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RAW vs. JPEG

A photo finish debate

One hallmark of a professional DSLR camera is the ability to capture RAW image files — that preserve every detail an imaging sensor is capable of gathering the moment a photograph is taken. Yet working professionals wielding the latest and greatest in megapixel-magnums still choose to throttle back to the more common image format know as JPEG, which slims down data-size of each photo by half or more, but in doing so, slims down image details and processing options. Here are two takes about why two pros choose one format over another.
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BY PAUL QUENEAU

Job: Magazine editor, writer and nature photographer

Top choice: RAW

Santa Claus can testify to my appetite for RAW, for every Christmas I ask him for a larger hard drive. Yet these fat files are worth it to me even when I get home with 1,000 or more frames to process. I use Adobe Lightroom to make it easier, a program built from the ground up to make the most of RAW. Noise reduction, white-balance correction — you name it — all perform best when applied to images unsullied by compression. And RAW images hold more texture data, especially inside the shadows and highlights. I’m no proponent of HDR processing, but I do find it useful to bring up shadows and dampen the blown out areas in certain instances.

But the truest satisfaction comes the moment I view a RAW file at 100 percent and see every detail my lenses are able to yield. I don’t want those eyelashes squandered to save hard drive space. When I see details smeared, I often find it was because I’d accidentally (or intentionally) started shooting JPEGs, even at the highest quality setting. The new Canon 7D Mark II is said to have cleaner JPEG output, which might change my tune, but there is a peace of mind in having the best possible quality and flexibility that comes with RAW.

It’s true that RAW are more time-intensive to work with and demand a speedy computer, but I’ve learned a few tricks to help keep them manageable. The first is to convert to DNG, Adobe’s digital negative format, the moment I pull shots into Adobe Lightroom. This cuts three to five megabytes off each file without any loss in quality, and for the sake of posterity, I figure DNG will be more compatible 10 years from now than Canon’s camera-specific CR2 raw files.

My second trick is having Lightroom create “smart previews” of each image it imports. This allows me to browse and process images without actually having the hard drive with my master files attached, and it lets me sift images at a gallop. These previews are just large to allow me to weed out all the slightly blurred and otherwise junk images, and still export JEPGs up to 2560×1707 pixels at any time, again without the master attached.

Be forewarned though, that converting to DNG and creating smart previews can be a lengthy process, so it’s not a good option when you need to deliver images in a hurry. RAW files also force me to carry a larger compact flash than I might otherwise need (32GB), one that is UDMA-certified to assure it can keep up with the rate my camera can dish RAW files out. I only recall a handful of times where I actually noticed my 7D buffering even after a long burst, and then only for a second or two.

So maybe I’m a pixel snob, but to me, the satisfaction of the total clarity and added malleability is worth the extra trouble and heft of RAW. ♦

—Paul Queneau is the editor for Bugle magazine at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Missoula, Montana. He is also a freelance writer and photographer with credits in Outdoor Life, Montana Quarterly and other publications.
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