Ever since I bought my first digital point-and-shoot camera several years ago, professional photographers have been urging me to record my digital images in “RAW” rather than JPEG format.
Their argument was that RAW photo files contained more “information” and, therefore, would produce much better final images.
Better photos sounds, well, better than no-as-good-as photos.
So why not shoot in RAW?
I couldn’t answer this question for a long time because the digital cameras I owned weren’t capable of saving my shots in RAW.
But that changed when I purchased a Sony RX-100 in the summer of 2013. And because I can now simultaneously record images on my camera’s memory card in both JPEG and RAW formats, I did an experiment in which I shot a few photos in both and compared them to see which was best.
Here’s what I discovered.
Setting The Camera to Record in Both Formats
The first problem I encountered was trying to figure out how to tell my camera to keep both JPEG and RAW files of the same shot. Before setting out for the day, I had neglected to read the extensive after-market manual for the RX-100 that I had purchased, and despite many “trips” through the camera’s extensive menu system, was unable to find out how to turn on that dual recording feature.
Back home, I pulled out the manual and learned that I had to select “JPEG and RAW” under “Quality” (not “Format”) under the camera’s menu selections.
Once I’d made that “Quality” choice, recording images in both formats happened automatically whenever I pressed the shutter button.
When I plugged my camera’s SD memory card into the card reader slot on my iMac Desktop, I quickly saw that I had two copies of each shot, one with an “ARW” instead of “JPEG” file extension.
I correctly guessed that “ARW” denoted the RAW version.
Although there is some variation from photo to photo, a JPEG photo taken with my Sony RX-100 set at the highest resolution will be about 8 MB or so in size. The “ARW” or RAW file of the same shot will be about three times as big.
That means if I shot only in RAW, any SD memory card I used will fill up three times as fast as I would shooting in JPEG only. And if I recorded images in both JPEG and RAW, I’d gobble up space on the card four times as fast.
That would mean carrying (and buying) 3-4 times as many SD memory cards, and swapping them out 3-4 times as fast, than when shooting JPEG images only.
Editing RAW Files
I use Adobe’s Photoshop Elements (the “consumer level” program alternative to the full Photo shop program) to edit still photos. Opening and editing JPEG images is easy.
But I quickly discovered that there is no standard RAW file type. Each manufacturer has its own own proprietary format.
That means that your photo editing software program might have difficulty dealing with the RAW files created by different cameras.
Initially, I couldn’t use Photoshop Elements to even open, let alone edit, the RAW images taken with my Sony RX-100.
I tried to update the “plugins” (little software programs that “plug into” bigger programs) for my version of Elements. But that didn’t solve my RAW file editing problem.
Finally, I downloaded the Adobe DNG Converter program that allowed me to change my ARW files into Adobe’s “DNG” (digital negative) format that would work with Photoshop Elements.
“Digital negative” is an apt way to describe those files. DNG files are similar to the “negatives” we were used to dealing with back in the day of film-only cameras. Negatives had to be used to make a “positive” prints in order for us to see what the camera had captured.
Comparing “RAW” and JPEG Images
After converting a few RAW files into DNG files, I edited both JPEG and DNG files of the same shots and compared them side-by-side.
Here’s the JPEG version of one of the photos that I shot.
Unfortunately, I can’t show you the DNG edited version because the file size is too large to upload here.
I couldn’t tell much difference between the two while viewing them on my iMac desktop’s 21-inch screen.
So I decided to print the images on paper to see which looked sharper or more vibrant. I didn’t have 8 x 10 photo paper, so I just used 20-pound white “multipurpose” paper in my HP Envy 120 color printer.
First, I inserted the images, one above the other, across an 8 x 10 “portrait” orientated Microsoft Word document. To my naked eye, and even when it was aided by using a large magnifying glass, I couldn’t tell the two images apart.
Then I switched the orientation of the Word document to “landscape” and printed each image across the full width of a separate 8 x 10 piece of paper. Again, the two images seemed virtually identical, except for some minor variation in contrast that occurred because each image had been edited a bit in Photoshop Elements before printing.
Should You Shoot in “RAW”?
A chart at the end of this Photokonnexion.com article shows the advantages and disadvantages of shooting photos in RAW format.
And this story from SLR Lounge has advice about when RAW or JPEG would be the best format to use.
But based on how I use photography, JPEG will normally always trump RAW as the format of choice.