RAW or JPG Image Format?
The debate over whether to shoot JPG (short for Joint Photographic Experts Group) images or RAW images, in any kind of photography, has been going on for years. I use RAW and have since I got my Canon XT in 2005. There are technical advantages and disadvantages to both and I don’t profess to know it all. I will try to explain the issues I think are relevant and why, in the end, I chose RAW. Like most photographers, I’ve picked up knowledge about file formats from the Internet, books, etc., and I’ve had experience processing both types. This article is only one source about this subject and I encourage you to do more research and make an informed decision for yourself.
JPG files are compressed files and they take up less space on your computer (or in your camera) than a RAW file of the same image. Because the file size is smaller, a camera’s processor can write the file to its internal memory card much faster than the equivalent RAW file. In addition, the small file size allows the buffer in your camera to hold more images before it becomes full. When the buffer is full, your camera will stop taking shots-or slow down a lot- until the images are cleared from the buffer and written to the memory card.
According to Canon, my 5D Mark III can shoot about 65 Large/Fine JPG images in a continuous burst before the buffer will fill up. Compare this to only 13 RAW images before shooting stops! This is one reason some photographers shoot in JPG. Archival storage requirements for JPG images are a lot less, too.
But–I have chosen to shoot in RAW format and I discuss why below.
Yes, some of my RAW files approach 30MB in size but many are quite a bit smaller. File size varies for any format depending on the subject, your ISO setting, and other settings.
RAW images allow me more flexibility during post-processing than JPG images do. Post-processing (PP) is the term used for the work necessary after you get the exposed image out of your camera and you prepare it for public display, printing, or posting to the Internet.
Remember back in the ‘old’ days when photographers used film? These photographers had to be as skillful in the darkroom as they were in capturing the images in their cameras (and I think this is still true in digital PP). The work in the darkroom was also known as “processing” or “post-processing.” Labor intensive dodging and burning, enlarging, and other fixes in the darkroom were a normal part of photography (and still are for some photographers who continue to shoot film). With digital photography, we still have PP but instead of going into a pitch black room to develop the film in canisters, expose photographic paper from negatives using an enlarger, and developing the prints in trays of chemicals, we now go to our computers to “develop” our images and perform corrections and enhancements to get our finished product.
Now, having said that–there are some digital photographers who might be considered ‘purists,’ who have chosen not to do any major enhancing of images in Photoshop and other software after the image emerges from the camera. I am 100% okay with this! That is their choice and we are all free to make that choice if we want. These folks realize that some processing takes place in the camera if they are using JPG format so it’s almost impossible to use zero ‘after-shutter processing.’ And if they are using RAW image format, there could still be some image processing in camera depending on the settings and, they would have to process the image into a JPG or a TIF format to print it at most printing outlets or to post it to the Internet. (It is possible, however, to print photos from RAW images in RAW converter software such as Lightroom). It’s also commonly agreed that RAW images require at least some sharpening, at a minimum.
I have chosen to give myself the capability of enhancing my shots to the extent I think is needed for the shots to be what I believe are the best they can be. (For most of my images, the enhancements I make are fairly routine and low-level and I strive to get them right in the camera). This is the premise the rest of this series of articles is based upon. So with that in mind, I’d feel privileged to have you stay with this series all the way to the end!
I use RAW format because of its flexibility and the control I have over my images. I’ll go into great detail about this flexibility and control in PP when I get to that subject in the series. But right now, we’re still deciding which file format to use.
I decided to use RAW knowing the large disk space required to store them and their backups. I figured it was a fair tradeoff to have the flexibility in PP. By the way, JPG images can also be enhanced in PP but I have found that the images are generally subject to more noise and unwanted artifacts even with just a small amount of certain types of enhancements. This is a subjective call and I have made the call for myself. I know there are more knowledgeable people out there on this subject and there may even be a technical explanation that proves that what I just said is not true. But, in my experience, RAW image enhancement fits my expectations and workflow better. This may not be the case for you and this is why I suggest trying both formats out and see which one you like to work with.
