Questions about shooting Raw instead of JPG often come up during my Photoshop Elements workshops.
This is a huge question among photographers, and there is more than one right answer. I’m going to share the right answer (for me) with you.
The photo below sums it up for me pretty well. I’ll tell you how I arrived at these two versions shortly.
But first, which would you rather have? The raw, or the JPG? Look especially at the highlights on her face.
If I were a consistently perfect photographer, it wouldn’t matter. However, I miss exposure sometimes, just like I did in the photo above. And when I miss it, I have a better chance of recovering it from a Raw than a JPG.
So here’s the story on this image. I configured my camera to record each shot in Raw and JPG both. My JPG processing is set to Neutral on camera.
What does that mean? Good question! When we record JPGs on a camera, that camera processes the JPG as it records the file, just as you might process the file in Lightroom or Elements after the fact. Most cameras allow you to choose, before you shoot, what type of processing will be applied to the photo. You might have settings like:
In addition, most cameras allow you to select one of the above processing methods and then fine tune it to suit your taste – you can adjust sharpening, contrast, saturation, etc. When recording JPGs, cameras also apply white balance and exposure settings. All of this processing is “baked in” – you can’t undo it, although you can try to offset it in post processing.
Raw files, on the other hand, are completely unprocessed in camera. Nothing is baked in, except for the pixels that the camera sensor is recording. Raw files aren’t shareable images, either. You have to convert them to a JPG or some other universal image type in order to post on Facebook, email to a friend, or send to a print lab.
Not only do you have to convert the file type, but you have to process the images a bit as well – we are used to seeing photos with some amount of contrast, sharpening and saturation applied. For this reason, Raw files often look blah and dull. Here is the SOOC for the Raw and JPG I showed you above.
Of course, even the JPG above is blah, due to the overexposure and the Neutral setting I selected on the camera. You can see that the grass is less saturated and the shirt is less black in the Raw than the JPG. Now, look at this SOOC close up of her eye.
The catchlights are better defined in the JPG and there is more differentiation and saturation in the colors as well. That’s due to the contrast, sharpening and saturation applied on camera to the JPG.
So that’s all good, right? Why bother shooting in Raw? Go back up to the full size SOOC comparison and look at the blown highlight on her temple. You can see a difference there, right? If you read skintone by the numbers, you’ll see that the numbers reflect a difference as well – using Photoshop, I measured the exact same pixel in each image. That area is more blown out in the JPG than in the Raw. What’s more, there are more blown out areas in the JPG than in the Raw – the red overlay in the photos below represent the blown out areas.
The difference comes from the processing that was applied. The JPG has contrast added. Adding contrast makes the brights brighter and the darks darker. Sure enough, the brightest parts of this photo are brighter – too much so, in fact.
When we have a blown out area like this, it’s tempting to think “Oh, I will fix that when I edit.” But look what happens when I apply the slightest of Lightroom adjustments to the JPG – that blown area just can’t be repaired.
Darkening highlights further had no effect on the blown out area. Changing the exposure decrease even to a miniscule -.10 still left an obvious difference between the blown area and the rest of the skin. Look at the next photo to see how different the effect of the adjustments on a Raw image is:
I was able to move the Highlights slider down to 67 without damaging the Raw image.
And here is my final before and after on the Raw version of this image.
The photo is still not great – even with Raw files, it’s hard to recover from a bad exposure miss. However, it’s nice to know that you can improve a photo if you need to.
If you are deciding whether to start shooting in Raw, there are a few other facts you need to know:
- Regardless of whether you record your shots in Raw, JPG or both, the image that you see on the back of your camera after shooting is a JPG.
- Just because you shoot in Raw doesn’t mean you can save every photo. If the image above had been any brighter, I wouldn’t have been able to use it at all.
- Shooting Raw when you have Elements but not Lightroom is time consuming, because you have to open each image individually* into Adobe Camera Raw (included in Elements) to make the Raw conversion. Lightroom is the most efficient way to import, organize and edit Raw photos. (And if you purchase Lightroom, check out my class here so that you can use it right from the beginning!) *Some versions of PSE do allow for batch editing of Raw photos in ACR. Please see the comments below for more info and give it a try in your version of Elements. If you aren’t able to open two Raw files at the same time, then it probably won’t work for your version of PSE and your operating system.
- When you first load an image in Lightroom, sometimes it looks well-processed for a moment, and then pops back to the dull Raw version. You are seeing that glimpse of a JPG that appeared on the back of your camera while the full file loads. Unfortunately, you can’t access it unless you also shot in JPG.
- A note for you grammarians out there. Raw is not an acronym or abbreviation. It means raw, like uncooked broccoli. Therefore, we don’t capitalize all 3 letters. JPG, on the other hand, is an abbreviation, so we do capitalize the letters. Technically, even the R in Raw shouldn’t be capitalized. I often do so in writing, however, to indicate that it’s an important term.
- Contrary to popular belief, you can’t print full size Raws any larger than you can print full size JPGs. If you shoot both at the largest size your camera offers, they have the same number of pixels and therefore support the same print sizes.
- Raw files aren’t compressed at all, so the space they take up on your hard drive can be 3 times or more as much as JPGs.
- Raw files’ size comes from the fact that they record data at a greater bit depth. This means that there is more information about each pixel in your image, and gives you a bit more leeway in editing. However, the vast majority us us will end up converting our Raws to the basic 8 bit depth anyway.
This table summarizes key differences between Raw and JPGs:[fusion_old_table id=23 /]
The most important thing to remember when deciding whether Raw or JPG is best is to know that this decision is purely up to you. I know a National Geographic photographer who considers shooting in Raw to be cheating, and I know professionals who wouldn’t dream of shooting in JPG. It’s nice to know that there isn’t a wrong answer, right?[/show_if]