Sunday, July 17, 2011


     Capture file format is a subject that has been discussed over and over again in blogs, forums, books, and magazine articles. Opinions differ wildly but most do agree, the RAW file capture format offers the  most flexibility in processing and highest quality images and that JPEG is the quickest and easiest to capture & process as long as you need to get all the settings right in camera. TIFF offers high quality images, but the file sizes are the largest and just like JPEG you need to get the settings right in camera. Most agree that there isn't much benefit to capturing images in the TIFF format.

    I have tried all three at various points in time and have made the choice to use RAW for my scenic, nature, and floral images and JPEG most of the time for my event photography. Why? Let me express my own personal opinions as well as further elaborating on each file format's strengths and weaknesses.
    Indisputably offers the best and highest quality images that your camera has to offer along with flexibility in processing. The images are more "elastic", you can change things like color balance and saturation without degrading the quality of your images. The RAW files can also be processed to either offer more detail in either the shadow or highlight areas of your images. Processing an image both ways, you can later combine those 2 images in a photo editing program to create one image with more detail in both the shadow & highlight areas in a scene than you would with just a single photo alone. Not as much detail as you could by using fancy HDR (high dynamic range) programs and a series of 3 or more image captures, but still an improvement over a single processed image alone. More about that in a future blog post.
    There are 3 main drawbacks to RAW. 1. Files sizes are larger than JPEG (but smaller than TIFF.) 2. The file format can be difficult to deal with on the computer end of things. Many programs can not read the RAW format and you will need a special program to view and process them. Your camera manufacturer's own file processing software does a great job with that, as well as Photoshop and many other third party software. 3. Extra processing time. RAW needs to be processed and then saved as a standard file format (such as JPEG or TIFF) to be viewable in general software or computer browsing software. This may involve you to have to work on your images twice, once time for RAW processing and then again then another round in your regular photo processing software for any advanced image enhancements that you may want to make.

    The smallest and easiest to manage file option. If you choose the highest quality JPEG file option that your camera has to offer and expose the image properly at the time of capture, the resulting images can be quite beautiful and hard to distinguish from RAW. There may be some slight loss of quality and a smaller gamut of color due to the JPEG compression, but most viewers won't be able to notice the difference. But you really do need to make sure you nail your exposure and color settings at the point of capture as JPEG images quickly deteriorate when you start to alter them. JPEG artifacts and digital noise often increase when a JPEG image is overworked in a photo editing program.     In my own work, I notice that there is almost no chance for highlight detail recovery if an image is overexposed and if an image is underexposed and later brightened during computer processing, then there is an unacceptable increase in digital noise (similar to film grain, but more objectionable due to the resulting colored specks.)
    JPEG is the best choice when card space is at a premium or when you don't really  have the additional time and patience to deal with the extra processing that RAW requires. Just remember that you really need to get it as close to "right" in camera or your image quality will suffer.

    Similar to JPEG as the images are readable in nearly all computer programs but there is no image file compression so the file sizes are larger and the image quality is slightly clearer. There also is a slightly better gamut of color. The files are slightly more "elastic" than JPEG, they don't deteriorate as quickly as JPEGS when changes are made in photo editing software but it is still best to get it as close to right in camera for the same reasons as JPEG, just slightly less so.

    I tried this format for a while and came to the conclusion that it's not worth the extra file size. I choose RAW or JPEG.

    A recent computer breakdown this year has me working on a shared computer. I started using JPEG for my scenic and flower images again, in attempt to save myself some computer time. I stuck with the plan for about a month before deciding to switch back to RAW. Why? I'm a handheld shooter that often chooses to slightly underexpose my images in order to use a faster shutter speed to avoid blur due to camera shake when using slower shutter speeds handheld. One stop can make a big difference for me. But I noticed an unacceptable increase in image noise when brightening the images during computer editing as opposed to the same amount of brightening for my RAW images. I also like to have the option of changing color balance later when necessary. Sure you can alter the color balance of JPEGs later, but it just never really looks as good as the same fix in RAW. To me it's worth the extra processing time. And I actually find that I have to do less editing to my images in Photoshop with the RAW processed images. Most of the alterations to my captured images are just simple things like altering color balance, brightening the image, and sometimes adding a slight boost to color saturation. All done during RAW processing. In Photoshop, usually all I need to do afterward is some minor cloning out of spots or distractions in the background, a slight darkening of edges or background, and perhaps the occasional minor cropping of an image. I do like getting my images as close to "right" during in camera image capture. It's my preference.

    So which should you pick? My advice to you would be to experiment and make your own decision based on your own work and experiences and not to get to obsessive wondering what everyone else is doing or what they think of your choice. While many pros choose to work with RAW, there are still many others who choose to shoot in the JPEG format. If it looks right to you, then it is right. RAW simply is just not for everyone!

So which photos were shot in which format here?
The first and third photos (red tulips, yellow tulip closeup) were captured in JPEG and the second and fourth photos (viola, African daisy) were captured in RAW.

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