Photo Tips | Raw vs. JPEG

If you are anything like me, you forget things. Your keys, change for your kids' allowances, mailing the holiday thank you cards (don't judge; at least they're stamped and addressed)...you've been there right?

A couple of years ago, I read that some photographers shoot JPEG for their casual, non paid shoots and change their settings to raw when they are shooting for clients. It's faster, they said, and you can fit more on your card.

I listened and it became a lesson for me.

My family and I went on a day trip the weekend before my son's jog-a-thon for his school. I forgot to change the settings. While some of the pictures came out fine, others came out too bright or too dark and there was no way to recover them. I'm even too embarrassed to share most of them with you now.

Since then, I've only shot in raw and I haven't looked back since.

What is JPEG

JPEG files are files that the camera processed for you. The files are smaller, so you can store a lot more images in your memory card. This also translates to quicker writing time, so you have the advantage of faster shutter speeds.

In fact, when shooting sports, some photographers shoot in JPEG because they can shoot much more consecutive shots versus shooting in raw.

The trade-off, though, is loss of data. Simply put, these files are smaller because the camera decides what information is the most important, based on your settings and only keeps the photographic information that it *thinks* is important.

The extra information gets dumped, so to speak, never to be seen again.

In theory, shooting this way is great if you are confident in *always* having the correct camera settings. If you do, I bow down to your camera expertise. It takes a very skilled photographer to know the correct settings for all situations.

What is Raw

Raw is not an acronym. Photographically speaking, it means what it sounds like - minimally processed data captured by the image sensor of a digital camera or scanner.

To use an analogy, shooting in raw is like cooking with brown rice - nothing is taken out and all of the goodness that nature (image sensor) put in there is present. The brown rice will grow perfectly, as long as you give it the right amount of water and sun (all the information the sensor needs to create your image). When you cook the rice (process the image), you can cook it as is, or add broth, or whatever to suit your taste. No matter what you do, all of the goodness is still there for you to enjoy.

This is not to say that all images shot in raw come out perfectly. If you allow too much or too little light in, your photos won't come out perfect straight out of the camera (SOOC). However, because all of the details (nature's goodness) are still present, when you process the image, there is a good chance that you can still bring out the details that you can't see at first.

In contrast, JPEG is like white rice. It is processed so some things that are considered "unnecessary" have been taken out by whoever processed the rice.

Some people like this better...to each his own, I guess.

So, in the case of the above photo, the camera did not think that I needed the boy's facial details. Not matter what I did in Photoshop and Lightroom, that detail is gone, unrecoverable.

The magic of Raw Images

Hopefully it's becoming clearer now why I shoot in Raw vs. JPEG. There are so many situations (forgetfulness aside) where the light changes during a photoshoot and my settings become less than optimal.

For example, I had a photoshoot with my friend's baby just a few days ago. We had planned this shoot forever and I was so excited because she was finally sitting up:

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My camera was set for the sunny day.

When we moved her to the shade on the bridge, I didn't want to miss this shot, (if you know anything about 6 month old babies, you understand why) so I took it, knowing that I would have to fix it in Photoshop. Because I shot it in raw, I knew that I would be able to brighten up the image and bring out the details.

Isn't she adorable??

Raw Image modified
Raw Image modified

Whether you choose to shoot in raw or JPEG, you just have to remember that it's all about understanding the trade-offs. As long as you know what you are doing, and can adjust your camera quickly enough for the photos that you want, then either can work for you.