Is Shooting RAW+JPEG the Best of Both Worlds?

The post Is Shooting RAW+JPEG the Best of Both Worlds? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Jim Hamel.

RAW+JPEG files

For years, photographers have debated whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG. (Well, maybe “debate” is the wrong word. Usually, it’s a matter of more experienced photographers encouraging beginners to start shooting in RAW and stop shooting in JPEG.)

There isn’t much question that RAW files are technically superior. They come with plenty of benefits: greater dynamic range, more color information, and an adjustable white balance, to name just three.

However, these benefits can only really be appreciated when post-processing files. So for photographers who don’t wish to edit their files, the advantages of RAW photography don’t really apply, and certain RAW drawbacks – such as the need to process each file before it can be shared or printed – don’t seem worth it.

RAW+JPEG - The Best of Both Worlds?

Usually, this RAW vs JPEG question gets presented as an either/or proposition. You’re told that you have to decide to shoot in RAW or in JPEG, looking at the pros and cons of both file formats.

But if you could have the advantages of both formats, wouldn’t that be the way to go? Wouldn’t you want the editing flexibility of RAW files, combined with the instant shareability of JPEGs? Is that even possible?

It is, in fact!

Take a look at your camera’s Quality or Image Quality setting in the menu. Most cameras will allow you to put that setting on both RAW and JPEG. This is known as RAW+JPEG shooting, where your camera captures a RAW file and a JPEG file each time you press the shutter button. In using RAW+JPEG, aren’t you getting the best of both worlds?

RAW+JPG - The Best of Both Worlds?
RAW+JPEG settings on Canon system.

Let’s take a look. But first, let’s review the advantages of RAW files versus JPEGs.

JPEGs

When you take a picture, your camera is actually taking the data that it receives from the image sensor and creating a file. In the early days of digital, a group of experts got together and agreed on a file format everyone could use. It is called “JPEG,” and it stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group.”

The idea is that everyone could use the same format, and thus it would be easy to share. And you know what? It worked out pretty well. JPEGs are more or less ubiquitous. If you pick up your camera and start shooting, you’ll generally be creating JPEGs. It is the default of virtually every dedicated camera. And because internet browser developers consistently built JPEG support into their software, it is also the format of virtually every picture you see online.

But when your camera creates a JPEG, a few things happen. The first is that the camera compresses the picture data so the file size is smaller. A JPEG will only use about a quarter of the data that your camera captures, and as a result, a large chunk of data is discarded. Some of that is color data, which is done by reducing the number of available colors (there are still a lot of colors available in JPEGs, though). Where you’ll see the biggest impact is in the highlights and shadows, where some detail may be lost.

In addition, when a JPEG is created, your camera will add some processing to the picture. The camera manufacturers know that you want your pictures coming out of the camera looking sharp and colorful. Therefore, they add some effects – like sharpness, contrast, and saturation – as the JPEG file is rendered. The benefit is that your pictures generally do look a little better, but the downside is that you aren’t in control of the process, and sometimes your camera’s processing doesn’t match what you’re after.

RAW+JPG - The Best of Both Worlds?
The file on the left is an original RAW. To make it displayable to your browser, I had to convert it to JPEG – but I didn’t apply any edits. The file on the right is a straight-out-of-camera JPEG. Note that it’s slightly crisper, and the colors are subtly warmer and more saturated.

And that brings us to RAW files.

The RAW advantage

In most cameras, you can go into the menu and change the file format to “RAW.” No, there isn’t really some sort of universal file format called RAW. Rather, each camera has its own way of bundling the data that it receives from the image sensor when you take the picture to create its own proprietary file (NEF for Nikon, CRW or CR2 for Canon, RAF for Fuji, etc.). The resulting file is called “RAW.”

You might already perceive an issue here: Since RAW files aren’t the same format, they aren’t easily shareable. In addition, RAW files are huge, typically 3-4 times the size of JPEGs.

So why does nearly everyone recommend shooting RAW, then? Because they contain more information. Remember how JPEGs discard data to create smaller files? RAW files preserve all of that data. That means you keep all the color data, and you preserve everything you can in the way of highlight and shadow detail.

In addition, whereas the camera adds processing when it creates JPEGs, that doesn’t happen when you create RAW files. That means you are in control of the process. You can add any level of sharpness, contrast, saturation, etc., that you want (assuming you have access to a RAW processing program, of course). The camera isn’t making those decisions for you.

Sure, RAW files are bigger, but they are way better. And you can always create a JPEG from your RAW file later, which you can use to share your photo online once you’ve finished editing.

RAW+JPG - The Best of Both Worlds?
The RAW+JPEG setting on a Sony camera.

Shooting both RAWs and JPEGs

So RAW files are the way to go, right? You’re preserving all that color data, not to mention the highlight and shadow detail. And you are in full control of the processing of your picture. That’s got to be worth it, right?

Generally, that’s true: RAW files are worth creating. But what about if you are not going to process your photos at all? Wouldn’t it make sense to then shoot in JPEG, since it is the file that looks best coming out of the camera? Or what if you need to share the photo right away, and you don’t have time to do any editing?

