Ye Olde RAW vs. JPEG Debate

Editor's Note: This article represents the opinion of Suzanne Williams, a Florida-based photographer.

This topic has been hashed, rehashed, and hash-browned time and again, yet the question still remains. Should you use RAW or not? I have never weighed in on the debate until now, mostly because I didn't have a choice in the matter. My camera didn't take RAW photos. But also because having not used RAW, I didn't have enough information or experience to form an opinion.

However, in recent weeks a theory has formed in my brain, which I believe to be fair-minded on the issue, so let's ask the question again. Should you use RAW or not? Well, it depends. So okay, I am being wishy-washy. I will attempt to explain. There ARE a number of reasons NOT to use RAW.
  • Your camera doesn't take RAW photographs.
  • The photographs you are taking aren't that important.
  • You don't have the hard drive space to store them.
  • Your computer lays an egg every time you open one.
  • You don't have the right software to work with RAW files.

The first reason is the most obvious. If your camera does not make RAW photographs, then duh, you can't take them. Put down the baseball bat and stop beating yourself up. It's perfectly okay to take JPEG photographs. I did for many years and was as happy as could be.

The second reason though requires you to ask yourself about the purpose of your images. If you are simply photographing the aunts and uncles at the family reunion, you probably don't need RAW. If you're on vacation and your son wants to pose by the lake, you probably don't need RAW. If the photographs you are taking don't serve any particular purpose and will not be sold or printed, then JPEG is fine.

The last three reasons to avoid RAW have a similar issue - your computer. So the beast is old, doesn't have much RAM, and has an itty, bitty hard drive, probably you should wait on using RAW until you have a computer large and fast enough to handle them. Perhaps you don't have the money for Lightroom or Photoshop. Photography ceases to be fun when you are pulling your hair out afterward. The fact remains, RAW files are huge. A large hard drive (whether internal or external) is a must. A DVD burner is a must. Stick with JPEG if your computer is over-the-hill. Stick with JPEG if you haven't any idea how to edit a RAW file. It'll be okay.

I have one more reason to stick with JPEG, and this is the one I employ the most - BECAUSE I WANT TO. That's right, folks. Often, I just want to use JPEG. I have the hard drive space, my computer can handle it, I have software to work with the files. Yet a lot of the time, I just don't want to bother working with RAW files. This goes back to the "am I have fun or not" question. Two hundred and fifty RAW files stress me out. One or two does not, so I stick with JPEG most of the time. I have yet to have one person say, "Why did you use JPEG on this shot?"

In fact, it's been quite the opposite. Remember that stock photography site I signed up for? Right. Well, I sent them three files: two taken in RAW and one taken last year as a JPEG. Guess what photos they rejected and what photo they accepted. Yep. I had a good laugh after that because it only proved what I preach all the time. It's not the camera; it's the photographer.

So given all of the above reasons, why use RAW at all? Well, there are a number of excellent reasons.
  • Someone is paying you to photograph his or her family event.
  • You plan to sell your work professionally.
  • You love Lightroom or another piece of software for editing RAW files.
  • The object you are photographing has either weird lighting or a strange color.

The first two reasons are the major ones. If you agree to photograph someone's wedding, then use RAW. If you are going to sell your work to a media outlet, then use RAW. RAW allows for so much more correction afterward than does JPEG. If your work involves other people's money, RAW is a better format to use. Never play around with people's money.

The third reason is strictly your own personal taste. There are people out there who love RAW. They have no other reason for using it than pure adoration. There are other people addicted to Lightroom. This is totally fine. If you prefer it, then go for it, but don't press it down on the rest of us.

All of that said, the last reason is really the one I wrote this article for. I recently started using RAW under certain circumstances. Whenever the object in the photograph, the pansies and verbena posted above, for instance, is of a coloration that JPEG does not capture well, then RAW will save you a headache. If the lighting is harsh and I am unsure how it will render, then often I'll use RAW. There are ways to edit color and lighting in a JPEG photo, yes. However, there are more ways to edit color and lighting in a RAW photograph. Knowing this helps me make a choice.

The ability to use RAW files is another weapon in my decision-making now. I've added it to my questions on composition, clarity, and focus, and it has saved me several times. Yet I give RAW its proper place, and don't allow it to increase any stress while I work. For that, in the end, is more important to me. I want to enjoy photography, so I center what I do around that premise at all times.