JPEG vs. RAW

I’ll warn you now – this is longer than I expected. A lot. If you’ve read my blogs at all, you’re used to it by now, but this is a whopper! I hope and think it is worth your time if you are an enthusiast photographer trying to decide what format you should shoot. It also has an angrier tone than my typical post, but condescending misinformation makes me boil a bit.  Lastly, if you’re new, you might want to check out my post “Are You Like Me?” (complete with disclaimers ;))  On with the blog:

If you want to get an idea of the worst kind of writing (and advice) in the photography world, start with Ken Rockwell’s rant on the topic of JPEG vs. RAW. He’ll tell you you don’t need it. He’ll scare you that your files might not work one day. He’ll insinuate that you have a hoarding problem for keeping them. He goes as far as saying “Raw is a waste of time and space, and doesn’t look any better than JPG even when you can open the files.”

What an absolute load of baloney. The whole article is a bunch of condescending, opinion-based, misinforming invective, and worse, it isn’t even factually correct in a few spots (we’ll get to that in a bit). Maybe it is an artifact of something written almost three years ago, but as someone who sees himself as a thought leader in the photography world, Ken should take responsibility and update his post on this controversial topic. Allowing it to stand on the internet is an embarrassment for him. Personally, I think he just enjoys being controversial. It drives people to his site, collects ad revenue for him, etc. He’s a shock jock driving his paycheck.

If you want a good laugh, Jared Polin has a series of amusing videos (if fairly repetitive – he could have stopped at two) rebutting Ken’s position: I tried to boil it down a bit, and I see where Jared failed, but I’m being slightly more concise than 11 YouTube videos. 🙂

My opinion is there are times to shoot JPEG, and times to shoot RAW. For me, if I’m doubt, I’ll shoot RAW. So when do I shoot JPEG? Any time when the pictures aren’t a big deal – neighborhood parties, pictures of my kids projects, etc. – the quick shots I just want to capture and get out of dodge, especially if I don’t want to burn storage space. 75% of the time when I’m shooting JPEG, I’m shooting on Auto, too – which happens less and less. There are serious photography situations that might recommend JPEG, but I don’t shoot them at this point.  Here’s the net for me: RAW offers the best chance at the final image I want, and it isn’t hard or time consuming.

At the end of the day, a RAW file is just like a digital version of a film negative. It gives you as much data as the camera and settings are able to deliver, and that allows you more control over what the final image looks like. I want the control. I like the control. It makes the end result better. I edit almost all the photos I liked a bit anyway, RAW just offers me broader and finer tools. That makes me a stupid, non-pro, info-hoarding time-waster in Ken’s book. If I was a nature or sports photographer and needed to shoot lots of images in an extended burst, it might be a little different. That said, there are a lot of highly successful sports photographers that did well with film, where your “buffer” was the number of pictures on a roll (meaning you had to stop shooting, pull the old roll out and put a new roll in after 36 shots – how quickly can you go through 36 shots now?). If these guys could be successful without today’s machine-gun frames-per-second, isn’t some discipline in shooting a good thing if RAW gives you better editing and detail?  I also see press needing to hand photos to someone immediately following a shoot as likely JPEG shooters.

It certainly isn’t for everyone. Maybe three years ago there weren’t as many commonly available tools to work with RAW files and they were hard to use. Today you have lots of support and lots of easy-to-use choices. If you don’t have the tools to edit RAW or you just want to trust what the camera can do for you in JPEG mode, there is nothing wrong with that. JPEG is simple. JPEG is smaller. JPEG is easy. You can customize your JPEG characteristics in-camera. But JPEG is a file refined to a point and the rest of the data is thrown away (to make the file smaller and use less space). That is fine, but have you ever tried to make an enlargement from a 5×7 print because you didn’t have the negative? I have, and it came out terrible. That is because the print didn’t have the information the negative had, and the negative would have made a perfect enlargement. See where this is going?