And what about the effect that these larger RAW files have on my camera’s burst performance? I’m sure they slow it down some and I only get 13 shots before the buffer fills up. But I have found during my many photo shoots that 13 shots are usually ample for my needs. It’s actually very rarely that I fill the buffer when shooting in continuous burst mode. When the buffer does fill up, it’s often due to shooting a bird in flight. I haven’t yet missed a shot because I ran out of burst power.
Another reason I’m not real thrilled about using JPG is that it is a compressed format and it is also a lossy format. “Lossy,” you say? Yes, lossy. Without getting too technical, which I can’t do anyway :), lossy refers to the fact that even if you’ve set your camera to shoot in the highest quality JPG mode, the camera, by definition, will throw out a good portion of the pixels associated with the JPG images before they get written to your memory card. That is the primary reason that JPG’s fall into the compressed category of file formats. This tossing out of some of the picture data results in a much smaller file size.
I am not saying that because this compression happens that the image will automatically turn out crummy. I know photographers who shoot in JPG and to the naked eye, their images are as good as I’ve seen. But for me, I can’t stand the idea that all those pixels I paid good money for are flying out into cyberspace somewhere and not doing their job in my image! Call me crazy but that’s just me. This is the right choice for me and your right choice may be different.
But we’re not done yet….JPG images remain lossy after you get them onto your computer and edit them. Each time you edit and save a JPG file in your image processing software, it loses another batch of pixels. In reality, especially starting with a large JPG image from your camera, you would have to edit and save it quite a few times to notice a deterioration of the image with the naked eye. I know this but still, the idea just doesn’t sit well with me. I still go for the heavy duty RAW images.
We’ve talked about RAW and JPG images so far. There is also another format called TIF (Tagged Image File Format). This is typically not a format you can set in your camera but one that you might use on your computer when editing the image. Adobe Corporation currently has the copyright to the TIF specification. TIF is one of the most supported image file types in existence and that is one reason it is used so much for archiving images. It is also a lossless format, so no matter how many times you open the file, edit it, and save it, there will be no loss of pixels from the image. A drawback of TIF is its large file size and the space it takes up on your hard disk. This is the price we pay for being able to freely open, edit, and save (as many times as you want) the file without having to worry about any degradation in image quality.
TIF is not a format that most cameras produce but rather, a format to use if a photo needs to be edited in Photoshop (or any photo editor). Your photo editing software should be able to make any JPG or RAW image into a TIF file. Photoshop layers can be saved in TIF for editing later on. If I have a lot of work to do on an image in Photoshop, I want to work on it in TIF and save it that way so I know it will always retain all of its resolution throughout time. The TIF can always be changed back to a JPG for posting to the Internet. Later, I’ll be talking about all these file formats again when we get to post-processing and how I set up my workflow. You may need several cups of coffee for that one!
One other image format I want to touch on is Adobe DNG. This is a Digital Negative file which is an archival format for RAW files created from digital cameras. It is a “publicly documented and readily available specification that can easily be adopted by camera manufacturers.” (according to Adobe). Each camera manufacturer has their own proprietary RAW file format—they do not use a standard format. Canon’s format for my 5DM3 body is XX.CR2. Nikon’s is different from this and Sony is different from Nikon, etc. What would happen if for some reason Canon suddenly stopped supporting the .CR2 RAW format? I’d probably be okay in the short run but after a while, RAW image converter software like Lightroom might also stop supporting it, as would other software titles. At some point there might come a time I wouldn’t be able to open my tens of thousands of .CR2 files to even view them let alone edit them.
The DNG format was introduced in 2004 to provide a ‘standard’ format for digital RAW images. Adobe even provides a free converter that will take your RAW files and convert them to DNG. Any camera manufacturer is legally able to use the DNG format if it wants but according to Adobe, only Hasselblad, Leica, Casio, Ricoh, and Samsung have introduced cameras that support DNG files. The jury is still out on the public being swayed toward using DNG. It’s very hard for people (me!) to convert to DNG and throw away their .CR2’s. I have not done it although I toyed with the idea a few years ago. Adobe says there is no loss of quality when converting to DNG and that DNG takes up 20% less space than a typical RAW file. Like many other subjects in this article, I will leave further research up to the readers and you can make your own decision on DNG.
