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In general shooting in RAW format uses a lot more file storage than JPEG. What am I gaining when shooting RAW? Besides file size are there any downsides to shooting RAW?

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It's raw not "RAW". Raw is a word, not an acronym; it does not need to be capitalised. –  Peter Boughton Sep 14 '10 at 16:58
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Thank you PETER! –  jessegavin Oct 6 '10 at 19:46
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Peter is nobly fighting a battle that was lost years ago, methinks. Captial "RAW" bugs me too. –  Lyman Enders Knowles Feb 13 '11 at 0:26
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Sorry to say, every camera maker disagrees with you guys. Since they've invented RAW, I'm siding with them :) Plus, it makes it much easier to read when contrasting the two formats. –  Itai Feb 13 '11 at 19:18
    
See also Good examples of RAW's advantages over JPEG? and the excellent answers there, which are relevant to this question. –  mattdm Jan 3 '12 at 2:47

12 Answers 12

I always consider a RAW file like a traditional negative -- The biggest benefit of shooting in RAW is the ability to tweak things like white balance and exposure with greater accuracy and ease back when you're "developing" them. However, shooting in RAW consumes memory card space faster, and some cameras perform faster when shooting in JPEG

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RAW definitely takes more work. If you want to go straight to Facebook with an album of 50+ photos, you may want to consider using JPG. Using RAW allows you to customize white balance, exposure, etc. This takes more time, but can yield a better photo. If you have the time, this is the route to take.

If you are going for the HDR effect, you can sometimes achieve it with a single RAW file, and use exposure adjustments to create 5 differently exposed JPGs for merge. It's harder to accomplish that with a single JPG as source.

Finally, if you have enough memory cards, some cameras allow you to record both RAW and JPG for every shot — this is what I do, and may be a good option for you.

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Even your facebook friends will appreciate a little selectivity though! :) –  Reid Jul 15 '10 at 23:33

I expect pro-RAW answers will dominate here, so I'll offer a pro-JPEG view.

I was shooting RAW from the start when I started using digital cameras. However, after a few years, when looking into my workflow, I realize that I very rarely use what RAW offers (post exposure white balance changes, exposure corrections and so on). My typical adjustments to the image is a slight increase of contrast, and perhaps adjust brightness a bit (yes, I try to be thorough with white balance and exposure when shooting). Given that, I really could not justify my image using 3-4 times the storage space required by RAW, so a year and a half ago I stopped shooting RAW out of habit, and instead default to JPEG.

It still happens that I switch to RAW, if the subject is of a nature where I expect to need extra post processing (tricky high-contrast light situations for instance), but more than 99% of my images are JPEG in the camera, and I have not yet felt that it limits me.

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I've gone through the same transition, I was finding processing raw images was taking a lot of time that was better spent out taking photos. –  Tony Edgecombe Jul 26 '10 at 8:05
    
I have a method for fixing white balance in Paint Shop Pro, so I don't worry about that RAW advantage. When I got my Pentax K-7, I decided to stick to JPEG exclusively and I haven't regretted it yet. –  Mark Ransom Aug 20 '10 at 3:48
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I think that fixing white balance in post processing can cost you a lot of color palette, as this is the place when 12 bits per channel start to show. –  che Sep 14 '10 at 17:56
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I shoot JPG+RAW (on my Canon A610 even, if it is not time-critical), but 99% of the time work with the JPG. Sometimes, seldom, but often enough, the RAW can save the day (with harsh lights). –  Leonidas Nov 29 '10 at 16:15

The file size is because of the raw data, which the camera normally discards when outputting a JPEG.

Shooting RAW involves more post-production work. That can be a little, or a lot, or whatever you need. But you get much more capability to tweak your light balance, colour settings, and more. Plus the changes are reversible, and can be edited further.

The obvious downside is the file size. That's up front. But there is the extra cost of time in post-production.

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The biggest upside for RAW is color depth. Most RAW formats capture color information in 12 bit format. This means that color intensities can vary from 0 to 4095. In contrast JPG can only capture 8 bit in color depth (0 to 255). Therefore a RAW file can be tweaked much more extensively without the whites being washed out. The only two downsides I can think of are storage space and a more complex workflow.

