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Workflow - Raw versus JPEG

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 01-29-2011

emonstration of posterization (color banding)

Demonstration of posterization (color banding)

Let's briefly discuss why as a nature photographer you want to shoot in a raw format versus shooting in a JPEG format.

Raw files

Shooting in your camera's raw format allows you to work with 100% of the data that was captured by the sensor. Raw images let you edit non-destructively using Adobe's Camera Raw application. Characteristics such as white balance, saturation, contrast, and sharpening, are captured as additional information (metadata) and do not change the original image data that was recorded. The only camera settings that have an effect on the actual image data recorded are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Raw files typically have a bit depth of 12- 14 bits which equates to over 68 billion colors. Raw files give you much more flexibility during the editing process.

The disadvantage of shooting in the raw format is that you'll need some kind of specialized software to view a representation of the data. Most digital SLRs manufacturers include software to view and convert their proprietary raw files. Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, and Apple's Aperture software also let you view, manipulate, and convert raw file data into other formats like JPEGs. Raw files are typically larger than JPEGs so they take up more disk space. Also note that the length of a burst capture is usually longer with JPEGS since they take less space in the camera's buffer, allowing you to take more shots during the burst before the buffer fills up.

JPEG files

In contrast to shooting in the raw format, shooting in the JPEG format discards much information that the sensor is actually capable of capturing. Also characteristics such as white balance, saturation, contrast, sharpening, and color space are "burned" into your image data providing less latitude for image editing. If you shoot in the JPEG format, you better make sure these settings are correct. In addition, the JPEG format (.jpg) uses lossy compression. Each time a JPEG is saved, data is lost. In fact there is a loss of data at the initial capture if you have your camera set to record in JPEG. When you record in JPEG format you are capturing files with a bit depth of 8 bits or 16 million colors. Since there are less colors in a JPEG, transitions between them may not be smooth and could result in banding (posterization) during editing.

On the flip side, the main advantage of JPEGS is that the format is recognized by most computer operating systems. Anyone who has a computer can view them without any additional conversion work. JPEGs generally take less disk space.


Bit Depth



8 bits

16.8 million


12 - 14 bits

68.7 billion - 4.4 trillion


16 bits

281 trillion

The following pdf by the late Bruce Fraser on the Adobe website explains digital capture and has a good explanation of JPEG versus Raw files near the end of the article... Digital Capture by Bruce Fraser

Given the above information, the very first step in your digital workflow for nature photography should be capturing your images in a raw file format. You want to work with the most and best data available.

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