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JPEG vs. RAW--the Debate Rages On

Published: 15/05/2019

Robert from Alabama writes:

I'm relatively new to photography in general but the real estate side of things is really starting to pick up. I find myself shooting 4-6 homes per day and it's starting to take a toll on my storage devices.  Do I really need to shoot RAW or will JPEG suffice?

If you've ever googled the topic "RAW vs JPEG," you'll see that there are only 39,900,000 results!  It's obviously a hot topic. Robert's question has given me the perfect excuse to share an in depth article that long time PFRE member/contributor John McBay has written. In this article, John covers pretty much everything you need to know when discussing the topic of RAW vs JPEG.

A quick word from John:

Like most things in photography (and in life), the choice to shoot RAW images or JPEG images depends on a number of different factors. In this discussion, I will describe and elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of each and the reasons why you might want to shoot one versus the other. While this discussion, by necessity, delves into certain technical issues, I will attempt to keep it from disappearing down a black hole of details. I have greatly simplified the more technical stuff wherever possible.

Learn how to convert RAW into JPG in Lightroom here.

Brandon Cooper

10 comments on “JPEG vs. RAW--the Debate Rages On”

  1. I shoot RAW always, with a jpg back up. If you have a storage issue, you could manage it as I do and empty out my RAW files every 30 days after delivering to client. Any changes are normally requested and finalised by then. I just archive the final processed files and that keeps the storage requirements down. You could back up to medium jpg too if you like and keep those for safety.

  2. You can get away with jpeg images if you get the images just right in camera. News agencies such as Reuters require that images are shot in jpeg (they will take conversions from RAW if it's something like a spacecraft accident). What you are doing is saving the purchase of a $70 hard drive in compromise. You are also using the camera body you spent a pile of money on in it's least quality configuration. I'll agree that the bulk of my work isn't being blow up and I'm not pushing the exposures very hard in post production. The problem is that I don't get advance notice of when a customer is going to want an image at maximum resolution for a poster sized print or that I discover that I need to push an image to an extreme in editing.

    The best way to keep from filling up drives is to consider each exposure as you make them and to know what compositions you are going to make before you make them. Ideally, you get back to the office with the exact number of images on the card that you will use. In practice, I tend to have a few more that I made as I set up flashes and a few extra ambient frames to give me some choices in editing. I very rarely come back with compositions I don't end up delivering.

    Storage is cheap. A 3TB drive is around US$70. If you have the time (and I don't see how with 4-6 jobs/day), you can delete images you don't use in post and to deliver as you go. I do that sometimes as I move things to archive drives if I'm trying to squeeze a bunch of jobs to fit on one drive. Mostly it isn't worth spending the time to do.

    If the rationale changes from drive space to workflow time, it would be worth considering a camera body with a lower pixel count. With some bodies at 36mp and beyond, cpu time can be a factor if you don't need that resolution, but it's silly to move from RAW to jpeg and throw away all of what you paid for in that camera. It would be cheaper to buy a much faster computer and some big SSDs.

    jpeg is handy when you are making images for something like eBay auctions or you need a deep buffer capacity when shooting action images in high speed drive mode. They are also handy when you are shooting RAW+Jpeg as a way to hand over a set of images that anybody can open or to use for making rapid selects when you'll go back to the RAW files for "real" editing.

    As my final reason for shooting in RAW. You can do multiple edits and output a variety of resolutions without piling on generational noise each time you edit or save the file. RAW workflow is non-destructive. You always have the original image to go back to.

  3. "The cheap comes out expensive" Sure, you could save a couple of dollars on hard drives by shooting jpg, but then THERE WILL be a time that cutting corners cost you.
    Back in the film days, clients would ask why we used Hassleblads instead of 35mm cameras. We would show them the difference in negative size and what that would mean to them and their images when processed....they appreciated the extra step we took.

    Bottom line, hard drives have never been cheaper. If you have an issue with that, then something bigger is the problem

  4. As an editor, I prefer to edit raw files. Jpegs tend to lose some details in colors and exposures when adjusting in Lightroom and Camera Raw. But if you're using minimal adjustments. Jpeg is the best choice. Faster to edit and lighter in size.

  5. With a RAW file,you can adjust white balance in post production as if it were in camera. RAW files also hold at least a couple of stops of data if you need to correct an image.

    That alone are reasons enough for me to shoot RAW. However, I shoot HDR, and the HDR software that I use (Photomatix) seems to handle Jpeg better, and I need to reduce file size for the Realtors, anyway.

    So I shoot RAW, make adjustments, and convert them to jpeg before an HDR conversion.

    With the advent of cloud storage, and super cheap SD cards, I can''t imagine not shooting in RAW. I built my last computer with a 512 MB Samsung internal Solid State Drive stick, and I think I paid $500. That same one is now on Newegg for $159.

  6. One other issue to be aware of...the first step in post is typically running lens correction. All profiles are written for RAW. Most of the time Lightroom can’t even identify the camera or have the lens listed if in jpg. Technically you can create a specific profile in Adobe Labs (if Adobe still offers it) but after taking the various test shots you will understand why RAW and jpg profiles are not interchangeable.

  7. Lowering quality is not an option I’d consider. That 4 – 6 number could easily change to 2 – 3, or worse. I recently faced the ‘storage’ problem myself and went with a Synology NAS. I went overboard choosing a unit that will hold 6 drives. It’s currently populated with 5. I use it not only for business but all my personal photography and files as well. It also handles automatic backup for both my desktop and laptop. Bonus features include, remotely accessing ALL of my files, an option to deliver pictures, the ability for people with ‘permission’ to upload files, redundancy (lose a drive or two, no problem), ability to display pictures or slide shows, and the list goes on. Good business equipment isn’t cheap. Only you can decide if your business is worth the investment. For me, it’s just one of the many things that separate me from soccer moms “doing it on the side”.

  8. I think the choice is connected to your business model. If you are shooting fast and dirty, just cranking things out where speed and volume is the most important consideration, then go for the JPEG option. But as others have mentioned, storage is very cheap these days.

    If quality is the most important factor, then there is no choice, you have to go with the format that holds the most information so you have the best chance of making the changes to maximize the quality and that is RAW.

    After a year, I dump the RAW files, just keeping the adjusted PSD files and the FINAL images as PSDs. If for some very rare occasion someone needs photos after a year, I can easily output JPEGs either high or low res for them from the stored PSDs.

    Same with video which is a recent addition for me. When I edit, I copy the original files into FinalCutProX. Then after a while I can just dump the RAW files after about 6 months. I hold onto them since I don't import all the RAW files into FCPX, just those I intend to use or choose from for the video. But I keep FCPX files for about a year.

    But since I use some of my photo shoot images to update my website, I do hold onto the best ones for that purpose. If you use for property sites, they never erase the property sites so that can also serve as a photo/video storage system.

  9. Shoot for your business model. Raw takes up more space, but you have more options when editing.

    Here is a cool thing about digital cameras, you can switch between RAW and jpg at any point in the shoot.

    Also, to save some space when shooting RAW, have Bridge convert the files over to DNG when downloading from the camera card. All the advantages of RAW, but a smaller file size and more compatible with different software.

  10. Just to throw a little wrench in all the storage/cost discussion:

    I routinely delete my RAW files after a few months for 90% of the properties I shoot. Edited files I always keep forever, but RAW files of some vacant 1,500 SF ranch that sold months ago I don't see the need to keep.

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