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The Rarely Discussed Reason To Shoot Raw

There are endless articles and videos discussing the pros and cons of shooting in raw versus shooting in JPEG. I’ve long been a proponent of raw for the editing capabilities, but what's more important than file sizes and editing? Longevity.

It’s helpful to point out here that I very often can’t see the forest for the trees, so this may not be such a revelation to others. To briefly recap, shooting in raw captures the most amount of information in each shot, which allows the maximum amount of manipulation in post — essentially the digital version of a film negative. JPEG offers significantly reduced file sizes and speed of use but also reduces the post-processing advantages to just minor adjustments. That’s a broad overview, because there are multiple levels to this discussion. This is not meant to rehash all of them, but simply add a point to the pros of the raw argument.

I was reviewing some past work recently and came across a portrait that I loved from over five years ago, but I decided I should revisit the edit. I’ve been retouching for more than a decade, so I wasn’t thinking this would be a major overhaul but rather a quick update. And for the most part, I was right. My eye is better adjusted to more subtle retouching, so the results were more relaxed than the original.

But this got me thinking about the age-old discussion (raging debate?) about shooting in raw or JPEG and which one is better. I’ve been doing this long enough to believe that professionals choose which one works best for them and their clients, but when you’re just starting out, this is can seem like a major dilemma. Not only is there the added file size, but it’s a level of complexity that may be overwhelming to a new shooter. 

Rarely in this back and forth is the discussion of longevity or as some will call it, future-proofing. Side note: I prefer the former because, to my ear, this is about your career and legacy, so the language used is important. Yes, it has a utilitarian aspect, but longevity is about maintaining presence over years, and future-proofing sounds like my roof has the proper rain sealant applied.

My career started in the digital world, so I don’t have a background in film. As such, I’m just used to being able to go back to an image from whenever and decide if I still like the final version or not. If not, I can make changes and re-save it. As I said before, this is not an Einstein-level revelation about photography. I also acknowledge this is heresy to some that view the original edit as the purest form. But I'm a mad scientist when it comes to creativity, with a tendency to see rules as more like guidelines.

Here’s the thing, though: I think this is one of the strongest arguments for shooting raw for a new photographer than anything else. The list of technical advantages is helpful, but telling a new photographer to shoot in a file format that will allow them to improve the photos they're taking now in five years is a much more compelling reason. There are times this won’t apply, of course, published work being one. However, how fantastic is it to know that you have a safety net in such a technically challenging career?

Why would you want to look at work you shot years ago? I've been shooting headshots for the better part of a decade, and there are some images that are milestones for me, so I want to keep them in my portfolio. But as I improve with my retouching or maybe I update my monitor to one that has better resolution and color, I want to go back and adjust those specific images to keep them current. If all I had were JPEGs, this would be very limited but since I've shot in raw from almost the beginning, I have this option.

Now, a bad photo is just that, and a professional should never rely solely on the post-processing to save their work. Getting it right in camera is the gold standard, and we should always strive to improve. Still, having that extra layer of flexibility for the future is fantastic.

So, buy that larger SSD and figure out Camera Raw in Photoshop now. Your future self will feel a lot smarter.

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67 Comments

Harry Bloomberg's picture

This is dead right on. I've been shooting raw for only the past 4-5 years. But I have decades of JPEGs I wish I could have more flexibility in editing. My only slight disagreement is that I'd allow a rank beginner to start in JPEG because it's so much easier and there's so much else to learn. But once you've got the basics, go to raw.

Greg Edwards's picture

Good point. For a beginner who wants instant gratification and camera craft aka "getting it right in camera", jpegs are ideal. Combine this with a simple DAM such as Apple Photos which can perform light edits and they'll be more than happy for some time.

Raw on the other hand requires more work and planning that a beginner may not want to think about from the start. Which editor to use, for example, is a commitment in itself, not to mention a huge rabbit hole.

That said, I'm still learning and go back to old photos to reprocess as I learn new things, both jpeg and raw files. There are a few times I wished I had shot raw back then but it's not the end of the world.