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The 12 bits are linear and the 8 bits are logarithmic, so you don't get as much advantage as you think you do. –  Mark Ransom Aug 20 '10 at 3:49
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Actually, the 12 bits are not really linear in most cases. Whenever you view a RAW image, either in-camera or with editing software, there is usually a non-linear tone curve applied. (For example, Canon cameras have numerous Picture Styles, which are basically tone curves applied to each image.) A true, un-mapped RAW image has considerable dynamic range, but is generally rather dull, flat, and lacking in necessary contrast. Most of the time, people rarely see a 100% untoned RAW image, which also means you don't get the full dynamic range that might theoretically be offered by a sensor. –  jrista Aug 20 '10 at 4:51
    
And a lot of cameras actually record 14-bits per channel (my 50D does for example), in which case it's theoretically possible to store 14 stops of information, though the sensor is likely a few stops less sensitive. –  Nick Bedford Feb 15 '11 at 5:50

One nice feature of some cameras is the ability to save both raw and jpeg. This gives you almost all of the advantages of both (you have the option of post processing or not depending on your requirements), at the cost of even worse filesize than raw alone (but not that much more if you're already shooting raw). Memory cards are cheap, and this might be a good option until you decide whether you prefer raw or jpeg.

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This. I've found that almost all the time the jpeg output is perfectly fine, but every now and then I'll take photos where I want the extra options of RAW. Shooting RAW+jpeg means I don't spend unnecessary time in the common case, but I can still post-facto select images I want to process more. –  RAOF Jul 15 '10 at 23:28
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Another disadvantage is this makes file management more difficult, since now you have two files for each photo to keep track of. –  Reid Jul 15 '10 at 23:32
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Agreed re: file management. Thankfully my photo manager (F-Spot) has a plugin that goes through and combines raw/jpg versions of a photo into one logical group. I'm not sure about others, but I would hope this is a pretty common feature. –  Mark Jul 16 '10 at 0:20
    
Yeah, this is the way I've ended up going. 90% of the time I'm either happy with the shot, or the things that are wrong with it can't be fixed by fiddling with the RAW file; not having the extra workflow 90% of the time is great. The other 10% of the time, well, it's great to have the original. –  Rodger Sep 16 '10 at 8:12

RAW:

Pros:

  • Great color
  • More post-processing options

Cons:

  • Large File size
    • More storage needed
    • Slower capture time
  • More complicated workflow for processing

JPEG:

Pros:

  • Fast capture (so higher burst speed)
  • Simplified viewing/sharing

Cons:

  • Finalized (editing degrades the image more)
  • Smaller range of color/contrast options.
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RAW's color is actually likely to be less saturated than jpg because color is often boosted in the final jpg image through the camera's internal post processing (see your camera's menu for "enhanced color" vs "true color" type options). –  Erica Marshall Jul 18 '10 at 16:50
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I'm referring to the possibilities during post-processing, not the unprocessed image out of the camera. Since there is more data available it is possible to get the exact color you want while retaining detail. –  chills42 Jul 18 '10 at 20:15
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Largest advantage of RAW, imho, is the preservation of detail in the shadows. Due to the 2^12 or so values not being truncated to 256, JPEG's shadow restoration is, well, lacking. –  Eruditass Sep 14 '10 at 21:46
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RAW has not color. It is the post processing that assigns the final colors to the pixels. The "colors" of RAW are the Bayer pattern filters colors which, without interpolation are useless for viewing the photo. –  ysap Feb 12 '11 at 22:33
    
File size also affects how many frames fit in buffer before it fills up. The relationship is stronger than linear, since smaller files will release memory quicker. –  Imre Oct 20 '12 at 15:40

Raw vs jpeg is choosing processing software. Raw is not a specific file format like jpeg or tiff or psd. Most manufacturers have their own raw file format. Raw just means the data from the sensor in the most unprocessed form available. If the camera is set to jpeg then the processing is done by the manufacturer's in-camera processing software. If the camera is set to raw it saves the unprocessed data for processing with the photographer's choice of software. There are several potential advantages to doing the processing yourself with out-of-camera software.

There are many choices of out-of-camera processing software, and most of them offer more features, controls, and precision than what is currently installed in digital cameras. For instance the in-camera processing software for my Canon DSLRs is mainly controlled by several slider bars with a few setting options each. Photoshop on the other hand offers almost unlimited options, many more features, and increased precision in comparison.