If you’re spending any significant time improving your photos on your PC and you consider yourself a photographer, I think you should shoot RAW most of the time because RAW has all the information you captured. The only real downside is the size of the files, and storage is cheap. Ken makes it sound like you have to spend huge amounts of time fixing a RAW file so it looks good. I don’t spend much additional time at all. It’s easy.

Here’s a nice YouTube video I found that illustrates what kind of flexibility RAW gives you:

In the name of saving storage, I will say that you should dump the bad files. It is a hard thing to do, but if the image is bad, delete it. It won’t get any better sitting on your hard drive, and digital makes it too easy to take a LOT of photos – the old days when each *click* cost you money are gone, and if you ever had that limitation, you don’t anymore. So no matter what you shoot, pick the keepers and dump the rest.

But let’s get to Ken’s points and my perspective: (note: these are all copied directly from the link above, except where I paraphrase as noted. If I have misconstrued Ken’s point, I apologize, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.)
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“Get it right in-camera” and “Prolific shooters shoot JPG because time is money and we are able to get things right the first time.”
Gee Ken, I’m sorry I’m not as good a photographer as you. And when you shot film, you didn’t use any special techniques processing the negatives, did you? Even pros make mistakes. I once heard one tell a story very similar to a vacation situation I had: I left the white balance on Tungsten and all my outdoor shots looked green. If I’d been in JPEG, they would have been nearly useless. RAW gave me the ability to easily fix it completely. Yes, pros check and re-check, but sometimes we all make mistakes, and I’m definitely no pro – why not give myself the best chance for a great photo? Frankly, I kind of want to punch “get it right in-camera” snobs in the nose. I strive to take the best image I can in the camera, and there is nothing wrong with improving it from there.

“RAW requires dedicated software to read”
Possibly that was true in 2009 (though I think he was being selective in his view), but today, Windows XP/Win7/Win8 and Apple OS X all have native support for RAW codecs for a huge variety of cameras, and the manufacturers seem pretty intent on keeping them up to date. Freeware editing software like Picasa and others recognize RAW. And, of course, Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Elements, Apple Aperture, Apple iPhoto and many photo processing programs fully embrace the RAW format.

“Raw is OK if you only shoot a few dozen images and you want to play around with each of them in Photoshop; JPG is best if you need hundreds or thousands of images each day and get them right in the camera to begin with” and “If you’re shooting action RAW doesn’t work”
What he’s saying here is that RAW files are larger than JPEG (which is true). Guess what? Storage is cheap! Buy bigger cards and a big external hard drive (a 2TB – 2,000GB! – drive is as little as $100 these days) and manage what you have. Also, wouldn’t shooting hundreds or thousands of JPEG images each day fill up a lot of storage, too? Wouldn’t that require lots of time to sort through and manage? And how can you be careful and thoughtful enough to get thousands of JPEGs right in-camera? Ken talks himself in circles sometimes.

As noted above, if you’re shooting action (sports, birds in flight, etc.), JPEG is probably a better bet – you’ll need to shoot more frames faster, and JPEG won’t fill up your camera’s buffer as quickly, especially if you aren’t shooting a pro body. If you do that kind of thing and want the advantages or RAW, shoot selectively and get a good, fast memory card (I use Lexar Pro and many swear by SANDisk Extreme cards). It won’t replace a big buffer, but it will help.  Ditto for press who need to hand their photos over immediately.

“Raw is a waste of time and space, and doesn’t look any better than JPG even when you can open the files.” and “Time is money to people who need to make money from photography.” and “Image quality is the same in JPG and raw”
Thanks for the reminder never to hire you, Ken. I want someone who is going to take the time to give me a great image and not see it as some kind of race. My guess is that outside of news photography (which are either printed or on the web in a very small format and where time is so critical) that very few commercial images are published without extensive post-processing (whether JPEG or RAW). Wedding photos are extensively processed, too. Also Ken, you understand that the vast majority of your readers aren’t pros, right? Lastly, RAW files not only render to finer detail, they preserve more detail that can be recovered if exposure isn’t correct (see the video above). I’m guessing that there is a similar benefit with sharpening and other post processing tasks: there is more information to work with. If you look at reviews of cameras on dpreview.com, it is pretty clear to see where the jpegs lose fine detail that the RAW file preserves. For most of us, RAW is worth it for the final quality we can achieve as well as the forgiveness factor it provides.

