Renowned photographer and author Michael Freeman provides the ultimate guide to file formats
Photography expert Michael Freeman pits RAW files against JPEGs, looking at the advantages and disadvantages of each…
These days, it’s the received wisdom that few dispute – shoot RAW for better image quality – but why and how tend to
be glossed over. If you’re aiming to get the best out of your images (and who isn’t?) it’s important to know exactly what a RAW file has to offer.
Here we’re going to take a look under the bonnet of the RAW format, and at the sequence of events that result in a viewable, and normallooking, photograph. This sequence takes place in the camera, and that’s where the answers to the RAW versus JPEG contest lie.
Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with JPEGs. They’re the way we see the majority of photographs these days (and your final image will probably be a JPEG), but a lot of stuff gets thrown away when creating a JPEG from the original data that is captured by your camera’s sensor. So the basic question is, do you want this to be thrown away by the camera in the heat of shooting? Or would you rather have some control over it later, with the better processing capabilities of a computer?
Do it yourself
If you retain the RAW file, then the key steps of demosaicing, correcting the colour and applying a human- eye-like gamma curve (see below) are all available to do later on your computer, with software like Lightroom, Photoshop or DxO Optics. They can do a better job than your camera, and more than that, they can recover tones that might otherwise be lost – as well as letting you set whatever white balance you like. This might not be obvious, because all in-camera processing software ‘hides’ the basic steps, so what comes out of the camera is a ‘normalised’ image.
With RAW files, highlights can be recovered, and midtones are much smoother
With JPEGs, detail in blown highlights can’t be recovered, and banding is an issue