If you're like a lot of beginners, you probably don't think a whole lot about file formats. After all, we live in a world of JPEG. Most of the images that we see online are JPEGs. Most of the images that family and friends forward to us in emails are JPEGs. And for the most part, our cameras shoot JPEG by default. In fact it's possible you don't even really understand what a JPEG is, and that's okay, because most people don't really have cause to even think about it. You take some photos, you upload them to your favorite photo processing service, you order prints and they arrive in your mailbox. Why mess with a system that isn't broken? Would it surprise you to hear that the system kind of is broken, if you think about it? Read on to find out why.
What is JPEG?
Well, since you asked, JPEG is a file format. There are other file formats too—some cameras can shoot in TIF format, for example, and GIF format is another file type that you will often see on the web, along with PNG. You don't need to really familiarize yourself with any of those other formats, unless you plan to learn HTML, but you do need to understand why JPEG might not be the right for file format for everything you do with your camera.
JPEG is a compressed file format. What that means is that when your camera captures a JPEG image it does some file processing before it saves the image to your memory card. It thinks about all of the things within that image that it could possibly do without—it reduces the number of colors, for example. It takes areas where there are subtle differences in tones and combines them into a single tone. And the reason it does all of these things is basically just in the interest of conserving space on your memory card.
Now there are certain situations in which you do want to have a lot of room on your memory card. Let's say you have only one memory card and you're on a six-week vacation. I don't recommend that, by the way, but I'm sure it happens. Or let's say you have an older computer and you just don't have a lot of hard drive space. Or maybe you're shooting lots of fast action photos in burst mode and you need those images to write to the memory card quickly. These are all reasons why you might want to shoot in the JPEG image format. JPEG files are small, so that means you can keep a lot more images on a single memory card or hard drive.
But if space really isn't a problem for you, then the reasons why you might want a smaller file size become less numerous. You may still want to use JPEG if you are taking a lot of fast action photos—that small file format writes to a memory card a lot faster and allows you to shoot more images in rapid succession. But that is one of the few remaining reasons to shoot JPEG.
Yes, if you're emailing those photos to your relatives, or uploading them to Facebook, you probably don't want them to be huge. But this really isn't a good reason either, and I'll tell you why in a minute.
The alternative to JPEG for most consumer grade cameras is the raw format. The raw file format is exactly what it sounds like—when you shoot in raw your camera takes all the available data in the scene, captures it, and it does nothing to change it. It simply writes that data directly to the memory card, and leaves you in charge of deciding what information to keep or destroy. In short, with a raw file you have the ultimate control over what the photo is going to look like, because your camera always captures all the relevant data every time it takes a picture.
As a result, of course, raw files are much larger than JPEGs. So while you may have been able to get more than a thousand images on a single memory card when shooting in JPEG, with raw you may only be able to get a couple of hundred. But, you don't have to worry that your camera is going to let go of important detail in the process of converting those images to the compressed format.
So why would you want that larger file?
Raw isn’t just a larger file format—it has a lot of advantages over JPEG because when you shoot in raw your camera isn’t discarding any potentially important information. So while JPEG will give you a limited range of tones between black and white, raw will give you a lot more—think 256 levels of brightness for a JPEG vs. between 4,000 and 16,000 levels of brightness for a raw file. And that’s not all—JPEGs are 8-bit while raw files are 12- or 14-bit—that means you get a lot more color tones in a raw files as well. And white balance is also a lot easier to adjust after the fact when you shoot raw.
Finally, you can edit your raw files non-destructively—which means that even after you save your changes you can still revert back to the original if you decide later on that you don’t like what you’ve done. Not so with a JPEG—in fact a JPEG loses quality if you so much as rotate it, and it continues to lose quality with each change that you make.
Now that you know why JPEG is not always the best idea, let's talk about how you would go about making that switch.
It's important to keep in mind that when you're shooting in raw your camera will be able to show you the image you’ve captured on your LCD, but you will not be able to send it to anyone in that format, or upload it to the Internet or social media sites like Facebook. All raw files require some processing before they can be shared with the world at large. And what's more, the software that you use for post-processing has to be able to process that particular type of raw file. That's right, raw is not a standard, like JPEG is. JPEG it is the same as from camera to camera, and can be read by any piece of software capable of reading a JPEG. The raw file format, on the other hand, works differently. The way that a camera captures raw files varies between cameras and even between models. So just because your copy of Photoshop could read the raw files that you shot with the Nikon D100 camera that you bought 15 years ago, doesn't mean that it will be able to read the raw file you shot with the Nikon D800 you bought yesterday.
So often, when you upgrade your camera, that also means upgrading your post-processing software. That is an important thing to keep in mind before you decide to switch to raw. Make sure you have all your ducks in a row as far as your post-processing software is concerned before you start taking pictures in raw or you're going to be very disappointed that you can't open them after you shot them. Another thing to keep in mind is whether or not your camera is even capable of shooting raw. Not all cameras are. In particular, budget compact or point-and-shoot cameras sometimes don't have the raw capability built into them, and if this is true you would actually need to upgrade your camera before you'll be able to take advantage of this technology.
Another thing you will need to keep in mind, as we’ve already discussed, is the amount of hard drive space you have available. You will need a lot more space to store your raw files, and you’ll need bigger memory cards (and probably a lot more of them) unless you plan to make a reduction in the number of photos you shoot (and I never recommend that!)
You will also need some extra time, because you have to process every one of those raw files before you will be able to share them, upload them or print them. If this just sounds really daunting, check to see if your camera can capture a single image in both formats—some cameras will save identical shots as both JPEG and raw. The drawback, of course, is that it will take even more space on your hard drive and memory card to save each file in each format, but the benefit is that you won’t have to do a lot of processing to files you’re just going to be printing for friends and family—you can save that for your favorite images, or the ones that seem to need the most processing.
Finally, remember that although raw will probably help you improve your photos in the long run, not every shooting situation is right for it. Once again, if you’re shooting a sporting event or another scene with a lot of fast motion in it and you’re going to be using burst mode, you might want to switch back to JPEG for the duration of the event. And if you’ve got limited space on your memory card or hard drive, that’s another good reason to forgo raw.
Fortunately, making the switch to raw is easy as long as you’ve got a camera that’s capable of taking photos in raw and software that’s capable of processing the images that your camera captures. From there it’s a simple matter of making friends with that software and learning the basics of processing raw files so that they can be printed or shared with the world at large. But the real benefit to making this switch is that you’ll never have to worry that a photo could have been better, because you’ll always get the best photo your camera is capable of producing.
- JPEG is a compressed file format
- It’s good when you have limited storage
- It’s good for fast action
- RAW files contain complete data
- Raw files are larger
- Use Raw to get the broadest range of tones
- Raw files can be edited non-destructively
- All Raw files require editing
- Upgrade your post processing software
- Get some bigger memory cards/more hard drive space
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