is very minimally processed, uncompressed sensor data from a camera. This is opposed to a jpeg file that often undergoes much more in-camera processing and compression, throwing out much of the raw data from the sensor.

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I would make the imperfect film analogy that a RAW file is like having the original negative, as where only keeping the JPEG is only having the cheap 4×6 print that the was printed at the grocery store photo lab. Note that this is just an analogy, as the raw file isn’t actually an image, it is minimally processed sensor data that needs to be converted to an image file.

Why shoot in RAW

If you are photographing in a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you will have the option of shooting in RAW or in JPEG formats. If you shoot only JPEG, you will be incredibly limited in your editing ability. That’s because the camera software has already compressed, and essentially ‘edited’ your photo for you (often selecting your white balance and sharpening), and thrown out all the additional information. Raw formats keep everything, as it is the raw data collected from the sensor. The main downside to shooting in RAW format is that it takes up a lot more space than a JPEG and often requires more editing to make your photos look good.

RAW files for Nikon typically use NEF extensions, Canon uses CRW, and Sony uses ARW. Most image browsers won’t be able to display a raw file format, but many include a small image preview that will be displayed. You need a raw image developer to convert the data to an image format such as a JPG or TIFF.

Benefits to RAW

There are a long list of reasons to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG. For me, they all boil down to three main points.

First, with the RAW file you have better control over lighting, and not just exposure and black level, but also shadows and highlights for those parts of the image that are over or underexposed.

Second is almost total control over color, mainly white balance, but also saturation and color contrast. The white balance mainly governs how “warm” or “cool” an image is, but a JPEG has already set the white balance. You can still modify the colors relatively in JPEG mode, but it will never be near the control you have with the RAW file.

Lastly is the ability to control noise and detail. Especially if you find yourself shooting at higher ISO settings, there are often a number of different methods in reducing noise that may reduce side-effects of noise reduction like loss of detail.

RAW Editors

One downside to shooting RAW is that the data needs to be processed to create an image. That’s where a RAW editor comes in. The nice thing is, most RAW editors pre-apply demosaicing, light-curve corrections, and white-balance adjustments to the data essentially creating ready-to-export images similar to what your camera would have produced in JPEG mode. It might be one extra step to simply exporting JPEGS off the camera, but it’s not a very time-consuming one.

But, maybe you don’t want to spend money on a RAW editor like Adobe Lightroom. Guess, what? You don’t have to. There are many free and open source RAW editors out there that work on most operating systems that are arguably as good, if not better than Lightroom and other costly editing programs. The one I use most frequently is Darktable, that is what I use almost exclusively and will be used in most of my tutorials.

A wonderful feature of most RAW editors is that they are non-destructive. This means that when you edit a RAW file, you do nothing to actually change that file. Rather, the editor creates what is called a sidecar file that basically lists off a number of operations to perform on the original file when creating a final output. Your original photo is untouched. Editing a JPEG file usually involves permanently changing the file unless you first save a copy of the original.

In summary, RAW will give you much more control over your photos in post-processing and ensure you never alter the original data. The main cost is a bit of time for processing and export as well as storage. If you really want to focus on photography as a hobby, or potential profession, you should shoot in RAW.

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