Joe Loper's picture

Yup, definite trade offs but when I coach a new shooter I lean towards raw because I want them to play the long game. They'll figure it out in the end. ;0)

Alex Herbert's picture

Can't most modern cameras do both at the same time? I'd defo tell a beginner to use both at the same time. I took some shots in my first year of photography that I'd certainly like to re-edit, and thankfully I started with RAW so they're all on a HDD waiting for a rainy Sunday.

Yin Ze's picture

Another reason I shoot RAW is that Capture One keeps getting better and the amount of stuff you can do with older files is pretty neat.

Joe Loper's picture

Yes! This is another great great argument for RAW. The software today is lightyears ahead of just 3-4 years ago. Plus the processing power now avaialble.

J.d. Davis's picture

But, whose raw?

Some camera manufacturers have their own 'raw' files that can't be opened by anyone else, while .jpg has pretty much stayed a universal format.

I remember the nightmare trying to update Adobe to read a .nef file. Is the added 'information' really all that important?
The bigger question is - what or how is the image going to be presented? A billboard shot done with a Hasselblad may need a bigger file, but not necessarily more of the vaunted information.

IMHO, if you need to do that much post-processing, your shooting needs to be improved more than you actually need a raw file.

Stuart C's picture

So people shooting high contrast landscape scenes at the book ends of the day need to improve their photography based on your logic?

You seem to just post stupid crap for the sake of it. Are you Ken Rockwell in disguise?

Marius Pettersen's picture

DNG

J.d. Davis's picture

.jpg

Marius Pettersen's picture

What?

J.d. Davis's picture

What is JPG extension?
Image result for .jpg
JPEG is a file extension that stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group. ... The JPEG extension is most commonly used by digital cameras and photo sharing devices. While the JPEG format is great for color and photographs, it is also important to note that there is a slight loss of quality due to compression.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "Some camera manufacturers have their own 'raw' files that can't be opened by anyone else"

The only time I've seen this happen is when a new body is released and the software companies (Adobe, Capture One, etc) haven't released yet an update to open those new raw files. It usually doesn't take them long to get an update out.

Joe Loper's picture

Easy Stuart, J.D. can opt in as well. Although I agree with Black Z. Usually any RAW that can't be opened is either brand new or intentional. For example, Capture One only works with Phase One medium format Fuji with a special agreement. But any DSLR is accessible.

I think if the goal is long term, then getting it right in camera while using the most robust file format is the winning ticket. To each their own, it's an artistic pursuit.

J.d. Davis's picture

Perhaps it was learning on large format - the small camera I carry is a Nikon D3200. Also a tripod, light meter and Nikon Legacy lenses that I have to focus manually. Taking the time to view a scene, make a light reading and adjust composition isn't hard. Honestly, when people talk about all the 'information' contained in raw, to me, it just looks like a bigger file that has to be worked to death to get what you want.

People should be happy and shoot what you want - let others do the same.

Alex Herbert's picture

So you prefer to let the machine do the work... that's fine too, but I think people choose RAW because they want to craft their own image in post, as well as in camera. It's not a substitute, it's just additional control.

Deleted Account's picture

Billboards have greater viewing distances, and do not require high resolution files. This is common knowledge.

Are you deliberately getting stuff wrong, to provoke response?

Chad L's picture

Why is this a huge dilemma for newbies? Every camera I've owned can shoot raw and JPG, at the same time. You get the best of both worlds. As far as storage goes, this is a moot point; you can pick up 2 terabyte hard drives on eBay for $35. If you can't afford that then you shouldn't be tinkering with a hobby that (typically) requires thousands of dollars in equipment. That is to say, if you can't afford $35, you should sell your camera and wait until you're more financially stable.

Hunter Chan's picture

Well...when you have twice the normal amount of files, organization would become kinda agonizing, especially when you accidentally delete photos (happened to me...).

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I would chew through 2TB so fast. And that's with an EOS R. I pity the 5DS shooters. I'm feeling the pinch with 24TB right now.

Also, $35 will get you a basic hard drive, but if you run a business or are a serious hobbyist, you'll likely want to drop some money on some sort of NAS unit, and the price there can escalate quickly.

