RAW vs JPEG – Usability

RAW versus JPEG. Which should I use? This is a very interesting and delicate subject involving many aspects! First of all I must say that I think that there is no doubt about the fact that a RAW file is superior – information-wise – compared to a JPEG! It is lossless, has more information per pixel (more bits/pixel), … etc. There are drawbacks also: very large files (25-30MB/picture for Canon EOS 550D), always having to postprocess…etc. There is also no doubt that you get the greatest abilities to adjust your picture with a RAW file. I have had this question for a long loong time and now is the time to finally try to get it resolved:

Is  there much to be gained from using RAW for an ordinary photographer – like myself?

Are there BIG advantages – for me? Or is it more like carrying two spare wheels for a car? Something that could be of use – but only “once in a blue moon”? Is RAW something I ought to use? Is it worth the hassle, time and space? If I pay good money for a DSLR or a premium compact am I throwing away good money by not going RAW?

I will try to stay out of the technicalities – as this post is really about usability for a normal everyday photographer – with some slight ambitions! (That is like myself! 😉 ) I want some time over for other things as well! This is not for pixel-peepers – but we will peep at pixels now and then to get at the answer! My idea for this post is to find out how close I can get with RAW and JPEG. I will be trying to get the same – or close to the same – results from post-processing both RAW and JPEG – and then comparing the result to see if it can be accepted by someone like me – an ordinary everyday photographer  – with some slight ambitions! In ordinary everyday photography with ordinary everyday camera settings will I get enough room and flexibility to handle the ordinary everyday photo situations – if I go the JPEG way?

As most photographers – especially those with compact cameras – uses JPEGs all the time the answer should be given already: JPEGs are good enough! (Or at least a good compromise.) But I want to find out how much I lose out by going JPEG – or could I actually gain something when considering more factors…?

Summer is quickly approaching here in Sweden and it’s beginning to look and feel wonderful! I am saying this so you will understand why this task might take some time before reaching an answer. While on this journey to find the answer – my answer – I would very much appreciate your input and ideas on what to look for and what to compare!

The Formats

RAW is really many different file formats – specific for most cameras or camera brands Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc … – containing more or less unprocessed info directly from the camera image sensor – and need a special program (or a plug-in to your favorite image software) for your computer to process. Software and/or plugin are usually included with the camera when you buy it. It is sort of a “digital negative” – which you then process – in your computer – into a JPEG or several with different settings. The fact that each RAW format is a manufacturer specific format does raise some (small?) concern in me about the usability over time…

JPEG or JPG files are standardized picture files (JPEG – Joint Photographic Experts Group) that can be viewed, processed and printed with all (?) image software! Not that all standards survive over time but still it is calming to know JPEG is a proper standard so (almost) any type of software with image support will open a JPEG-image – hopefully for many years to come! These JPEGs are created in-camera by the cameras image processor. The process in the camera can usually be adjusted in a few ways: White balance, Contrast, lightness, saturation, sharpness, etc … and also in more general terms like for portrait, landscape, neutral, vivid, vintage … etc.

The Variables

The are quite a few factors/variables that influence the look and quality of pictures and to even contemplate evaluating them all is quite mind-boggling! It gets even worse when trying to weigh in such things as time spent processing, flexibility, storage space, fun(!), etc.. I would have to limit myself to just a few of all the factors – but I am open to suggestions as to which! Hopefully this journey will help me to decide what really matters – at least to me!  Hope you will tag along and find your own set of what you believe are the most important factors! The following are a few of the different variables to compare: Exposure, Dynamic range, Colour saturation, White balance, Sharpness, Contrast and Noise…

The Photo Mission

I set out with my trusty Canon EOS 550D/Rebel T2i to take a bunch of pictures like any tourist (with some slight photographic ambitions) would do. I set the camera for saving both RAW and JPG. The plan was to let the camera do its automatic “magic” so I set it up for what pictures I like to get out of the camera: one notch up on contrast, saturation and sharpness! I know from comparing the different Canon picture settings that “Neutral” actually gives quite good likeness to the original – but  rather soft picture – that I would not be satisfied with but that I always would have to post process. “Standard” is my most used setting + every now and then I use “Landscape” settings. Sometimes throwing in a “Portrait” or two. I have tooled with the idea of creating a RAW to JPG processing of my own and download it to the camera. (The Canon EOS 550D/Rebel T2i allows you to do this – giving you access to loads of settings!) The more I think about it the more I wonder why I haven’t…!

The Tools

The software I will be using is Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, Adobe Photoshop Elements and IrfanView. I am also using a 24″ 1920×1200 pixel Dell UltraSharp U2410 display.

The fine print:
The above was a lot of technical stuff – don’t be scared of it because my intention is to mostly use my eyes to make up my mind and include samples so you can use your eyes and make up your mind! I will of course give you my opinions of how the pictures should look! The reason why I stress that you make up your mind is because as we all know taste and liking is not universal! You might like a different look on your pictures and because of that you will have samples to look at so that you can make up your mind! Hopefully we can all arrive at a good understanding of this tricky question!

I will update this posting to contain the complete article as I go along!

Till next time!

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  1. #1 by Paul C on October 19, 2017 - 10:45

    Let’s see how you go Photoman!