That’s why I encourage you to shoot both RAW and JPEG files! Your camera will likely have a setting allowing you to do both – so that every time you take a picture, the camera creates a RAW file and a JPEG. That would allow you to have all the advantages of both file types.

How might that benefit you? Here are the advantages to RAW+JPEG shooting:

  • You have a JPEG to use immediately. Let’s say you have wi-fi in your camera or want to quickly transfer your images to your computer and share the photo immediately. JPEGs make sense for this. RAW files don’t. They aren’t easily shareable, and they don’t look the best coming out of the camera, anyway.
  • It future-proofs the photo. What if you are creating RAW files with your Canon camera, but in 10 years, Canon goes out of business? Will your RAW files lose support over time? This seems unlikely, but it is enough of an issue that Adobe has been pushing its own cross-platform solution called DNG (digital negative). If you have a JPEG, this is much less likely to be an issue. While some cameras now offer the option to shoot in the HEIC format (which is similar to a JPEG but superior in terms of image quality), JPEGs are still far more popular and much better supported.
  • You can see how the camera processes the files. If you have a JPEG sitting next to your RAW file on your computer, you can see how your camera decided to process your photo. In other words, you can see how much sharpening, contrast, and saturation was added and, if you like it, mimic that effect when you do your own processing. This can be helpful when you are just starting out and trying to decide how much processing to add to your photos.
  • You get an accurate LCD preview. When you look at a photo on your LCD, you see the JPEG version of the shot, even if you’re actually photographing in RAW. You can add different processing effects via the Pictures Styles, including B&W, and you’ll see these regardless – but if you’re shooting in RAW, these effects will disappear when you import your files into a program such as Lightroom or Capture One. However, if you shoot both RAW and JPEG, your camera will produce JPEGs with the effects added, as well as RAWs without the effects. So if you want to see the effects while maintaining the integrity of the RAW file, then capturing both can be beneficial.

Why not shoot only RAW?

But wait a second, you might think. Surely these JPEG advantages are fairly minor, especially if you plan to edit your images regardless. Why bother with all that? Why not just shoot in RAW?

Yes, the JPEG advantages are minor, but at the same time, what is the cost? Virtually nothing. Over time, data has gotten cheaper and cheaper. Adding a JPEG costs virtually nothing. Memory cards these days hold hundreds or even thousands of pictures, and they are now pretty cheap. You can now get a 64 GB card for about $35. You can get hard drives that store terabytes of data for under $200. These prices continue to drop. Compared to RAW files, JPEGs take up a tiny amount of space. So while I agree that adding the JPEG doesn’t have a huge benefit for most shooters, it also doesn’t have much of a downside.

There is one other aspect I haven’t mentioned, however, and that is speed. Remember that your camera has to write all the data to your card. If you are taking a few pictures at a time (or one at a time), this will not be a factor. But if you are shooting sports or wildlife with a serious need for maximum frames per second, then there will be an additional cost. The time to write the additional file will slow you down a little bit. In that context, I could definitely imagine foregoing the extra file and choosing to only shoot in RAW. But for most of us, this won’t apply.

RAW+JPG - The Best of Both Worlds?
RAW files may not look quite as nice straight out of the camera, but after a bit of editing, they can look even better than JPEGs.

Why not shoot only JPEG?

At the same time, there are some photographers who will think to themselves, “Well, I don’t process my pictures, so I might as well just shoot JPEGs to get the best-looking file I can straight out of the camera.”

To those who don’t process their pictures, I would first say, “You definitely should do some processing!” You don’t need to make dramatic changes or make your images look surreal, but you can do wonders with some little tweaks.

In any case, just because you don’t do any processing of your pictures now doesn’t mean you won’t ever process your pictures. In a year or two, you might change your mind. When that happens, you don’t want to be kicking yourself for not having obtained the best files possible. No, you don’t need to shoot only in RAW – that would be inconvenient for someone who doesn’t plan to edit – but RAW+JPEG is an ideal approach.

RAW+JPEG is the best of both worlds!

I have been shooting RAW+JPEG for several years now. Do I actually use the JPEGs? Almost never. I always edit the RAW files and usually don’t touch the JPEGs.

As mentioned, however, the JPEGs don’t cost me anything, so I am sticking with this setting. Plus, there have been a few times when I was on the road and wanted to send photos straight from my camera, so having the JPEG on hand did turn out to be useful.

That’s how it works for me. But the decision on the type of files you want to create is up to you. So what do you think? Is shooting RAW+JPEG the best of both worlds? Or is it a waste of space? Let me know in the comments below!

The post Is Shooting RAW+JPEG the Best of Both Worlds? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Jim Hamel.

The post Is Shooting RAW+JPEG the Best of Both Worlds? appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Jim Hamel. For years, photographers have debated whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG. (Well, maybe “debate” is the wrong word. Usually, it’s a matter of more experienced photographers encouraging beginners to start shooting in…

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