If I'm using the in-camera software I need to process by prediction. Meaning I need to adjust the processing settings before I make the exposure. I previsualize the finished photograph, and set the processing to achieve it. If I don't achieve what I wanted I can't go back and reprocess the jpeg. Information that has been discarded is irretrievable. Using out-of-camera software I am processing by inspection. I look at the photo on a calibrated monitor, and can see my processing adjustments as I make them. As long as I am using non-destructive processing methods I can go back to any step or the beginning and start again. I'm pretty good at processing by prediction. I used the Zone System in my BW darkroom for many years. Even so my eyes and mind can assess image aspects in a split second. There is a huge advantage to using vision when creating visual art.

It is similar to drop-off, automated, uniform film development and printing compared to doing it yourself in the darkroom. As long as you are getting the results you want either is fine, but most photographers find that with a little practice they can do a better job and have more options doing the processing themselves than when they rely on the machine for processing. The machine is fast, but the human offers more options and control. It's up to the photographer as to whether those advantages outweigh the extra time and effort required to DIY. I prefer the results I get doing the processing myself. I think they are significant enough to warrant the extra effort.

In the future I expect that we will be able to install the processing software of our choice in digital cameras. When I can load up my favorite Adobe Camera Raw presets into my DSLRs I might start shooting jpeg more often.

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While downloading your favorite raw to jpeg converter into the camera might be a nice feature, I don't expect to ever happen. It would require too much standardization on the part of the camera makers with very little payback for them. –  Mark Ransom Aug 20 '10 at 3:54

In short: RAW has more room to fix photography-errors later on.

If you make the perfect picture happen in camera, JPG is all you need. But if you used the wrong white balance, over- or underexposed a bit, had some color problems you have more headroom in RAW to fix these things than in JPG.
Thats not to say you can't fix them in JPG, but in RAW you probably get better results.

The biggest pro for JPG is size, because size is speed. Burst rates might be higher, you get more pictures on one card, backup and transfer times is faster. For sports shooter this can be very helpful.

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To put it another way: raw lets you postpone less important decisions for later, (instead of missing a shot due to fiddling with colour settings). –  Peter Boughton Sep 14 '10 at 16:57

I shoot in raw+JPEG mode.

This gives the key benefits of JPEG - simple portable images - whilst not losing the extra flexibility that a raw format provides.

In response to the reasons some give for using JPEG only:

  • Shooting raw does not mean slow capture times, unless you fill up the buffer quicker than it can empty.

    For the majority of photographers, the buffer is big enough that you don't need to worry.
    If you need a continuous burst of more than 20-30 images*, use JPEG, movie mode, or a dedicated video camera.
    If you never take more than a handful* of images at once, you'll almost certainly be fine using raw. (*Exact limit depends on camera, settings, and card. I've not seen a modern DSLR that can't do at least 5 frames before slowing down.)

  • Similarly, using raw does not result in a slower workflow, (unless you want it to).

    Any decent photo management software will let you select all images and hit auto, or apply a pre-defined set of adjustments, and all images are addressed in one go.

  • Storage space is not a big issue these days, since you can get decent cards with plenty of space.

    I have a 12.3MP camera and shoot 14-bit NEF + JPEG images, and I can get 500-800 images on a single card. That's more than enough for one card.
    Hard-drives and backup storage is also cheap these days - just £80 ($125) for 1.5TB gives plenty of space.


So, for me, even when I don't need to do much post-processing, there is no reason not to record the raw data.

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The real question is: Given that you can save a copy of a RAW file as JPEG later, why would you ever shoot JPEG? RAW+JPEG only really does one thing: consume more space. Sure, those jpegs are small, but hundreds of them consume quite a bit of space, and don't really buy you anything, since you can create them on demand from the RAW versions if you need them. –  jrista Sep 14 '10 at 17:30
    
Consume what space? I've already pointed out space isn't an issue. Unlike time, which can be important - it takes time to convert NEF raw files to JPEG (even assuming you're at a machine that can do so!). If someone needs a quick copy of images I can plug an SD card into their laptop and give them the JPEGs, and it's fine. Once you've got the files on your own machine and processed the raw images, maybe the JPEGs are then redundant, but that doesn't mean they're not potentially useful in the first place. –  Peter Boughton Sep 14 '10 at 17:48
    
