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How to work through the Camera Raw dilemma

Dave Johnson | May 6, 2013
All great debates are framed by at least two compelling, often contradictory choices: Mac vs. PC, Beatles vs. Stones, oatmeal raisin vs. chocolate chip. If you have a digital SLR or an advanced compact camera, you can make just such a choice when it comes to what format in which to save your photos. Most cameras default to the common JPEG format (and if you have a smartphone or very basic point and shoot, that's probably your only choice). There's a good chance your camera also offers a Raw option as well, though. You've probably heard that it is a higher quality option than JPEG, but comes with tradeoffs of its own. Should you take it?

All great debates are framed by at least two compelling, often contradictory choices: Mac vs. PC, Beatles vs. Stones, oatmeal raisin vs. chocolate chip. If you have a digital SLR or an advanced compact camera, you can make just such a choice when it comes to what format in which to save your photos.

Most cameras default to the common JPEG format (and if you have a smartphone or very basic point and shoot, that's probably your only choice). There's a good chance your camera also offers a Raw option as well, though. You've probably heard that it is a higher quality option than JPEG, but comes with tradeoffs of its own. Should you take it?

There's no one right answer; it depends upon how you tend to edit and use your photos. It might be helpful to take a step back and discuss the differences between the two formats.

The difference between Raw and JPEG

First of all, Raw isn't a single, universal file format. Raw is a general term that describes a file that saves all of the "raw" data from the image sensor without processing or discarding anything. Every manufacturer has its own proprietary Raw format and it can even vary from model to model. Nikon's Raw format is called NEF, while Canon uses CRW and CR2. Raw files pack more color information than JPEG; typically capturing 12 bits per color, that's a lot more data than JPEG's 8 bits per color (it's the difference between 4096 and 256 color variations of each red, green, and blue pixel). And that's not all; Raw files contain all of that color information, while the JPEG format compresses and strips out some data on the way to saving it. JPEG is, after all, a "lossy" file format, and it makes smaller files by discarding color data that is considered less important. Anytime you re-save a JPEG file and use the compression or quality slider in a photo editing program, you're re-compressing the photo by asking the computer to discard even more color information.

On the other hand, JPEG files have some advantages over Raw. While Raw files are unprocessed, your camera optimizes JPEG image for sharing with the assumption you're not planning to edit it afterwards. JPEGs get color balanced based on the camera's white balance reading, and the images are sharpened as well (you can usually tweak how strongly photos are sharpened by adjusting the camera's settings).

When to shoot Raw

The difference between the formats tells you a lot about when to use each one. If you like to take snapshots and don't plan to tweak the exposure or make other edits in a program like Photoshop, then JPEG is probably right for you. That's because Raw photos are only half finished when they get saved to your camera's memory card. At a minimum, you should fix the white balance to color correct Raw photos, as well as add a little sharpening. You might also need to enhance the contrast a bit. Without those changes, many Raw photos look a bit flat and soft--and the colors will likely be a little out of whack. Bottom line: Often, JPEGs look better than uncorrected Raw images.

 

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