This is probably a question that is trivial to some photographers more than others. It can sometimes be framed in such a way as to what the benefits are for choosing one over the other. There is a major consensus among professional photographers though, that I have also been taught based on my experience. Most photographers will prefer to shoot in RAW, because that is the best way to preserve details and allow for non-destructive editing during post. However, I have also met photographers who will shoot in fine JPEG because it suits their workflow much better. I used to think about who is right and who is wrong. Nowadays, I don’t view it that way anymore.
JPEG, A De Facto Image Format
JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) is a lossy compression format for images with the .jpeg file extension. It uses compression techniques to minimize the file size, but as a result the quality suffers. Users can alter the JPEG level of compression using image editing software, but most do not need to do this. JPEG is also a common format that is popular for uploading photos to the web. Since it is a compressed file, the size is smaller and is beneficial for faster uploads/downloads over slow Internet connections. Things are different now with Internet speeds approaching gigabit territory, but for the most part images are still using JPEG since it is strongly supported by web browsers and other applications.
One good thing about shooting in JPEG is its universal appeal. You can open it up in web browsers and editing software. Most images in photo sharing sites also support JPEG format. Commercial quality image formats do not use JPEG for the most part, unless it is for web content. Higher resolution quality images use a lossless compression technique which preserves more quality. TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) is used among artists who work in graphics and the digital publishing industry. However, these formats take up more storage space because the file contains more details, so they are larger sized files. RAW is another example of this type of format.
When you shoot in JPEG, you can store more images in your SD or storage card in your DSLR camera. Some camera models allow you to determine the type of JPEG quality, from higher quality (Fine JPEG) to lower quality (Basic JPEG). These quality settings (which differ from each camera brand) correspond to compression ratios. The more compression on an image, the lower the quality.
Note: This does not affect image resolution, it affects image quality.
Learn To Shoot RAW
For amateur (as opposed to beginner) photographers it becomes inevitable to shoot in RAW. This is done by changing the default format for file images to RAW from JPEG in the DSLR camera’s settings. Beginners tend to use the default settings on their DSLR camera, and they learn about image formats later on. This is because beginners are more focused on learning how to create images and applying the exposure triangle through practice.
RAW file formats also differ in file extension since it depends on the camera’s manufacturer. For Nikon it is .nef, Canon uses two types which are .crw and .cr2, Fuji uses .raf and Sony uses .arw among others. RAW files are uncompressed, so they are much larger in size to JPEG. RAW files contain more information that allows retouchers to post process images to reclaim details without actual modification of the original.
When to use RAW or JPEG
The reason I don’t view it as “right” or “wrong” when using one or the other is due to their purpose. If you want to do more post processing on an image, you will need to shoot in RAW format. This is what both amateur and professional photographers use so they can edit or retouch their images after the photoshoot. In the post production workflow, the camera RAW format is imported to an image editing software like Adobe’s LR (Lightroom). In LR, the photographer can apply settings using what are called presets to further process the RAW image. They edit the image non-destructively and export it into a more popular format like JPEG for uploading a smaller sized version, but still high quality image to the web.
The typical beginner will most often shoot JPEG because it is the default on DSLR cameras and even on smartphone cameras. It is fast and easy to copy from the camera to the computer, requiring no editing software. The images, once transferred to the computer, can then be uploaded. In the case of smartphone cameras, the image can be uploaded immediately. It is easy to explain why beginners would start out shooting only JPEG, but how do you explain professional or experienced photographers who shoot JPEG as well?
Ken Rockwell has become a popular photographer through posting stunning photos on the web. He is also a veteran and experienced photographer who shoots primarily in film on legacy cameras and JPEG on DSLR cameras. Why even bother to shoot in JPEG when many are also criticizing Ken for that particular reason? It seems to me Ken is a master of his craft. If you can get a good exposure of what you want to capture, why even bother to shoot RAW? That is what Ken does because he is able to get the exposure settings he wants to create the image. He is also shooting in JPEG because he does not require to do any editing in post. This in itself is a skill that perhaps not everybody possesses. It takes plenty of practice and a lot of patience to achieve. Photographers who I have met who shoot JPEG have also had intensive experience as film photographers. Thus, when they shoot JPEG, it is to them like shooting film and they know exactly what setting on camera and lighting situation will produce their image.
Sports photographers, who shoot with older DSLR, also preferred to shoot in JPEG. This is because RAW takes longer for the camera to process and this means photographers will not be able to shoot a burst of frames to capture the action. That is the difference between capturing the photo of the year or a blurry image. With more recent advancements in camera technology, this may no longer be the case. For the longest time shooting JPEG for fast action and motion stills was the norm.
At event shoots, it becomes a matter of how much post processing you want to do. If you need to provide the photos immediately, then shoot JPEG. When I shot nightlife before in Orange County and LA, I always used Fine JPEG as the image quality on a Nikon DSLR camera. The event organizer would want the photos at the end of the event so they can upload it the next day. This does not require any retouching at all, so it was simply uploading to the cloud or handing over the SD card.
For more commercial type work, like catalogs and e-commerce, I would recommend RAW because it does require retouching. That means adjusting the color, brightness, contrast and image resolution. Retouchers also need to edit things to make the image appear at its best since this is used for either advertising or marketing. Wedding photographers use both JPEG and RAW in their workflow. JPEG for shooting the crowd and reception, but for more intimate photos between the spouses, using RAW is ideal because the image can be retouched later to get the most details.
Shooting RAW may also be ideal if the White Balance (WB) is too tricky to determine. There are times when the colors seem off, even though the camera is set to a particular temperature. Some photographers put their camera setting to Auto WB, but this can still be tricky especially when there is overcast. The best way to deal with colors is in post so RAW preserves the details in the best way possible. If the photographer shoots JPEG, they can still use editing software like Photoshop, but less details can be recovered or enhanced compared to RAW.
Before we judge people like Ken Rockwell, we have to look at their work and experience. He is actually legit when it comes to photography. He has an engineering background, so he understands how cameras work and the science behind optical imaging. His work is in digital imaging in the broadcast industry and he even holds a couple of US patents to add to his credits. Despite all this, he shoots JPEG and he is not ignorant about RAW. In fact he explains it in this article he wrote from his website.
There is really no right or wrong, both are acceptable. It just boils down to which format is more appropriate for the type of photoshoot and the skill level of the photographer. For more detail oriented photos, shooting in RAW is ideal because of the post processing required. It eventually ends up as JPEG when exported to be uploaded to the web (you cannot upload RAW file formats to display on web browsers). Many professional photographers do shoot in RAW because their work requires post processing high quality images for print, commercials or publications. Another thing to note is that JPEG is not often used for print work since it is too lossy. Printers output lossless file (TIFF, etc.) formats with the best results.
For most daily shoots, for content creatives, JPEG will do because it is fast and simple. Some photographers will even shoot RAW for simple images just because they want to work with it more in post. Other photographers will shoot amazing images in JPEG because they are confident in the result without the need for post. In the end it is a matter of choice, so make the best of the decision when it comes to RAW or JPEG.