JPEG vs. RAW file formats. Which is better and why should I choose?

Admittedly, RAW files can be up to 10x the size of a FINE JPEG, but having the correction ability literally at your fingertips is priceless. Many photographers who started their careers in the heyday of film are having the hardest time coordinating their work flow. When you went to the lab, it was a matter of dropping off the film, picking it up, culling the blinks and showing the proofs to the customer. If you were lucky, you knew what the client was going to use the images for with predetermined sizes and output expectations.

I have asked many of my customers the following question, "Do you shoot RAW or JPEG?". The majority reply that it depends on what they are shooting or who they are shooting for.

Some say that capturing RAW files is too cumbersome and too expensive for their clientele or pocketbook.

Architectural photographers would (and still) shoot large format to have the ability to correct perspective. Portrait Studio photographers would shoot medium format on a long roll camera and the commercial photographer would use the format that filled the customers needs.

The problem today is that your customer has a variety of uses for the same image, ranging from 4 color brochures to their websites. Whipping out your 4x5 to shoot the facade of the company building, just for the navigation banner on the company website may be overkill. If you shoot it with an 8 megapixel camera, correct perspective in Photoshop and save a TIFF for the next brochure along with the small JPEG, you have "killed two birds with one stone."

The next question is not whether it is film vs. digital, but rather RAW vs. JPEG. That first question has already been answered. Now the factors to consider are the number of photos to be taken, the amount of memory space you have available and the amount of time that can be invested into the job.

Regardless of what camera you are shooting (Nikon, Canon or whatever manufacturer), the camera was designed with their color model and a CCD/CMOS sensor in mind to give the optimum image quality. Starting with Kodak's DCS cameras in the early 1990's and the scan back cameras, all the capture modes were in proprietary formats. You needed to use that camera manufacturer's software to acquire the image. The image needed to be "processed" just like the latent image needs to developed on the film. As software developed, you had the ability to change the color balance, change the resolution, sharpen the image and even change the ISO at a later date.

When customers complained to the manufacturers that their point and shoot cameras gave them a decent (some might say more than decent) picture captured in the JPEG format, "why can't we get that in the Digital SLR's?". JPEG (which stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group) is a format designed by committee. Their website states

" photography has also changed the way people collect, store, modify, disseminate and display images. Digital photography started with the advent of the first commercial digital cameras for consumers and professionals in the early 1990's, along with the first systems for digitizing film images. As the technology advanced, the cost of digital cameras and film digitization services has dropped, and the image quality has increased. The image size for professional portable digital cameras continues to grow, from about 1 Megapixel in 1993 to 10 Megapixels or more in 2003."1

Adding the JPEG format gives the photographer the option of having the camera process the image instead using a computer. Along with the on-board processing you also get compression and the ability to determine the compression. The smaller the file the more images will fit on the memory card. Between file size vs. quality it will become noticeable that the diminishment of the former has a detrimental effect on the latter. The greater the compression the more damage that is done to the image.

The camera compresses the file when the file is written to memory and again when it is opened and saved again. So every time that you save the image it gets recompressed.

For large prints and fine art, a JPEG is questionable but doable. The deciding factor comes down to workflow. If you have multiple memory cards, a fast computer and the appropriate software, shooting RAW and post processing is a smooth, efficient workflow.

If you have limited disc space, don't like sitting at the computer and have clients who are not going to pay you to sit there, going with JPEG originals is the appropriate workflow solution.

Both formats have their pluses and minuses. The ultimate choice is yours. You the photographer have to choose. I would advise trying both and find your comfort level.


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this page was last updated Monday, July 21, 2008