(paraphrased) “You’re doing the same thing the camera is doing, so why bother?”
This is the one that really kills me (well, other than the “in-camera” thing). Every camera has its own in-camera methods of tweaking JPEG files so they look their best. You can even go into your camera and adjust the settings for things like color saturation, sharpness and more. My question is this: If you really care about the output, why would you put a tiny piece of electronics in charge with a very limited set of instructions on how to “improve” the image and apply those instructions generically across all the photos you are taking?? Ken makes it sound like there is a little wizard in your camera making them the best they can be with no additional effort on your part! To be fair, the camera is pretty capable at what it is doing, and if you’re happy with it, that is great. But for many of my pictures, I’ve been very unhappy with the camera choices and since I don’t have the RAW data, I can’t fix it as well as I’d like. Think about it: what has more processing power and more sophisticated software, your camera or your PC?

More importantly, if you need to adjust the white balance or colors, you have far more flexibility with RAW than JPEG. I’ve got an experiment in mind to demonstrate this – I’ll do it in a future blog. But the camera isn’t going to do this for you very well, and JPEG will limit your ability to do it on your PC.

“If you love to tweak your images one by one and shoot less than a hundred..RAW could be for you” and “Raw is designed for people who intend to spend a lot of time twiddling with one image at a time.”
I don’t spend an enormous amount of time tweaking 90% of my RAW images. I’d say I edit only slightly more than I did with my JPEGS. I’ve noticed my better lenses give me better RAW files that need less adjustment, but even before I discovered RAW, I adjusted my favorite photos. These days, I’m a better photographer, and what I’m adjusting has changed, but I still take the time to improve the images I like the most. Maybe I’m in the minority of the world of people who own a DSLR, but I think I’m in the majority of photography enthusiasts, and I’d dare say pros possibly outside of the news/sports press (but I’d bet there is tweaking going on there, too…)

“RAW becomes obsolete”
This is potentially true, but fear-mongering garbage nonetheless for this reason: It is only a problem if you never convert your images to JPEG (or TIFF, etc.). If you’re sharing these pictures at all (uploading them to Flickr, Picasa, SmugMug, etc., posting them on Facebook, emailing them to friends and family) they are getting converted to JPEG! Automatically! If you’ve edited a picture in Photoshop or some other editing software, it is going to make you save it in some non-RAW format. I also read an article recently from a guy who was re-editing old RAW files from his flower-of-2001-technology D1X with improved results.  In other words, not only is the very old D1X RAW format still current and compatible, newer editing tools are doing a better job with those files.  So I wouldn’t worry too much about obsolescence.

To be totally safe, you should occasionally archive your favorites to a CD or DVD in JPEG format and print the ones you love. There is no monstrous process to getting RAW files to JPEG. It happens naturally.

(paraphrased) “RAW isn’t customer ready”
Here Ken again assumes his audience are pros or wanna-be’s who think if the pros do it then it must be for them. Anyway, what’s the point? A film negative isn’t customer-ready either. Very, very few pros gave their clients access to their negatives since they aren’t finished images. The rest of us just care about getting the best photograph. If you really want something you can instantly hand to someone, use the RAW+JPEG setting in your camera and have it all.  Of course, if you’re press and you need to shoot at the highest frames-per-second and/or need to hand photos over immediately (or even real-time), JPEG is going to be the choice.

