All DSLRs, and even many point-and-shoots nowadays, can shoot in RAW format, meaning you can save your images as a completely unprocessed file that offers the potential for a higher-quality photo. The downside is that RAW files take up a lot of space and require extra work to process in post. So when should you use this format or when should you stick to space-saving JPEGs? SLR Lounge performed several tests to come to a (mostly) definitive conclusion.
Photo by SLR Lounge.
As you can see from the image comparison above, the JPEG is naturally a nicer-looking image. This is because the camera makes a few processing choices for you, such as heightened contrast and level adjustments. While this works well in the example, it might not be your ideal look in every situation — especially when your lighting isn't ideal. RAW doesn't do the work for you, but it gives you the room to adjust in post. This means more time, but ultimately it also means the opportunity to get the best quality out of your images. These are the basic upsides and downsides for shooting RAW and shooting JPEG, but what situations call for which formats? Here's what SLR Lounge discovered in their tests.
When to Shoot JPEG
- When you need to display images immediately
- Shooting for lower-quality uses, like the web
- You have a restricted amount of space on your memory card(s)
- Rapid-succession shooting
When to Shoot RAW
- Professional shooting, journalistic shooting
- When you need additional range and tonal detail
While RAW is ultimately better, most of the time your situations won't call for it and JPEG files will be sufficient. Of course, if you enjoy taking the time to process your photos individually, you may as well shoot in RAW. A lot of the time, it comes down to a personal decision. If you can't make up your mind and want to figure out what works best, use the JPEG+RAW setting on your camera (assuming it has this — most do these days) to capture both and see what you realistically use. So long as you have a memory card with a large enough capacity (or enough backup cards), you can get away with capturing both on a regular basis.
Personally, I opt for JPEG in the majority of circumstances, even when shooting with my good camera, as most of the photos I take are for the web or for my own personal use. I'd even use JPEG more often when photographing an event professionally because it was faster. Ultimately good lighting and composition are going to make your photos better than a few changes you can make in post. That said, for portraits and other instances where you can take your time, RAW is kind of a no-brainer. For me, it ultimately comes down to a decision about time. How about you?
For a great visual comparison of all the differences between the two formats, as capture by a Canon 5D Mark II with a 50mm f/1.4 lens, check out the full post over at SLR Lounge.