Ed Sanford's picture

Don’t feel sorry for us 5DS shooters (I have two). Storage is the least of my worries because it is so cheap. Since I stopped shooting film in 2013, I have only ever shot raw. When I take a new camera out of the box, the first thing I do is set it to raw. In the 8 years that I’ve used a DSLR, I have never put a .jpg through the cameras. I had a digital point and shoot camera early on and I still regret initially shooting .jpgs. Processing and printing raw files is just an electronic way of doing what I did chemically in the wet darkroom. I even shoot raw on my iPhone 12.

Gary Pardy's picture

This is where I'm at. As much as I want to save everything, culling files is necessary and storage solutions start to become financial considerations for my hobby / side hustle. Can't imagine what it's like for fulltime pros and videographers.

Alex Herbert's picture

Full time pros are getting paid, storage is a business expense. Maybe finding space to store the drives might become an issue at some point, but your fees should definitely be covering your costs.

Tom Kinkel's picture

A few years back I was asked to teach some basic photographic concepts to a group of photographic sales staff .I soon came to realize that many people don't really understand the differences between Raw and JPEG even when being presented with an A/B comparison . A JPEG image can sometimes have the effect of looking more striking (sharper) because of the restricted tonal range which still offers white and black but less in between the two .The idea of 4.3 trillion colors in a14 bit RAW file is hard to get your head around but compared to 16.8 million in JPEG files it is a huge difference . Most of the older Fuji digital DSLR's had a preference for enhanced JPEG's straight out of the camera , the term was Interpolation and it was a way of giving enhanced JPEG's - Fuji style !

Simon Forsyth's picture

A RAW file gives you all the information Rhett was captured when taking the imagema jpeg is compressed because it throws away the information it devices isn't needed! Tastes and ability changes over time and the way you envisage an image today will likely be different in five years time because you will have improved your processing skills and most likely the software will have improved as well!
Even back in the film days the way an image was printed changed over time. You only have to look at Ansel Adams Moonrise over Hernandez and compare early prints with the latter ones to see that Adams saw it differently over time!
If you only have a jpeg you are limited!

M C's picture

How about an article about the rarely discussed reason to shoot JPEG because I feel that unless you are a professional photographer today's cameras can give exceptional results in JPEG

Sam Sims's picture

I shoot raw so I can apply my own preset to my photo’s and to be able to recover data when I’ve shot in less than ideal light.

Marc Synwoldt's picture

Yep, wholeheartedly agree. Being able to revisit DNGs taken 10 years ago, when technology and my skill were markedly less advanced, and being able to improve on them as if they were done with newer gear (or by a better photographer/retoucher) is really something special. (But how would JPEG shooters know?) Looking back, my decision to shoot almost exclusively RAW from the beginning of digital must have been one of the soundest of my whole photographic journey so far.

Tom Kinkel's picture

Storage has become so cheap to buy as well as SSD options , why skimp on file size when you may regret losing some of the highlight and shadow detail .In Australia we have some of the harshest light on the planet and I am very aware that dynamic range is more important than in some other global hemisphere .I only use the RAW file even when I shot both , because of the detail , not sharpness .

Colin Robertson's picture

Shoot raw of course... That said, I wish more cameras allowed you to tweak the jpeg engine like Fujifilm cameras do. I would love to set my camera to raw+jpeg and try and get my settings dialed in-camera for faster turn around, even if only for casual sharing. The jpegs out of my canon almost always need tweaking (IMHO) and thus I never feel like I can use them.

Tom Kinkel's picture

I was an early user of Fujifilm dslr's when digital first arrived on the scene , had weddings and corporate jobs to shoot but the RAW option was not great as the buffer took forever to clear and slow to read and write to the card .Now why bother with JPEG as so much more is available in RAW as well as speed . I had issues with FUJI in Australia as they were not interested in RAW files in the DSLR market , only Fuji enhanced JPEG images for all of the wedding portrait shooters .Things have changed I'm sure but moved to Nikon so Fuji lost me -- sold all of my Fuji camera's 6x17 and 6x9 as well as digital

Indy Thomas's picture

When I was first looking at the digital photo world in the late 90's the important feature one looked for was TIFF file saves in cameras. Many were JPG only.
When Kodak came out with RAW I immediately realized that was the way I wanted to go.

As a long time film printer, I saw the importance of having the "neg" to return to over and over again.

I have scanned a number of my favorite negatives (in RAW) and re-work my processing to match the ideas I have today. I don't have quite the exposure range that I did with an enlarger but I can re-scan so that any exposure works well.