“Raw records usually with 12 bits, but a linear 12 bits. JPG uses only 8 bits, but these are after the log and gamma conversion, and thus preserves the 12 bit precision at the shadow levels where it’s important!
I’m going to give Ken the benefit of the doubt that in January 2009 the dynamic range and/or resolution of cameras just wasn’t enough to see the difference, and that he honestly believed this statement is true (even if his Nikon D3 review is dated a year before that…). Today, I’m confident it isn’t true. The current generation of cameras generally has excellent dynamic range, and a JPEG is absolutely going to lose detail in the shadows. Again, check out the image samples on DPreview from a Nikon D7000. In the same review, if you go to their comparison page and compare ISO 400 D7000 JPEG with D7000 RAW in the shadow area where the spools of thread lie, there is a significant amount of additional detail in the RAW file. The detail we’re talking about is very fine, but frankly, I want to make the decisions – not the camera. There are times when it is the difference between having an image and not having one. And frankly, the quote above is a load of hooey. There is undoubtedly less information in a JPEG file, and the area JPEGs suffer most is in the most or least exposed areas of a picture. This is where JPEG decides an over-exposed area is all white or an underexposed area is black (or whatever) and just saves the room in the file. A RAW file allows you to recover details in the shadows and the over-exposed areas you’ll never see in a JPEG. The video above is excellent documentation of that absolute fact. Ken’s statement above seems to be assertion that a JPEG has the same fidelity as a RAW file, which is just plain untrue.

“Each camera maker has its own incompatible format.”
This is absolutely true. If you’re an early-adopter of the latest thing, be ready to wait for the software tools and operating systems to catch up. Sometimes it is fast, sometimes it isn’t. It is driven by how early the camera maker closes their “spec” for the file and provides it to the Microsoft, Adobe and Apples of the world (and how busy they are when they get it!). Every camera also comes with software that can be used to import and adjust your RAW images to a certain point, from which you can export to JPEG and finish anything else you need to in Photoshop, etc. If there is a single point where I think Ken is being generally fair and on-target, this one is it. And he’s still not giving you the whole story.
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One non-Rockwell-quote-related tidbit: Ever saved an edit of a file and wish you hadn’t? Ever cropped something and later realize you cut something out you really wanted? No worries with RAW. You can edit the file as many times as you want, and never change the RAW negative. Programs like Lightroom or Aperture are only saving the changes, not changing the original file itself. So you can make as many different versions as you want, and they’ll never limit your ability to go back and take a different approach.

So that’s it. Is it wrong to shoot JPEG? Absolutely not. I think most “family shooters” who have a DSLR for more control and interchangeable lenses don’t care and will prefer the convenience and out-of-the-camera quality of JPEG. Many shooters of birds in flight and sports will want the speed JPEG offers. I’d guess a fair number daily news photographers shoot JPEG since their photos are due immediately and never make it much bigger than the size of a wallet photo. If you want it quick, simple and small, JPEG is great. There is no reason a JPEG can’t be an amazing photograph.

If you want to be able to optimize for the best image and have as much information as possible, go RAW. If you can’t decide, your camera almost certainly has a setting that will give you a RAW and a JPEG. I shot this way until I realized how much more flexibility I was getting editing the RAW photos and how much more I enjoyed the final result, and now JPEG is the exception to the rule. My guess is you’ll wind up in the same place.

I’d love to hear your opinions, and any other questions on this topic!

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8 thoughts on “JPEG vs. RAW

  1. Ah, Ken Rockwell, the voice of madness, misleading new photographers for a living. Personally I haven’t started shooting raw yet. At first it was because my computer was rather slow but it has died completely now and I have a new one that should be able to handle the large files a lot better. However, I’m using a D3000, which isn’t exactly the fastest camera Nikon has produced. It’s considerably slower to take raws compared to jpegs, even with just single shots. Eventually I’ll save up for a D7000 and that’s when I plan to make a move to shooting mostly raw instead.

    • Thanks for the comment! As I was writing this, I imagined a whole post told in the voice of Jeff Foxworthy and his old stand-up bit, complete with a Southern twang: “If you want complete control of your white balance, you might be a RAW shooter.”

      How much delay do you see between your single shots on your D3000?

