I’ve spoken a bit about shooting in RAW vs. JPG in the past but I hadn’t written a proper article about it yet. In the photography class I’ve been teaching, we finally got around to post processing last night and I talked a bit about the pros and cons of shooting in RAW or JPG.

Basically, it’s like this. RAW is like a digital negative where all the information of the shot is retained in the file. That’s why the file size is so large. If you have a 12MP camera, then your files will be about 11 or 12MB in size. If you’re shooting in JPG, depending on the quality setting you have it on, file sizes will be much smaller. For my 12MP camera, JPG’s at the highest quality setting are about 3MB. This is because information is being thrown away when the camera compresses your RAW to JPG.

What does that mean then?

Well, since RAW files retain all the information (levels of brightness in a scene), you will have far greater flexibility when post processing. Since JPG files (processed in-camera) have lost information, you won’t be able to correct as much using software.

Let me show you.

Here’s a shot I took where I didn’t have time to change my settings before shooting as I wanted to capture the moment. My subject was running in and out of shade and I was shooting in manual mode so I didn’t get a chance to meter and reset my exposure. In this case, I should’ve used aperture priority mode so my camera would just set my shutter speed for me automatically. However, this was not the case so this was what I was stuck with:

Luckily I was shooting in RAW so I was able to recover most of the blown highlights:

I wanted to see what would happen if I tried to recover from a JPG, so I exported the SOOC image as a JPG and re-imported into Lightroom to see what I can do with a JPG instead of the RAW:

YIKES! That was the best I could do because all the information where the highlights were blown was thrown away when the RAW was compressed to a JPG. This happens in-camera if you are shooting in JPG.

Here’s another example, but this time I wanted to see if I could recover details in shadows. I purposely underexposed the image when I shot this so that I could get a silhouette while enhancing the sunset and sky. This is SOOC:

I used the “fill light” slider in Lightroom this time to see if I could increase the exposure in the shadows:

Not bad eh? Normally I wouldn’t do this since the SOOC was the exposure I was going for, but just for demonstration purposes I’m showing you an extreme example.

Now, here’s the best I could do with the JPG:

I was not able to get any detail in the shadows because all that information was thrown away in the compression.

So, are there any benefits to shooting in JPG? Of course there are! For me, if I’m shooting outdoors on an overcast day and my exposure and white balance are spot on, then I could shoot JPG. I wouldn’t even have to process them and the files are smaller so I’d have more space on my memory cards and on my computer hard drive and I wouldn’t need a fast computer to handle those files. So, yeah… JPG shooting has its benefits. Not to mention that my camera automatically adds levels, curves and sharpening adjustments as soon as I click the shutter release button so my SOOC’s would have more “pop” compared to RAW files on the get go.

But, if I am shooting in areas with mixed lighting or poor light and my exposure isn’t perfectly set, then I’d be more apt to shoot RAW. This gives me much more elbow room when I’m processing. I can easily change the white balance or temperature, saturation and I wouldn’t have to worry about JPG artifacts (splotchiness) or banding (streaks) in my images. Sure, they take up a lot more memory card/hard drive space and I need a fast computer with good RAW converting software to be able to process them, but keeping all the information will result in higher quality images.

Now, if you have the memory space to burn, you could always shoot in RAW + JPG and have two copies of every file but I don’t have the space for that. Besides, I only process a handful of the shots I take so I don’t need a RAW and a JPG for every image. I can easily export my best files as JPG’s anyway, which is what I do.

Some professional photographers (eg. sport shooters) shoot in JPG and some, I’d like to say most, pros shoot in RAW. What works for you?

Here are some great articles with more background information about RAW and JPG:
RAW vs JPEG: Is Shooting RAW Format For Me?
JPEG Vs. RAW: The Advantages and Disadvantages Explained

Laura is a Vancouver wedding and portrait photographer. Visit laurahana.com.