I guess if you actually need to plug your SD into someone's laptop to share the images. I'm not sure how realistic that is, or if its only a hypothetical. Hypothetically, sure, capturing RAW+JPEG can be useful...my question is, is it REALLY that useful, or is it just a hypothetical for arguments sake? At least in my own work, I would never give anyone a copy of anything until I've had a chance to properly review the shots and at least pick the useful ones. If a client needed a quick preview, it is easy enough to batch output jpegs for my picks. –  jrista Sep 14 '10 at 22:56
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Well technically I've only done it with a USB CF reader, but simplifying that aspect for arguments sake. It's not hypothetical. I've given someone an image for them to use as a desktop backdrop - they don't care/need a higher quality one, or showing a slideshow of images, no waiting required, with Windows Photo Viewer. Not everyone is paranoid about people seeing their unreviewed images. –  Peter Boughton Sep 14 '10 at 23:58
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Sam, I've updated that part of my answer - a professional DSLR can give a 20-30 frame burst at 6-10fps - which is plenty for the majority of cases. If you're in a particular niche that needs more than 3s at 10fps of images, but still needs DSLR over video, then going JPEG-only makes sense. However, for most people filling the buffer is simply not an issue. –  Peter Boughton Sep 15 '10 at 17:44

Just to be the devil's advocate for a moment, please note that raw formats are proprietary and "closed" specifications. These file formats are defined per camera manufacturer and often differ between camera models from the same manufacturer.

It has been mentioned in this thread that raw format is more like a traditional photo negative. i beg to differ - 20-ish years from now in 2031, when no one remembers the details of the whacky Nikon D70 raw specification (I don't know if it's really whacky, it's just an example), and no software can decode your raw file, you're in trouble. on the other hand, i'd be willing to bet you'll find something the can decode a JPG file.

it's just a thought, but it can become more immediate if the post processing software you use has support for a specific camera and two versions from now they screw it up, or maybe explicitly drop support for that camera. while this is not likely, it's possible.

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Whilst a good point, this is a reason to switch to Open standards, not to switch away from raw. Ideally camera manufacturers will be pressured to start using DNG (or similar) - some do already, see barrypearson.co.uk/articles/dng/products.htm#manufacturers –  Peter Boughton Sep 15 '10 at 17:10
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Whilst I'm all for open standards I don't find the fears of digital obsolescence credible. Enthusiasts and the open source community have managed to reverse engineer even the most arcane and seemly impenetrable file formats. DCraw is an open source raw converter, the source code of which is unlikely to ever be lost, plus in the age of virtual machines it will be possible to keep the original conversion binaries going indefinitely, regardless of what future software/hardware changes happen. –  Matt Grum Sep 16 '10 at 11:45
    
DNG is proprietary too, it is not owned by the same company that made the camera. The specification is available openly but because of how technology evolves, DNG has to change along too. There are special bits in there for SuperCCD sensors for example. I think it would be better to have camera makers produce a high bit-depth image, whether it be 16-bit PNG, OpenEXR or other but that it produce a complete image. RAW data is bound to require changes to any file-format because no one can predict what that data will mean. –  Itai Nov 5 '10 at 16:42

I think the most important reason you would choose one over the other is what is required of you. I think the only real reason you would choose raw is simply if you need to post process or not. The thing about most DSLRs is that you can choose styles (or custom styles) which do boost contrast, saturation, treat in black and white and the like. It's perfectly capable of achieving a fantastic result in camera by manipulating the camera style settings. The problem is that when you have done this in camera, there is no option to go back and change it.

This is the primary reason many photographers shoot in raw (I'm one of them). Raw allows the photographer to retain the "digital negative" and manipulate it to their liking time and time again. Shoot a photograph in raw and you can, at a whim, create a striking black and white treatment. Don't like it? Just go back to your editing suite and whip up a classic retro feel, or a full colour, vibrant contrasting treatment.

What about dynamic range? Is the dynamic range so large that you need to bring back the highlights and bring out the shadows to "compress" the dynamic range into the final image and create a detailed lifelike result?

Here is one photo I took where I had to use Lightroom. The highlights were too bright and the shadows were too dark. Using Lightroom I was able to compress the dynamic range into a smooth, highly detailed looking photo.

enter image description here

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