6.10 RAW Versus JPEG

Most serious bird photographers agree that shooting in RAW is far superior to shooting in JPEG.  Recall that RAW is the native file format used by the camera, while JPEG is a compressed format that contains far less information than RAW.  Different camera manufacturers have different proprietary RAW formats, though Photoshop plug-ins are available that allow direct loading of RAW images from all major brands.

Fig. 6.10.1 : One of my favorite wood duck images.  Although I now shoot
exclusively in RAW, I continually discover older images I’d taken in JPEG
that still impress me.  Though shooting in RAW is very highly recommended,
if you have to shoot in JPEG it’s not the end of the world.
(1/200 sec, f/10, ISO 640,
560mm, Av with -1.3 EC, TTL flash)

    Although RAW is undoubtedly superior to JPEG in terms of the amount of information that it retains (which can result in more detail, less noise, and better color in the final, processed image), there are a few good reasons to consider shooting in JPEG.  First, JPEG files typically take up far less memory than RAW files.  That obviously means that you can take more JPEG photos before filling up your memory card, or before filling up your hard drive at home. But it also means that your camera’s buffer should be able to fit more JPEG’s in it before filling up.  Recall that the buffer is necessary because photos can generally be taken faster than they can be written to the memory card.  The buffer thus allows you to take rapid sequences of photos (e.g., using continuous drive mode) without having to wait for each photo to be written to the card before the next photo can be taken.  However, if you fill up the buffer during shooting, then you will have to wait for it to empty (at least partially) before you can resume shooting.  This is actually a very common occurrence when shooting birds in flight in continuous drive mode when shooting RAW.  By switching to JPEG, you should be able to take longer runs of photos before filling the buffer, and for some cameras (and cards), it may be possible to continue shooting indefinitely (until the memory card is full).
    If you do shoot in JPEG, there are a number of additional settings that you’ll need to make in your camera before you begin shooting.  Since the process of making the JPEG file involves throwing away some information from the actual image captured by the camera, various processes such as sharpening and noise reduction are best performed at this time (during conversion to JPEG, inside the camera) rather than later during your normal postprocessing of the JPEG files.  Because the actual sharpening and noise-reduction algorithms used by a particular camera model may be unique to that model, you’ll need to experiment with different in-camera processing settings to find what works best for you.  For example, you may find that it’s best to apply only a small amount of sharpening in the camera, and then to apply more sharpening later in Photoshop.  Or you may find that the camera’s noise reduction algorithm is overly aggressive, and tends to remove too much detail in the image. 

Fig. 6.10.2 : Another of my favorite images shot in JPEG.
This image was shot on an 8 MP pro-sumer camera, in
JPEG, with a 400mm f/4 lens hand-held.  Far more luck
than skill was obviously involved in this particular case!
(1/6400, f/4, ISO 400, 400mm, Av with -1/3 EC)

    One other option that has recently emerged is sRAW, or small RAW.  This file format retains some of the advantages of RAW while resulting in much smaller file sizes.  For example, sRAW files are truly raw (like full RAW files) in the sense that they are not sharpened or subjected to noise reduction in the camera, thereby retaining full versatility for later processing of the information in the file.  Unfortunately, the sRAW files contain less information than full RAW files, and for this reason they do not appear to be at all popular among wildlife photographers.