Modern DSLR or mirrorless cameras can save photos in either JPEG or RAW format, or RAW + JPEG. For the vast majority of scenarios, it's much better to shoot in the RAW format. In this post, I'll go over why that is, and also give you a few pointers on how to get started to edit/export your RAW photos to their final JPEG format to be used on the web.
Let's start things off with a simple example. For the image below, the left side is the JPEG version and the right side has the RAW version, both edited with the exact same settings.
As you can see, the colors on the JPEG version are much less vibrant and the quality is diminished.
Before / After:
And just as a point of reference, here’s how the picture looked like straight out of camera:
…which brings us to the 1st and most important reason why you should shoot in RAW:
More Information/Better Image Quality
With the RAW format, the file for a photograph will contain all the pixel information that was received by the camera’s image sensor. By contrast, if you’re using the JPEG format to save the files in-camera, the files will be processed and compressed by the camera using the camera’s best judgment for the final output.
That would only be fine if you were sure that you never wanted to edit your shots, tweak the colors, increase contrast, bring back details… Otherwise, if there’s even a slight chance that you’ll want to tweak the photos that you take you’ll want to have the RAW file so that all the pixel information is there for the tweaking.
Wider Dynamic Range
That’s related to the first point, but shooting in RAW will give you images that have a wider dynamic range than their JPEG counterparts. That means that your photographs will have much more information in the bright and dark areas, allowing you to bring back details that would otherwise be lost to complete black or complete white.
You can see that from the cover photo for this post. I brought back a lot of the details from under the palm leaves because they were in shadow in the in-camera shot. In the JPEG version, those details are not brought back with the same level of quality.
Dynamic range is really important and nowadays a camera that’s capable of a very wide dynamic range is something that many photographers look for when purchasing a new camera.
Flexibility with White Balance
When you shoot in JPEG, the white balance that you selected in camera or that the camera selected for you (e.g.: auto white balance) will be embedded in the file and there’s nothing you’ll be able to do to correctly tweak the white balance afterward if you find that it’s slightly off. And white balance that’s off the mark happens all the time!
With RAW photos, the white balance that you select in camera will just be your starting point, but it can later be changed to any desired value without affecting the quality of the image. Doing a whole shoot using the wrong white balance is fixable in just a few clicks when shooting in RAW.
RAW files are like negatives; they are digital negatives. I’m not a legal professional and this is not legal advice, but from my understanding, if there’s ever a dispute as to the ownership of a photograph, having the RAW file in your possession is a good indication that you are the owner/creator of the photograph.
Plus, having the digital negative means that you always have the best file to use if you ever want to export to a new format.
Choose Your Sharpening
When you shoot in JPEG, the camera makes the choice about the level of sharpening added to the saved file. With a RAW file, the RAW editor you use will usually start with a sensible default, but you can tweak that to work for what you wanted for the shot. Sometimes, for example, you’ll want an image that looks a little bit softer, or that looks sharper/more crispy than usual.
What Are the Drawbacks of Shooting RAW Versus JPEG?
There are only 2-3 potential drawbacks of shooting in RAW, but as you’ll see they’re not really drawbacks in the end:
Your files will be larger and take up more space on your memory card and hard drive. That’s really a non-issue though and just goes to show even more that you get more with a RAW file. Everything else being equal, better quality will always result in larger files in the digital world.
Just to give you an idea of the kind of difference, the JPEG version for the image in the post is 32.9 MB, and the RAW version is 47.7 MB.
The buffer will fill up faster
If you shoot action in bursts of consecutive shots, your camera has a buffer that, when filled up, will mean that the shots will start taking longer to process and will slow down the shooting speed. In reality though 99.9% of the time this shouldn’t be an issue and you most likely won’t ever be faced with this limitation.
You’ll need to bring your shots in a RAW editor first
To get final images that you can use and share online or even print, RAW photos will need to be brought into a RAW editor first and then exported to final JPEGs, after having applied some tweaks if needed/desired. All this means is that they’ll be a slight learning curve if you’re brand new at this, and you may have to spend a little bit of money on a RAW editor if you want to work with one that isn’t free.
You’ll be glad that you go over that learning curve though if you’re serious about photography and want to take the best shots possible. In the next section, I briefly discuss how to get started with editing your RAW photos.
How to Shoot and Edit RAW Photos
You’ll need a piece of software to open, edit and export your RAW photos. The workflow is usually similar to this:
- Import your photos in your RAW editor.
- Select the ones that you want to keep/export. That’s called culling.
- Optionally, tweak the keepers by shifting the colors, contrast, whites, shadows,…
- Bulk export the tweaked keepers to their final JPEG format in the proper dimensions for your needs.
The most popular option for RAW editing is Adobe Lightroom Classic, Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw, all of which use the same RAW editing engine in the background. I find that most people like to use Lightroom or Lightroom Classic over Camera Raw because it takes care of the whole editing flow for you. If you open a RAW photo directly in Photoshop, it’ll open up in Camera Raw first by default to allow you to apply any tweaks before bringing it into Photoshop.
Capture One is also a very popular option, especially among professionals, and it’s currently my favorite option. It’s not free, but it’s well worth it in my opinion.
Luminar by Skylum is another popular option that’s probably ideal especially if you’re just getting started, as it’s very beginner-friendly.
Once you have made a choice on which RAW editor to try out, I’d recommend watching a video or two about it on Youtube, and you should get the gist of how the software works pretty easily!
As you saw in this post, there are just too many advantages to shooting in RAW not to do it. If you have a need to transfer photos very rapidly to a client after a shoot for proofing, you can always shoot in RAW + JPEG for the best of both worlds where you’ll have both a RAW version and a JPEG version of each shot.
🌄 Image info:
- Camera: Nikon D800
- Focal length: 105mm
- Shutter speed: 1/320s
- Aperture: f/8
- ISO: 200