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Image types explained

Image types explained - What are JPEG and RAW files?

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General Photography

Is RAW the  format for you?
When you first start out with your camera you'll probably shoot in the JPEG format we've all come to know but some cameras (DSLR, Bridge and some top-end compacts) also have another option called RAW.

RAW files are effectively what it says on the tin. They're 'raw' files, similar to that of a negative in film photography: it features all the information straight from the sensor and hasn't been processed. 
It's a bit like someone archiving whole newspapers  and magazines from years and years ago just in case they'll need the information later on whereas JPEG files are like someone who only cuts out and keeps the important stories and takes the rest to be recycled.

If you shoot in RAW the processing happens in the computer rather than in the camera but there are some cameras that can RAW process. The beauty of a RAW file is you'll always have the original data to go back to; which means if you find yourself needing gallery sized prints you can go back to the RAW file. RAW files may give you more flexibility but they are larger, so take up more space and often take longer to write to card. They also need converting, which can take some time, but if quality of the image is important to you and you want use every bit of performance your camera has to offer, you should try shooting in RAW.

Depending on what camera you're using changes the name of your RAW files. Nikon use NEF, Pentax have PEF files and Canon's are CR2 but they're still all RAW files. There's also Adobe DNG files which is an open standard RAW image format designed by Adobe. A few camera manufacturers (Leica, Pentax and Samsung) offer this format but like all the other RAW formats they need to be converted in RAW conversion software.

JPEGs are smaller files that are compressed so details which matter the most are kept while other details are discarded. JPEGs also incorporate any image modifications you may have set in-camera. For example, you may have increased colour saturation or took a shot in monochrome. You should remember if you have done this, you can't change your mind later. So if you've taken a shot as a JPEG in monochrome you can't later get a colour image. With RAW, that's not the case.

You can also save a JPEG at various quality levels (both in the camera and during post production) but again, the lower you get the more detail you lose (see image examples). The quality of a JPEG file taken with a DSLR can be a lot better than that from a compact and some professionals simply don't have the time for converting RAW files so will shoot in JPEG format instead.

As we said, you can save a JPEG at various quality levels. Here are a few examples to show you how this can change an image:

You can view the original RAW file in ePHOTOzine's downloads section.
JPEG quality 70 JPEG quality 30
JPEG saved with quality at 100%. (Converted in Adobe Camera RAW to JPEG and saved at maximum quality.)
JPEG saved with quality at 70%.
JPEG quality 5
JPEG saved with quality at 50%. JPEG saved with quality at 30%.
portrait saved at 10% quality JPEG saved with quality at 5%.
JPEG saved with quality at 10%. JPEG saved with quality at 5%.
Close up of JPEG saved at 10% Close-up of portrait saved at 100%
10% quality close-up.
100% quality close-up.

Which file format should you use? Well that depends on what you're going to be using your files for. Are you using them online, in magazines or as prints? Do you have plenty of storage space? And how do you feel about spending time on converting files?

If you're going to be using your images for prints and/or exhibitions then image quality is of the uptmost importance and having a RAW file to go back to is a good idea. But if you're only using your images for online publication, quality isn't as important and a JPEG file will be sufficient. However, if you don't know what you'll be using your images for in the future, keeping the RAW files and converting and saving JPEG copies when needed is a good idea. Alternatively, some cameras allow you to record in RAW and JPEG at the same time.

RAW files take up more space both in the camera and on the computer so plenty of memory/room is vital. RAW files wont open in editing unless they are RAW compatible and you need to use a converter - often one is supplied with the camera. This lets you make adjustments to the image before it's converted into a JPEG/TIFF file for storage etc. If you have hundreds of images it can be quite time consuming and depending on your technical abilities, may not be simple to do. However, knowing you'll always have a RAW file available to you may bring peace of mind.

RAW and JPEG pros and cons:

Pro: Control, i.e. white balance is not set
Pro: Versatility, i.e. exposure
Pro: Ultimate resolution
Pro: Lossless format (no information lost in processing)

Con: Fewer pictures per Mb
Con: Needs 'developing' in dedicated software. Some cameras (Nikon D90) have built-in RAW processing
Con: Slower

Pro: Good enough for most purposes
Pro: More pictures per MB
Pro: Small enough to transmit/e-mail
Pro: Faster
Pro: Can be printed without any processing

Con: You have to get it right
Con: Quality can be much lower than RAW in some cameras

We hope you enjoyed and learned a few things with this article from the ePHOTOzine Academy Series. This is just one part of a 13 part series - to view others follow the links below:
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ziggy 15 194 England
7 Dec 2009 7:51AM
Loss of detail in jpg images is more obvious in larger plain areas, rather than high detail like the eyes and hair; see the 5% image on the jaw line down towards the lips. Is it possible to show this part magnified? However it is interesting to see how good the 10% image as a small thumbnail for transmission over the internet

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