Tom Kinkel's picture

Glad that you mentioned Tiff files, and they can be viewed without conversion software . More common in Digital camera's going back to early inception and scanners .16 bit TIFF file options now you are talking incredibly large file sizes .I had a Nikon D2hs and I am pretty sure it had TIFF conversion in the camera to make up for small megapixel output ,.beautiful colour and tone .

Lee Christiansen's picture

When people post that Raw files need to be "worked to death" to get what we want, (you know who you are), then they're ignoring the obvious facts that a Canon Raw file opening in Canon's Raw processor will look exactly the same as the JPEG would have - except it has additional data to play with. (And C-1 does a mighty good job without additional work too).

And when I see the comment that if images need a lot of processing, then the standard of shooting needs to be improved, (guess who...) well, yes, we're all gasping collectively at the manis assumptions being made.

Raw does little more than allow us extra data to recover highlights or shadows with less degradation or find otherwise lost data to do the job.

Raw allows us to choose the output delivery whether it be 8 or 16-bit, or the colour gamut size and also whether any compression is applied and the format we want to store it in.

Raw requires zero extra work to get an image to look good if shot correctly.

Processing, whether it be a single minute or several hours, does not indicate any skill level at capture in any way.

But certainly, shooting in JPEG condemns the image to 8-bit from the start, and adds compression - along with reducing dynamic range capture. How much sharpening, which style setting, what about contrasts/saturation on tha JPEG, and if you change your mind later, then it's down an 8-bit generation. And unless a photographer is so cheap as to only use tiny card capacity, there is little argument for shooting JPEG.

About the only argument for shooting JPEG is when images have to be delivered with such speed, that any interaction or processing would make things too slow. (Sports or news gathering photography for example - especially when images are often transmitted wirelessly).

There is no "getting it right in camera." Last time I looked, cameras only set exposure in 1/3 stops, and if that's close enough for some, then heck, just about any old thing will do. And despite the claims of many, cameras don't "see" what we do. So there's often adjustment to have a 2D image that looks like the image we perceived. And often we don't have full control of the light we work in - and our eyes will tell a different story than any sensor. (Again, which JPEG style are you choosing?)

Don't get me started on the "I shoot manual" brigade, who still rely on the hopeless in-camera metering as they struggle with camera controls or guess just how much over/under exposed they can make their 1/3 stop accurate settings. (Or the "I shoot film" people, who just send off films to be processed elsewhere). It is amazing how some will think their photography skills are better because they ignore half of the process.

The reality is that to squeeze the best form an image requires skill at the camera end, and skill at the post production end. Raw is the best tool we have for this - and it either requires no effort, or lots of effort - a choice we can make, but a choice partly denied by shooting in JPEG.

J.d. Davis's picture

You are, of course, entitled to your opinion - and the rest of us are entitled to ours. The truth is, it's all math , algorithms, and not Kabuki. There is no magic and for all those who swear by raw .jpg or tiff, there is little difference in the final product ESPECIALLY if that final product is a print.

Experience has shown that gallery owners, museums and customers not only can't tell the difference, they don't care - it begs the question "Why should we?"

Stuart C's picture

RAW file and finished edit, purposefully under exposed to preserve as much of the highlights in the lighting as possible, knowing I could lift the shadows in post to bring the details out.

Please explain how shooting Jpeg would 'get it right in camera'? or allow even a tiny portion of those shadows to be recovered.

Ill await your no doubt amusing response.

J.d. Davis's picture

Amused by your question. I don't shoot this type of photo, it is of no interest. Best of luck in your career!

J.d. Davis's picture

very nice 'smiley face' - almost on the horizontal center line in the left 1/16 of the frame - indeed VERY amusing!

Stuart C's picture

Typical deflection from the number one troll on this website.

Poor.

J.d. Davis's picture

Ans: Shooting earlier in the day wold give correct exposure for higthlight & shadow

Stuart C's picture

So you wanted me to shoot a blue hour shot where there was still some colour in the sky with the castle and cathedral illuminated by the flood lighting (the scene I was trying to capture) earlier in the day? How would I do that then when the flood lighting is off and the sky isn’t in blue hour?

