When I started out in photography, I set my camera to JPEG mode and that’s where it stayed for quite some time. Just like every beginner, I did not know what Raw images really were and that caused a lot of confusion in me. When I did my firsts tests, the Raw images I opened looked terrible. So, I did not really see any reason why I should use this strange image format. Looking back, I wish I had known better as that would have saved a lot of photos that I eventually deleted.
In this article, I will give my killer reason(s) for shooting in Raw format, and I will back this up with a real-world example.
Shooting in JPEG means you are destroying data
The discussion as to what is the better format – JPEG or Raw – is almost as old as digital photography itself. And to be honest, there is no definitive answer because each format has advantages in different shooting situations. So instead of trying to add yet another version of this discussion, I will give you my killer reason for using the Raw mode on my camera: It preserves all the data that your camera captures as opposed to JPEG which simply discards a large chunk of that valuable data every time you click the shutter release.
Let that sink in for a second: If you are only shooting in JPEG format, you retain only a portion of the data that your camera actually captured. The rest goes straight to the trash bin.
Isn’t that freighting thought? You go through the chore of travelling to some location, you get up really early to shoot an awesome sunrise, you set up your camera carefully, you nail the composition and the conditions are perfect. Jackpot! Then you click the shutter button and a split second later, a considerable portion of the image data you captured goes straight to the drain.
In addition to that, the JPEG you are left with has been processed in your camera, probably using some factory default settings. All changes (color, noise reduction, sharpening etc.) are now backed into the bunch of pixels that you can take home with you, and there’s no way to reverse that.
Now you may say that I am nitpicking and that only real pixel peepers will be able to spot the difference, but that’s a false assumption in many situations. Let me give you an example.
Example – Loss of highlight details
Below, you see a comparison of the Raw and the JPEG version of the same image. I set my camera up to record both formats. So, both versions come from the exact same exposure. I processed both images in Lightroom with the same exposure settings. Slide back and forth to compare both images. Do you notice anything?
This photo was taken in difficult conditions with a dark foreground and a sky with rather bright clouds. So the exposure was on the limit at both ends of the spectrum. Nevertheless, the camera still managed to capture almost all the details, as depicted in the Raw histogram below.
But if you slide back and forth in the comparison, you will notice that there are big white patches in the sky in the JPEG version while there is still sufficient detail in the Raw version. The crop below makes this even clearer. The missing data was discarded in the JPEG conversion. The loss of highlight detail is especially critical because your eye is often drawn to the brightest parts of the image first.
Conclusion and tips
This example shows that shooting in JPEG mode and not using the Raw mode of your camera can cause loss of vital image data – data that is often missing in the brightest parts of the image where it causes highlight clipping. In order to make use of all the data that your camera actually records, you should turn on the Raw mode.
If you are not yet ready to delve into developing your Raw images, you may also tell your camera to output both Raw and JPEG images. The additional data that you will have available later on is well worth the investment in additional storage space. You can let those Raw images sit on your hard drive until you learn how to use a Raw converter software to really make use of the additional power of Raw images.