    My 3 comments on the RAW vs JPEG debate are –

    [1] that JPEGs have a very real advantage for some camera systems in that the EXIF data sets picture algorithms off in the camera that automatically corrects distortion, uneven lighting across the scene & chromatic aberration. For this reason – the cheap, lightweight 14-42mm or 33-100mm kit-lenses for a Lumix G series camera can score near perfect 5/5 image quality on demanding bench tests….but only with JPEGs. This beats many celebrated high-cost “legacy” lenses from Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and all the optical great manufacturers and shows the power of 21st century microchip electronics. You can match this in expensive programs such as DXO Pro – but it takes a lot of time and skill. On Photoshop it takes even longer!

    [2] When the range of brightness (exposure value) across the picture is narrow, JPEGs are great: so that is 9/10 photo’s for most of us. The only time RAW images seem to make an advantage is when the EV range is wide. Digital sensors cannot cope with highlights like film. Instead of a smooth transition to pure white (called the “rollover effect”) digitals can often “clip” the highlights. For many images – such as stylish portraits – this can add to the impact of the picture.

    For entry level DSLRs and M4/3 cameras you probably have an EV range of 10-12, or about 6-7 stops of useable range for discernible details and 3-4 stops of lower quality highlights. Now old film users are quite used to this – and exposed for the highlights (transparency film) or the lowlights (negatives). To compress the exposure range we used graduated filters and polarisers. The benchmark film for the last century was Kodachrome – which has a dynamic range (lowest to highest EV recording details in the picture) of around 12 stops. Because of the “rollover” effect of film this equates to a 14-15EV range on digital sensors to capture the same picture effect.

    For digital cameras to match film you need to check the histogram and ensure a smooth “rollover” of the histogram at the bright end and accept dark shadow areas will have a loss of detail. Only RAW processing can recover this lost shadow detail. Using JPEGs to do this just drives up “noise artefacts” in the shadows. The alternatives are HDR, fusing 2 or more photo’s with different exposures (which always looks false to me) or a return to film techniques with graduated filters (ND8 is the commonest I use as it “compresses” the upper 3 stops of a typical landscape sky,. Less than ND8 seems pointless – as even a 12MP Lumix G2 will manage 3 stops of highlight). The famous pioneer photographer Ansel Adams know all about this – and even today his book on exposing photographs is the benchmark to learn how to assign 10 exposure “zones” to your pictures before you take them to adjust for the sensitivity characteristic of your film or digital camera.

    To check the reality of this – just search the WWW for large size images by the celebrated photographer Steve McCurry from India (search “Steve McCurry India” for the visual feast). Download a few of the lovely images and import to your photo’ program and look at the histogram. Almost 19/20 images have been exposed “dark” to preserve a long highlight histogram. Press “simple fix” on most photo programs and watch the computer “clip” highlights to make a bright colourful picture. These are great for bright holiday snaps – but they have lost the amazing “McCurry Effect”.

    So – RAW for Mr McCurry looks to be an obligatory step for his award winning images. For the rest of us – perhaps keep it in reserve for the rarer pictures with a wide exposure range where you really want to avoid clipped highlights. The better the EV range of your camera (which is closely related to its cost) – the less you need it!

    So – perhaps Photoman can look out his old graduated filter set and put it head to head with JPEGs against RAW without filters for landscapes with bright skies. Currently, eBay has several shops offering ND8 and ND16 10x10cm “Cokin-Style” filters for <$2 / £1.50. Buy several as they do get scratched over time!

    Also consider borrowing a camera system with full function lens correction JPEGs – such as a Lumix G – to test alongside those Canons to see the time-saving effect that will create. The EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 50D DSLRs saw the introduction of Peripheral Illumination Correction (to correct Vignetting with JPEGs) to adjust the images shot on the camera to correct for corner shading, so brightness is more even across the scene. Both the EOS-1D X and EOS 5D Mark III DSLRs feature not only in-camera Peripheral Illumination Correction, but also saw the introduction of the removal of colour fringing and halos around high contrast edges (Chromatic Aberration Correction), however they still won't correct barrel and pincushion distortion.

    [3] JPEG Compression settings: Lastly – using JPEGs needs you to set the correct compression quality. Smaller images make for faster camera shooting, quicker image processing and less costly picture storage. Learning which compression standard you need is another skill we all have to learn to get the best. And remember, that different cameras and photo-processing programs have different algorithms. For example, in the Adobe system, changing compression from 85% to 90% might make no difference whatsoever in compression or image size, while changing from 84% to 85% would make a big difference! Some of photography is not intuitive – and hard work and study is the only solution

    Best of luck in the project, and thanks for doing some of that hard work and study for us! – Paul C

    • #2 by sfennl on October 19, 2017 - 21:39

      Hi Paul C,

      Thank you for your long insightful comment! My own thinking is very similar! I just want to see what I loose – if anything – or if I might actually win something. In many areas we have seen electronics and digitalization run circles around “old” technology. Dynamic range is still the weakest factor in digital photography! Let us hope that creativity also will flourish when we have all these new easy-to-use solutions!
      Your comment is so well written that I hope you will allow me to include parts of it in my upcoming article! I will naturally mention you!

      /Photoman

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