That’s not an answer, that’s a completely different shot, you might as well have just said ‘you should have taken a photo of a rabbit’, your answer is that irrelevant to this scene.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Don't forget Stuart, that Mr Davis has already told us in earlier posts that he spends a week with clients, juts to find out what they want in a portrait - so he has all the time in he world... :)

Apparently we all just stand there, clients waiting patiently, whilst we explain the light isn't perfect and we should wait. Presumably because our JPEGs can't handle the contrast and we won't shoot Raw...?

J.D. has no concept of shooting professionally and gives his armchair opinion of "things he doesn't shoot".

He won't adjust his images for fear of not being a good enough photographer, so feels the only difference is in the output. Forgetting of course that photography involves two steps - capture & processing.

He has clearly never shot some of the difficult subject matter that many of us have captured. The images that defy standard dynamic range and scream for massaging later because those ambient conditions weren't going to play ball. Instead he just clicks the button, gets it close enough, refuses to adjust or dodge or burn or colour adjust, (because he is just that good), and boshes it out - apparently for starting figures of $4500 jus to have him turn up.

And seemingly zero idea of the differences between 8-bit and 16-bit for quality tonal reproduction and post production flexibility, (because that camera JPEG isn't coming out as 16-bit). And doesn't understand the limitations of 8-bit on an aRGB file - because heck, it's just "all math"

And when we merely quote him or ask to expand, he avoids the question or claims he is being insulted. And of course all the while, remaining anonymous so we can't see the fruits of his "genius."

It's like having a grumpy old grandad in the corner, sucking on his pipe and claiming the world was rounder in his day. What a shame there isn't facility to block a person here, so our forum feeds would be filled with less drivel.

For those of us who stretch the limitations of current technology, we shoot Raw. JD doesn't stretch anything, except our patience. :)

But now we've fed the troll, and given him the much needed attention he doesn't get elsewhere - damn...

Stuart C's picture

Very true Lee, I’m certainly not a pro photographer, or consider myself as anything other than your average amateur, but it took me all of about 10 goes at editing shots to realise the vast difference in quality that can be gained from an uncompressed RAW file.

Stuart C's picture

To quote.

“ if you need to do that much post-processing, your shooting needs to be improved more than you actually need a raw file”

Tell me how I needed to be improving my ‘shooting’ in this situation? I’m awaiting your fountain of knowledge to explain exactly what you meant with your quoted comment above, come on, let’s have it, let’s see where all this massive noise comes from? Prove to us that you are not just the fraud everybody on this website takes you for, and don’t forget the old ‘when i shot large format’ story, we haven’t heard it enough yet.

J.d. Davis's picture

Other than trying to insult me ( and failing miserably ), do you have a point?

Stuart C's picture

I don’t need to insult you, you’re own words are perfectly capable of doing that, literally every time you comment on something.

J.d. Davis's picture

Sounds like you are perfect - perhaps you can give lessons?

Stuart C's picture

I’m far from perfect, but i don’t visit this website with the sole purpose of trying to get attention by posting obtrusive comments just to encourage a reaction. The fact you are a grown adult (who is of age by all accounts) and behaving like a 12 year old on almost every single article is very telling.

Just sit back and have a think about why almost every other contributor to this website has an issue with you and your toxic words, although I wouldn’t think too hard because from my position it looks to me that this is exactly what you are aiming to do. Have fun whilst it lasts because people like you come and go from these pages, soon we will see your name in black with the old ‘account deleted’ message next to it, you won’t be tolerated forever.

J.d. Davis's picture

I made a comment about raw v jpg & you picked a fight. If I am here or not is of little consequence. And to that point, I have never really cared what others think of me. People have their likes and dislikes and are free to feel however they want about me or anything else.

What pisses many off is not what I say, but that I won't show my work. I have stated the reasons. You may choose to believe them or not.

Go in peace - but go.

Stuart C's picture

Its not about your incorrect comments on this article, its the fact every time I click on an article there you are with a comment designed to gain reaction.

If you think not displaying your work is the reason behind peoples annoyance with you then the delusion is real im afraid. Its the blatant attempts to post offensive views on every subject just to rile people, trolling is ancient history now and the fact the likes of you are still flogging its dead horse is just downright pathetic.

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