Okay, so now you know I shoot in RAW format and why. You’ll need to either go along with me or try JPG. One thing to consider if you are in the beginning stages of learning bird photography, and I alluded to it above, is that RAW files are usually associated more with post-processing workflows than JPG’s are. This means that you must have some kind of RAW file converter software to change your files into JPG’s for the web or to print them. If you shoot JPG’s out of the camera, then theoretically, you can simply import the files from your camera to your computer and you’re ready to post them or print them (assuming you don’t want to do any major editing to them). No converter necessary for JPG’s.
A free RAW file converter comes with all Canon DSLR’s and I’m assuming that other camera companies provide a converter for their RAW format, too. Canon’s converter is called Digital Photo Professional (DPP). I don’t use this converter but many people do and I understand it provides some good editing tools for your RAW .CR2 files. The point here is that it comes with your Canon DSLR and you don’t have to plunk down any more cash to do this important step in your digital bird photography workflow.
I currently use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 for my RAW file converter. It is part of Adobe’s photography subscription (along with Photoshop) and I pay only $9.99/mo. It’s a great deal for the two programs and I get all updates to the programs when they are ready. Before this, I used the stand alone version of Lightroom and I never did have to pay the $299 full price for it because I was sort of grandfathered in to Lightroom when Adobe bought out an up-and-coming RAW converter called RawShooter by Pixmantec back in about 2006. I had purchased RawShooter in early 2005 (before I even started bird photography) and was using it for my converter when Adobe gobbled it up. Adobe then sent all registered users of RawShooter a note saying they were developing their own converter using some of the technology of RawShooter, and that registered owners would be getting a copy of version 1 for free. It was a good deal for me and Adobe has really improved Lightroom since version 1. So much, in fact, that I have changed my workflow in a major way over the last year. (Much more on this later in a detailed discussion of post-processing and software).
I also use Adobe Photoshop CC, and Nik Color EFEX Pro 4 (CEP4) on certain shots I feel will benefit from them. These aren’t required programs for the beginner but as you get further into bird photography and become really serious about it, you may want to move to Photoshop. I will give you a detailed account of how I use all these programs later in this series, which may give you a feel for whether you might benefit from these programs.
Remember back at the beginning of this series when I stated that bird photography isn’t cheap? Software costs can add up. And there are a myriad of programs that are plug-ins to Photoshop and Lightroom as well as other well known RAW file converters. Don’t overlook other Photoshop-like programs that can be had for well under $100 or even free. Picasa is a free photo editor and I believe Bibble is a free RAW converter (see edit below!).
Corel PaintShop Pro X7 Ultimate is a full-featured photo editor that rivals Photoshop for $55 and sometimes less, on sale. I actually started out using PaintShop Pro for several years until I decided to use a half-off Photoshop coupon I got with my Canon XT. I fell into the trap and spent money that I probably didn’t really need to spend. But now I’m glad I did. PaintShop Pro has a good following and I know bird photographers who use it and produce top notch bird images with it. Be aware though, that this is not a RAW converter.
[Edit: 29Oct2014. I have been made aware from a fellow photographer who has owned/used Bibble that it is not free software. Corel, the makers of PaintShop Pro X7, has acquired Bibble and they now call their new product, “After Shot Pro 2,” which is a RAW converter. The staff that worked for Bibble, now work under Corel and he says they have made some good improvements since the acquisition. After Shot Pro is Corel’s answer to Adobe’s Lightroom, and costs about $70.]
This may be a good place to re-state what I said early on in this series and you have probably noticed it in almost every paragraph. Once you start this hobby, and if you happen to really enjoy the challenge and rewards of it, you become hooked and there is always something else out there that you will want to buy whether it is equipment, accessories or software. The only way I was able to do this hobby was to ease into it. Each year I would add something new; maybe upgrade a lens or camera to get closer to where I wanted to be. Have patience and work with whatever equipment you have. Over time your skill level will increase and you’ll know when an upgrade is in order. Hopefully, you will have been able to save the cash to make the upgrade happen or move up to a new piece of software that you know can help your images.
I covered the RAW/JPG issue so that you had some idea of which format you want to try first. This format decision also depended on what software you might or might not already have, so I got into that a little bit. Hopefully, now you are aware of some of the issues and costs you may face either now or down the road because of the image format choice you have made or at least the one you want to try first. And don’t hesitate to do further research of these subjects online.