Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Like many things in digital photography, there are lots of opinions and discussions about image file formats, namely RAW and JPG. For some, it’s a matter of understanding what the formats are and what they can or cannot do, but for others, it’s choosing which format is the best to use.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the formats, and for this, I will borrow some techno-speak from film photography so, I hope you have some prior knowledge.

I would compare shooting in JPG format to shooting with Kodachrome (slide film) in that you are heavily reliant on someone else to handle the image developing and that you have a narrow latitude for good exposure before you suffer blown highlights or blocked shadows. What I mean by the being reliant on someone else (even with digital) is that the camera automatically processes the images based on algorithms programmed into them by the manufacturer. There are very few options for editing after the fact in Lightroom or Photoshop; just like there is little you can do to change a Kodachrome slide after it’s been processed.

Let’s Look at RAW

Then there is RAW, which I would correlate to shooting a medium speed print film that you develop and print in your own darkroom. You can push or pull the exposure, as it has a wide latitude, and then once you get it into the darkroom you can go to town on really pushing or pulling the finished print. And while there may not be any automatic processing being done by the camera (or some faceless technician) there is not any universal RAW processing algorithm. Each camera manufacturer does things slightly different and so too do all the different software packages, whether from the manufacturers or from Adobe, or the other big software companies. This means that the finished look will vary depending on the software you use to process the RAW files.

Get to know the nuances of both formats and their limitations.

Now probably the biggest question concerning the two formats is: which one gives the highest quality? Well, unfortunately, it’s not such a simple answer. The majority of the time, the nod would have to go to RAW; but with a big caveat. You HAVE to do some major processing and development work to get that finished image. Straight from the camera, the image will be dull, flat and pretty lifeless. Very much like a roll of print film. No one would post images of an unprinted negative, as the colors would be “off,” and it just wouldn’t look good.

An Argument for JPG

Whereas with JPG, you can go straight from the camera to screen, web or print; often with similar quality to the finished RAW file image, but the caveat here is that you have to pretty much “nail” the image in-camera as there is little you can do to save a poor image. And because you are shooting in the web “ubiquitous” format, you don’t need to do anything to make you image web-ready. It can be a major time saver to shoot in JPG and free up your spare time from not having to wade through countless RAW files and spend countless hours in front of Lightroom (or your software of choice) to output JPG files for web use.

So, as you can see, they both have their pluses and minuses. My suggestion to you, the photographer, is to experiment with both. Get to know the nuances of both formats and their limitations. But above all, don’t blindly follow the pack and just pick one. Find what works for you and keep at it.

As for myself? Well, for the longest time, I’ve stuck with shooting RAW and spent a lot of time experimenting to find the best methods for processing the files. There are so many options for the “end to end” development that I’m wary of spending so much time in front of a computer screen. And this is not helped by my already spending 8 hours a day, Monday — Friday, in front of a computer screen for my “other” job. I’m now leaning more to shooting JPG, especially on my phone, and spending as little time in front of a screen as I can.

Originally published February 19, 2018

Ian Mildon

Ian Mildon spends his days working as a software application developer. When not doing this he is a keen photographer, working with various formats; digital (full frame, APS-C), film (35mm, 6x4.5, 6x7), mobile (phone), instant. Ian is also a fairly prolific writer, mainly on subjects pertaining to photography, although he does not limit himself to just this subject matter.

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