      • Well, I haven’t timed it but I remember it’s enough to be annoying. If you take a picture and then check the lcd you’ll have to wait a moment before the image appears. I shoot everything all manual so I want quick feedback to check exposure etc. Having to wait make my models (wife and daughter) grumpy.

  2. Pingback: I shoot RAW | Enthusiast Photographer

  3. Pingback: Ken Rockwell: Menace or Resource? | Enthusiast Photographer

  4. Pingback: Ken Rockwell: Menace or Resource? | Enthusiast Photographer

  5. You sure waist a lot of time attacking Ken. You have lots of errors and bad logic in your rebut of Ken. “I left the white balance on Tungsten and all my outdoor shots looked green. If I’d been in JPEG, they would have been nearly useless.”, really? You give the impression that JPEG is un-editable and useless format. NOT! Also a RAW file will not print larger or better than a JPEG of the same pixel resolution (more misinformation). You also give the impression that tweaking a RAW file is no more work than tweaking a JPEG, also not true. Last, have you never heard of making a copy of your JPEG before editing?

    You, Fro and other zealots would serve the Internet and photo community better if you stopped attacking Ken and just stated you disagree with Ken and here is my opinion.

    I love Ken and his web site. I think it is great that he can poke your buttons and get you all wound up. I find it delightful and funny.

    • Eric:

      I’ve gone through and responded to all of your comments on Enthusiast Photographer. I find it a little funny on my end that you seem to feel like your buttons are being poked and getting a little wound up… 😉

      In any case, if you like Ken’s site, that is of course your right and opinion. I don’t.

      As for your specific comments:
      – JPEG Shots with WB set on Tungsten in full daylight are incredibly hard to recover. The ability to adjust White Balance on a RAW file is exponentially beyond a JPEG. In RAW, it is essentially effortless. In JPEG it can be done in many cases, but not nearly as easily as with a RAW file or to the same degree.
      – Any impression I gave that JPEG is un-editable is completely unintentional, nor do I consider it useless. My next-to-last paragraph was intended to say that there are plenty of valid reasons/situations to shoot JPEG. I occasionally do myself. Certainly it is very editable – just not to the degree as a RAW file.
      – It wasn’t my intention to imply that you can’t print a JPEG to a large size. I agree you can print a JPEG at the same size as a RAW file from the same camera. The improved ability to sharpen a RAW file might make a difference in quality (or none at all, depending on the shot). Plenty of skilled photographers print large terrific shots from JPEG images, but the superior ability to edit a RAW file might make the difference between a photo that looks good at a large size and one that doesn’t. Based on this comment, I’ve tried to edit my post for more clarity – I really appreciate your feedback.
      – I’m not sure what photo editing software you use, but in Lightroom, Photoshop and Aperture I notice no difference in difficulty in editing a RAW file vs. a JPEG file. There are additional options for things like White Balance and other things, but the gross adjustment functions are the same for me. There are people who choose extra steps and/or tools, but in my opinion is these aren’t necessary to get equal or better results from a RAW file vs. a JPEG.
      – Lastly, I would find it extremely annoying to have to make a copy of a JPEG before I edited it. It would be a pain to always have to remember to do that, not to mention it would tend to be very wasteful of storage space and hard to keep track of the “original”. I’d rather have a single RAW file and have the ability to have multiple versions of non-destructive edits.

      You are fairly pointing out that I’m not using the nicest tone in that post, but I stand behind my opinion on Ken on this topic I stated at the start of the post “The whole article is a bunch of condescending, opinion-based, misinforming invective, and worse, it isn’t even factually correct in a few spots.”

      I don’t make my living (or any money for that matter) from this blog, but I try to be as fair and correct as possible. My opinion is Ken is being neither in that article, and content like that only serves to make the hobby of photography harder on novices. I believe he should hold himself to a higher standard and not hide behind a clever “About Me” to give himself a way out.

      I’m glad you find value on Ken’s site. Personally, I won’t ever recommend his site. That is what opinions are all about 🙂

      I really appreciate you visiting and leaving comments on the various posts – feel free to come back often!

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