RAW vs JPEG Revisited

raw histogram
For shots like this there's little reason these days to start with RAW

It’s good to revisit subjects in photography from time to time because this is one business that does not lend it’s well to dogma. When habits become entrenched, there’s sometimes a tendency to forget why we started doing something a certain way in the first place.

That’s my beef with photography instructors who think they have start off teaching black and white, because that’s how they learned photography. Most likely when they started, there weren’t a lot of options. Today black and white is a choice you can make at any time in the process of managing a photograph. There are even specialized filters that let you pick which type of black and white film you want to emulate in post.

So it’s good to remember why we do things, like shooting in RAW versus JPEG. Many old school photographers today are stuck on RAW because a few years ago JPEG compressions were not that good. They still insist RAW is better, even though the difference is sometimes hard to see.

A low JPEG compression ratio, like 2:1, is almost indistinguishable from the original RAW file. And camera firmware gets better all the time at doing post-processing image compression. The bulk of the image data that a JPEG conversion is throwing out, and really is data you don’t need, probably will never need.

Most of the work I deliver today started with a JPEG and, in spite of what I just said, I keep RAW copies of every image I’ve ever taken.

The reason is simple. The RAW file is exactly what the sensor reads, plus the header information. Every year image processing gets better and more sophisticated. I keep thinking the day will come that new ways of viewing image data will emerge that may utilize some or all of that discarded image data in ways we can’t even imagine right now.

Occasionally I start with the RAW image, but doing all of my post-processing in RAW, even for commercial work, would add time to my work flow without delivering a significant increase in quality.

Most of my shots are for journalism assignments, so ultra-fine color detail is not required. If you’re shooting fine commercial work, then starting with RAW might be necessary for many shots, but commercial clients are paying for that time.

Which ever way you decide to go, if you can, I’d still keep a RAW copy in the archives. Because those clever engineers are just liable to come up with something that will make you glad you did some day.