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This chapter is from the book Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Why You Should Be Shooting Raw

Most likely, your camera offers different image formats for storing the pictures on the memory card. JPEG is probably the format that is most familiar to anyone who has been using a digital camera.

There is nothing wrong with JPEG if you are taking casual shots. JPEG files are ready to use right out of the camera. Why go through the process of adjusting raw images of the kids opening birthday presents when you are just going to email them to grandma? And JPEG is just fine for journalists and sports photographers who are shooting nine frames a second and need small images to transmit across the wire. So what is wrong with JPEG? Absolutely nothing—unless you care about having complete creative control over all of your image data (as opposed to what a compression algorithm “thinks” is important).

To give you a little background, JPEG is not actually an image format. It is a compression standard, and compression can cause problems in images, such as artifacting and detail clipping. When you set your camera to JPEG—whether it is set to High or Low compression—you are telling the camera to process the image however it sees fit and then throw away enough image data to shrink the image to a smaller size and take up less space. In doing so, you eliminate subtle image details that you will never get back in postprocessing. Although that is an awfully simplified explanation, it’s still fairly accurate.

So Why Raw?

First and foremost, raw images are not compressed. (Some cameras have a compressed raw format, but it is lossless compression, which means there is no loss of actual image data.) Also, raw image files require you to perform postprocessing on your photographs. This is not only necessary, but it is the reason that most photographers use the raw format.

Raw images have a greater dynamic range than JPEG-processed images. This means that you can recover image detail in the highlights and shadows that just isn’t available in JPEG-processed images.

A raw image is a 14-bit image, meaning that it contains more color information than a JPEG, which is almost always an 8-bit image. More color information means more to work with and smoother changes between tones—similar to the difference between performing surgery with a scalpel as opposed to a butcher’s knife. They’ll both get the job done, but one will do less damage.

A raw image offers more control over sharpening, because you are the one who is applying it according to the effect you want to achieve. Once again, JPEG processing applies a standard amount of sharpening that you cannot change after the fact. Once it is done, it’s done.

Most important, a raw file is your digital negative. No matter what you do to it, you won’t change it unless you save your file in a different format. This means that you can come back to that raw file later, try different processing settings to achieve various results, and never harm the original image. By comparison, if you make a change to your JPEG file and accidentally save the file, guess what? You have a new original file, and you can never revert to that first image. That fact alone should make you sit up and take notice. This doesn’t mean that you should never shoot JPEG photos; rather, just be aware of the differences between JPEG and raw as you start working on photos in the Develop module.

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