Sunday, October 10, 2010

RAW vs jpeg?

I get asked a lot why I shoot RAW when it takes me forever to convert my files to jpeg. I'm usually the last to post my pictures online, and I rarely post pictures on Facebook because by the time I've converted my files, the pictures are old news. Some of this is my fault for not uploading my files to my computer in a timely manner. Most of this is because I don't have an efficient way to convert my files. We'll get back to that in a minute. First, shooting RAW versus shooting jpeg.

Note: This post is based purely on my opinion and experience with the equipment that I have. I am NOT a professional photographer/teacher nor do I claim to know all there is to know about digital photography. There are professionals and more successful photographers out there who also speak about the differences between shooting RAW and jpeg. A few sites are listed at the bottom of this post, so if you don't care for the opinion of an amatuer/hobbyist, scroll down.

First, we need to start off with image processing and compression. Digital cameras have image processors in them. If you look at a picture and think, "The sky is SO blue!" you likely have the image processor to thank for that. You snap a photo and the image processor takes what it sees, adjusts the colors/saturation, sharpness, contrast, etc and spits out what it thinks you'll like. For example, the image processors in Canon point and shoots are known to over-saturate colors. That's why so many people love them. Canon point and shoots spit out photos with the dense, vibrant colors that most people find attractive. The image processor is responsible for enhancing those colors people love so much.

Jpeg files are photos sent through this processor. You take a picture, and your camera processes and compresses what it sees and spits out a "finished" photo. The benefit of this is that your photo comes out of your camera as a small file ready for uploading and sharing. The downside is that since the camera already edited and compressed the file, there's less image data to work with if you want to edit the photo later.

Raw files bypass the camera's image processor. You take a picture, and your camera immediately saves exactly what it sees. It doesn't edit it. It doesn't compress it. I liken it to a digital version of a photo negative. The benefit is that when you edit the photo, you have a complete file to work with instead of a compressed file. The downside is that you need to convert EVERY file, even the ones you don't need to edit, to jpeg or another file type before you can upload or share it online.

Ok, now after all of that...the main reason I shoot RAW is because I take the majority of my photos in low light, and I don't like the look of on board/direct flash. Bounced flash isn't so bad, though. Anyone want to buy me an SB-600? I promise to post a tutorial on it if you do.

Sorry, got side tracked.

I don't use flash, so sometimes my shots taken in low light come out a little dark. I also only shoot in Manual, so sometimes a photo op happens before I can change my settings. The result might be an incorrectly exposed shot. Since a RAW file has more image data, I can change the exposure of my shot after I take it. I can't do that with a jpeg very well with the software I have. How about some photos to help illustrate what I'm trying to explain? Sure!

This is a shot A took of his steak at RN74. The lighting in the restaurant was really dim, and this shot is a little a dark and under-exposed. This photo was shot in RAW format. I saved a copy of the RAW file as a jpeg for this illustration; so it's been compressed, but it wasn't processed by the camera.

So you see the dark shot, and you want to save it. You open up Photoshop or another photo editor (I use Elements 6 because it came free with my computer. I've also used Picasa--also free from Google, and I'm currently on a 30 day free trial of Lightroom--love!) and pull up the photo to adjust the exposure. This is what happened when I lightened the RAW file.

Not too bad, right? You can see a little noise in the background, but overall, it's ok. I probably could have lightened it more, and it would still be ok. Now see what happens when I try the same thing with the jpeg keeping the saturation and brightness values the same as the RAW file.

On my screen, there's a big difference. There's more noise in the background, the colors are all funky, and there's detail lost on the steak. Since the file was compressed, there wasn't as much photo data left when you pull out the darkness. I changed the exposure the exact same amount. The only difference was the file type, and all I did was change the exposure. All the other photo values remain the same between the two images (1).

How about another one? I shot this in RAW + jpegfine which means that my camera saved the same shot twice--once in RAW and once in the best quality jpeg it could. It's the exact same shot, purposely under-exposed. This time, I tried to edit them in Elements 6, which doesn't allow me to open jpegs in the raw editor. Remember, on a normal day, this is the best program I have for converting.

You can't even see A's face, the shot is so dark. When I open this in Elements 6, the Raw editor opens the file and all I do is slide the exposure slider up to get this.

Suddenly you can see his face! The lighting is pretty close to reality, too. If I wanted to lighten his face more, I could have increased the exposure a little more then recovered the detail in the white shirt afterwards. In Elements 6, I can only do that with the RAW editor. Now, since I couldn't use the exposure slider on the jpeg file, I used the "Adjust Lighting" enhancement to increase the brightness and lighten the shadows. After that, I ended up with this.

The shirt isn't bad at all, but look at the shadows. I couldn't recover the face as well as the RAW file. There just wasn't enough data in the shadows even in my best jpeg setting, and there's obvious detail lost on the face. Also, the color is way off. I could leave it that way and call it artistic, but if I wanted a photo closer to reality, I'd have to warm the photo then erase the warmth from the t-shirt. In short, it would take me a lot longer to fix this photo just because it was jpeg. Actually, just lightening it took more than twice as long as the RAW file.

So there you have it. The main reason I shoot RAW: it allows me to take photos in situations where I otherwise might not get a good shot. If I accidentally take a dark shot or if I'm not quick enough changing my settings, RAW gives me a second chance at getting it right. I have nothing against jpeg except that it doesn't give me the same option above. I do believe you can get more out of your shots if you shoot RAW, but I also believe that you should choose whatever file type suits you best for the situation at hand. If jpeg works the best for your situation, go for it.

Every photographer has a different view on the RAW vs jpeg debate. I know a lot of SLR shooters who are anti-jpeg and just as many who shoot jpeg exclusively. If you shoot with a point and shoot camera, you most likely have no choice in files types, and I'm sorry I wasted so much of your life.

Here are some resources about RAW and jpeg shooting from those who know more about this than I do. Some advocate RAW, some jpeg. Scott Kelby, for one, chooses based on the situation. The decision is yours, really.
- Scott Kelby --why he shoots in jpeg for sports only
- The Pioneer Woman --why she shot RAW
- The Pioneer Woman --why she switched to jpeg (note: my software can't open jpegs in the raw editor like hers can)

(1) In Lightroom, I can actually lower the saturation and brightness values to produce a more usable photo. Unfortunately, I don't have $300 for a photo editor at the moment. I'm definitely enjoying my free trial while it lasts, though.


Jeremy said...

This was extremely useful. Thanks! =)

Grace said...

Absolutely love your diverse & creative photostream!!!