Article by John Stringer, former Fine Print digital technician.

One of the most frequent digital question that people ask is, “Should I shoot Jpeg or Raw?” I’ll respond by saying, “Well it depends.” There are advantages and disadvantages to both formats. Much of it depends on what you shoot, your workflow methods, and how comfortable you are with working your own images. In this article I’ll discuss both formats and the pros and cons of each. Some of you may be asking, “My camera also has a Tiff option. What should I do?” Camera manufacturers are finding that most people will choose the Jpeg or Raw option because of their advantages. Because there is no real advantage with Tiff many are removing it as an option. So because of this, I’ll focus more on the other two formats.

The first thing that needs to be explained is the fundamental difference between a Jpeg file and a Raw file that comes from a camera. When you capture a digital image, that file is made up of ones and zeros that describe or give instructions on how the scene that you just captured should look. Only after the ones and zeros are processed is that file turned into the image that you remember. The question is: do you want the camera or a computer to do the processing? With a Jpeg the processing takes place at the camera level while with Raw a converter program on a computer takes care of it. “So,” you may be asking yourself, “what difference does it make where the file gets converted and which is better?” Well, lets take a look and see.

Since a Jpeg the file is processed in the camera, your image is ready as soon as you download it to your computer, so you can put it in an image-editing program like Photoshop or go directly to print. With a Raw file you have to download it to your computer, run it through a Raw file converter and then you can go to Photoshop or Print. This extra step may not be attractive to a photographer such as an event or wedding photographer who may need to shoot, sort, organize, and then get back to the client or print hundreds of images in a short amount of time.

A photographer who knows his or her camera well can have it set up so when they shoot a Jpeg the image will look how they want straight out of the camera with little or no post processing, which can save a lot of time. Jpeg is a lossy compression, which means that it will go through and throw out any information that it determines to be unnecessary, resulting in a file that will be smaller than a Raw file. A Jpeg file from a 10 megapixel camera shot at the highest quality will be about a 4mb file while a Raw file will weigh in at around 15mb. That means that on a 2gb memory card you could get about 160 Jpeg images versus about 85 Raw files. Since Jpeg is a compressed file and information is being discarded, you are losing some image detail. It may not be much and not an issue for that event photographer, but if you shoot landscapes or fine art you may want every ounce of detail you can get. The only way to do that is to shoot Raw and convert the image on your computer.

Since you’re processing the Raw file in software after capture, you’re able to change certain instructions or settings like white balance, sharpening and contrast, to name a few, with little or no harm to the original file. Yes, you can make adjustments to any file in an image editing program, but as you do information will gradually be destroyed whereas a Raw file can be changed without that penalty before conversion. It’s almost like being able to change the settings while you are shooting the scene with out actually being there. So, for example, if you accidentally had your white balance set to tungsten light and you where shooting outdoors, you could change it to daylight or a custom temperature of your liking later in the Raw converter, and it would be the same as if you had shot it correctly in the first place.

The bottom line is: If you’re someone who needs speed and the easier workflow, or if you are new to digital and don’t understand or feel intimidated by Raw conversion, then shooting Jpeg may be the best option. But if image detail or the ability to fix a bad setting after the fact is important, then Raw may be the better choice. No matter which one you choose, know that either one has its merits and both can get the job done. Just remember that if you do shoot Jpeg, shoot at the highest quality setting to insure that the image is not overly compressed resulting in the appearance of digital artifacts.