RAW vs JPG: Which one is the best option?

More than once in the past I’ve been asked whether I shoot in RAW or JPG format when photographing.  I’ve always given a clear cut answer:  both.  It’s when someone then asks me why that my answer becomes less clear cut.  But, thankfully, you’ve stumbled across my response here in written form.  I will start by explaining why and when I shoot in each, and then follow up with the pros and cons of each.

When to use RAW and JPG

I have been working as an event photographer for several years now, and have learned more from this specific portion of the industry than any other.  Because I primarily photograph horse shows, I regularly get the opportunity to max out my camera’s capabilities in some of the worst lighting available to a photographer.  Because there are horses, I cannot in good conscience utilize any sort of flash.  Indoor arenas tend to have a miserable mix of florescent, incandescent, and natural lighting which, without RAW, would literally put me out of business.  This brings me to my first point:

Use RAW when you are in a low-light situation.

RAW images utilize all of the available pixels on your camera’s sensor, and capture the image with minimal, if any, editing by the camera (which you may not even be aware it provides).  In essence you are getting a “pure” image exactly as the camera saw it and this leaves the image open to significantly more adjustments through Adobe Camera RAW or a similar program.  JPG files just do not have the flexibility for brightening, adjusting exposure, etc. that a RAW file does.  Likewise, if you are in a situation where you are photographing at midday in extremely bright sunlight, JPGs won’t have the flexibility for darkening that a RAW file will have.  So use RAW in bright sunlight as well.

Use RAW when photographing weddings.

Wedding photography is by far the most stressful event you can take pictures of–at least, I happen to think so.  That being said, photograph ALL weddings in RAW.  The potential for screwing up someone’s special day–the one they are going to remember for the rest of their lives and want to be able to see fifty years in the future–goes down significantly if you shoot in RAW.  No worries about JPG inflexibility if you use the incorrect exposure when they’re walking down the aisle–your RAW file will fix right up.

Use JPG for large-scale events in overcast lighting or studio lighting.

Theoretically, if you are using studio lights properly, you won’t have much of a risk of over or underexposing an image.  Therefore this is a good opportunity to shoot in JPG and save yourself some post-processing time–which in turn saves your customer money and leads to a happier customer!  When I photograph our larger regional horse shows, if the skies are overcast, I always shoot in JPG.  Because my business makes money based on what we sell, rather than getting paid to take the photos, it is important that I am able to upload the images to our proofing site as quickly as possible.  Shooting in JPG allows that to happen–so long as the lighting is right!

Use JPG for snapshots or photos for your friends and family.

There is no need to photograph in RAW format when you are only intending the images to be snapshots and not sold or issued to a client.  Also, if you’ve inadvertently become the family photographer and are just giving the images away, don’t put yourself through the extra work of converting from RAW to JPG.  It also makes it easier on the family when they want to see them on the computer right away, snatch the card away from you, plug it into their computer, and find out their computer has no way to display a RAW image.  Then again, that could just be a situation specific to my family…

Pros and Cons of Raw

Pros:

  • RAW files hold more information than JPGs prior to editing which maximizes your ability to correct shooting mistakes
  • Brighten dark images and darken bright images more effectively
  • RAW captures more detail

Cons:

  • More time consuming due to conversion process
  • Takes up significantly more space on your card and computer (my camera’s JPGs are 7mb, my RAWs are 24mb)
  • Burst mode won’t last as long when shooting in RAW (12 images max vs 20+ images max when shooting in JPG)
  • You must have a RAW editor and convertor
  • Not every computer can view RAW thumbnail images

Pros and Cons of JPG

Pros:

  • Straightforward and visible on virtually any machine
  • Can be edited using Adobe Camera RAW (but with less flexibility)
  • Take up less space on cards and harddrives
  • Less post processing if captured correctly
  • Shoot more images in burst mode due to smaller file size

Cons:

  • Wash outs and underexposures less likely to be repairable
  • Camera compresses the files leading to hard lines between color tones or “posterization” (loss of quality)
  • Less variation in color due to smaller bit depth

Got something else to add?  Which do you use?  Why?  Leave us a comment!

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