Beginner's guides to digital SLR Photography

JPG versus RAW

Which is the best option for how your camera takes pictures? There’s JPG. There’s RAW. And then there’s JPG plus RAW. I tell you how I like to work, and my reasons why.

Red-backed Fairy-wren

Taken using a RAW workflow, I was able to squeeze a little bit of extra detail and colour out of this photo of a Red-backed Fairy Wren.

First of all, what’s RAW?

When a digital camera takes an exposure, it’s faced with a lot of decisions about how to turn a whole pile of data into a nice-looking thing which we call a photo. That great big pile of data pretty much sums up what your RAW file is.

If you decide to shoot in JPG mode, then your camera makes those decisions, based on a bunch of settings, and then creates a picture out of it. Then it saves that picture as a JPG and throws away all of that original data. Things like colour temperature, noise reduction and even (to some extent) exposure are locked in. And there’s no way to recover that stuff that was thrown away. Sure, if you don’t like how the JPG turned out you can always modify it in software like Adobe Photoshop, but there’s a limit to what even that software can do.

So wouldn’t it be good if we could keep our options, and all our captured image data, for later? Just in case you want to change something.

That’s what RAW is. It’s the use — and the preservation — of the camera’s original image data, instead of just the processed end-result. That RAW file is just a pile of numbers and code which only your camera and special software can understand. It’s not a photo just yet.

Noisy Miner

This Noisy Miner was photographed through a heavy glass door that badly changed the colour temperature. Fixing it was easy because of the flexibility offered by working RAW.

Here’s why I prefer working with RAW files

Disadvantages of RAW

I’d be doing you no favours if I only told one side of the story. So here are some disadvantages you should know about.

Intermediate Egret

This photo of an Intermediate Egret in bright sunlight was made easier by my RAW workflow. To retain the detail in the plumage I deliberately underexposed the shot using exposure compensation and then carefully increased the exposure to the ideal level in the RAW image processor. If I hadn’t worked that way I probably would have ended up with blown-out white plumage along the bird’s back.

RAW processing software

Chances are, when you bought your digital SLR it came with some software that allows you to process its RAW photos. Many people do just fine with that. However there are some excellent third-party software packages that you might prefer. I use Adobe Lightroom. I have friends who love Apple’s Aperture software too, but unfortunately Apple has decided not to continue with it. There’s also the Camera Raw plug-in which allows you to do RAW processing in Adobe Photoshop. The cool thing is that some of these packages offer demo versions, so you can try them out before making up your mind about whether you want to buy one.

Camera options

RAW plus JPG

Can’t make up your mind about which way to work? Well, lots of cameras allow you to create both formats at the same time. So you choose to create RAW as well as JPG files in your camera while you shoot. I prefer not to use this option because I think it’s just making extra files but if you currently lack the ability to process your RAW files then this is a great way of having both options — JPG for now and your RAW files saved for a later date if/when your software receives an update that enables it to open them.

JPG

This option creates a picture out of the raw image data, locks in a bunch of settings while it does that, then throws away whatever image data the camera decides it doesn’t need. Then it saves the picture as a JPG file.

RAW

This is my preferred way of working. I can still preview my pictures on the screen on the back of my camera and then I can do a lot with them in my processing software.

Workflow

After I take my shots I download them directly into my RAW processing software. It presents me with a bunch of large thumbnails of the images.

Thumbnails

One of the handy things about thumbnails is that if an image looks good when it’s that small, then it’s much more likely to be a great shot when seen at full size. That’s because when a picture is in thumbnail size all you can see are the important things like colour and composition. So the thumbnail view is serving a bonus purpose in helping you choose your best pics.

Processing

In my opinion, the less work you do after you take a shot, the better it’s likely to turn out. If the light was beautiful when you took the photo and you didn’t muck anything up, then you won’t be asking your RAW processor to do much.

However many shots, including a lot that I take, benefit from a small amount of tweaking. I describe those things, and the order in which I do them, in my article about editing.

Exporting

The last stage of the workflow is exporting the photos. With the processing done, I export the result as a JPG file for storing in my folder of photos. My settings for export are as a JPG, at 300 dots per inch. 300 dots per inch is overkill for most things but some printers like to have files of that resolution. For colour space I have my entire workflow — from camera through to printed output — set for Adobe RGB (1998). However sRGB could well be a better choice because it has become more friendly to a lot of devices and printers so if you really must make a choice then sRGB would be best for most people. I won’t explain colour spaces and that whole crazy subject of colour management because it’s very complicated and although I have it working really well for me, I don’t think I’d be able to explain it properly yet. Most people I know don’t even use colour management in their workflow and they seem to do just fine.

Beginners versus the experts

Some people think RAW is just another complicated thing that should be left to the experts. But in my opinion, it’s the beginners who have the most to gain from working RAW. Here’s why:

Not only is RAW more forgiving if you want to make changes later, but if you improve your skill levels and the quality of your equipment later you might be extra glad that you saved all your images as RAW files. Sure, if you’re an expert then can you work in JPG mode because all your settings are likely to be correct from the very beginning, but when I was starting out I made a lot of mistakes. And I still make some mistakes. RAW gives me the option to go back, years later, and with the benefit of having access to all the original data I can resurrect photos which I originally didn’t think were any good.

Personal preference

Like most things, how you work will come down to a personal preference. You might read all my arguments about RAW and then still go ahead and only shoot JPG. That’s fine. When you start getting into digital photography, sometimes you just don’t want to think about having to learn more and more new stuff. Because the more time you’re learning technical stuff, the less time you’re concentrating on taking beautiful photos.

Of course, one alternative is that you try shooting in RAW-plus-JPG mode and then see if you can use some RAW processing software to produce a better result than the JPG!

But seriously, I’m telling you how I like to work. How you do things is up to you.

Photography

Beginners’ guides to digital SLR photography

primer

Before you start

Basics

The essential basics

Basics

Making sense of technical stuff

Photography words

Photography words explained

frog

Sneaky stuff

Colours

Common problems and their solutions

Preying mantis

Taking things further

Moon

Photography at night

Other photography stuff

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