Shooting in RAW or JPG has specific differences and I address the pros and cons to each format in this tutorial. By now you should have some photographs you have taken that you are quite proud of. Processing your digital photographs can create a stunning image as well as looking more professional.
The masters like Andel Adams also adjusted their photographs for exposure, contrast, softness, sharpness, color, saturation, dodging (lightening areas) and burning (darkening areas). Many of the techniques you use in the digital darkroom were once used in the film darkroom.
The RAW File Format
To get the most out of your photographs I strongly recommend you shoot in-camera RAW. In your DSLR camera menu settings, there is a place to change your image quality and size. The default on many cameras will be set to JPG.
Within the Image Quality setting in your camera menu, you can choose from RAW, JPG and various sizes of JPG files.
What is a RAW file? Why Not Just Shoot JPG?
A RAW file in many ways is thought of as a digital negative. It retains all the information but is yet unprocessed just like film that still needed to be processed. There is a wider range of color, color intensity, dynamic range with very minimal processing in-camera. These are larger files because they are uncompressed, meaning all the image data is available in that RAW file.
In contrast, a JPEG file, which many people are familiar with from sharing their photos on Social Media (0001.jpg), is similar to the Polaroid Instamatic. This camera used a sensitized specialty film pack, and within minutes the photo was developed in your hand within a few minutes. A JPG file behaves similarly in that it is intended to be the finished product. Whatever settings you had and the camera decided on are already baked into your image.
This can make it more difficult to do some post-processing task with a JPG file. First, the file has been compressed (lossy compression), unlike your RAW file. This means it reduces the file size at the expense of deleting some image data. It’s not noticeable when you look at the image.
If you were to edit it though and save it again as a JPEG, it would be compressed again which will eventually start to degrade the image quality (destructive). A RAW file, on the other hand, is edited nondestructively! This is a key difference in the two file formats.
RAW File Extensions
A file extension is the last part of a digital file separated by a period. Examples would be mypaper.doc (Word Document) or reader.pdf (PDF files).
For digital images from your camera in RAW file format the extension depends on the manufacturer of the camera. For example, Nikon uses Nikon Electronic Format (NEF) and its RAW file extension will appear as image.NEF.
To find your RAW file extension for your particular camera model follow this link.
Knowing how to recognize your RAW file is very important as this is the file you are going to open in your RAW editor.
There are numerous software programs for Mac and PC that can handle your RAW file for editing. The most popular are Adobe Lightroom and Capture One. Adobe Lightroom is a subscription offered through Adobe.com while Capture One you purchase a license for use.
There are several free programs but I recommend Darktable which is available as an open-source for Windows or Mac. Open source is different than other software as the code is available to programmers. This has no effect on the quality of the software for the end-user, like you or I. In fact, it helps make the software better over time.
Darktable RAW Editor
One of the many reasons I favor Darktable as a RAW editor is because the interface is similar to Lightroom and other editors. Second, there are language-specific manuals you can either view on the web or download as a PDF book. Not only that if you learn by hearing and seeing there are entire video series you can watch to learn how to use the software.
These links will get you started;
Darktable Video Tutorials 1-45 by Bruce Williams Photography
Darktable Techniques 1-18 by Robert Hutton
Other RAW Editors
It’s worth checking if you have a disc when you purchased your camera that may have a manufacturer-specific RAW editor. Nikon and Canon have their own RAW editors.
Nikon users can find the software here.
Canon users can find the software here.
**Although some camera manufacturers have their own RAW editors, doesn’t mean you can’t use one of the many other’s available. Try a few and see which you like better, and meets your budget. Many RAW editors will give you a free trial period to decide if you like it.
The JPG File Format
This type of file is still quite useful and can generate some beautiful images. I would submit that there are a majority of shutterbugs that set their camera to the JPG file format.
As mentioned above, the file size is smaller, which makes it more manageable and will take up less disc space.
**At this point I recommend a backup device like an external drive to store your photographs on in case your PC/Mac hard drive crashes.
You can still post-process these files in a RAW editor like Darktable. In fact, I think this software actually does a better job than more expensive RAW editors. You can still tweak the exposure, highlights, shadows, sharpen and add more color or vibrancy to your jpg image.
The key thing to remember is the changes you are making are destructive because as you save it again after post-processing it will be compressed. After a single edit of your JPG image in a RAW editor is unlikely to produce any significant degradation that you will see. But, if you decided to make changes to that edited file, and another edit of that file, it will eventually degrade the quality of your photograph significantly.
A better way to work with a JPG file is to make sure to always make a copy and work with that, saving your original as the master. Rather than reworking the copy, start fresh with another copy.
Why Shoot in JPG?
This is a decision you need to make. Some people do not have a computer they can use a RAW editor on, so it makes it a default choice (that’s not a bad thing). Or you may find the editing process cumbersome.
Ideal times to shoot JPG are family gatherings, parties, and candid shots.
My recommendation if you are going to shoot JPG and you want prints or the best quality possible is to go into the camera settings. Where you select RAW it allows you to choose from a variety of default JPG settings.
What you will be looking for in these settings is the size of the image, usually Large, Medium, or Small. Select JPG L or Large.
Next, you want to choose “FINE” for image quality. Sony may have an option for Extra-Fine and I would select that one.
Nikon users follow this link for details on setting your camera for JPG.
Canon users follow this link for details on setting your camera for JPG.
Sony users follow this link for details on setting your camera for JPG.
Consider shooting in RAW and exporting your images to a RAW editor. Yes, there is a learning curve with the software you choose, but the rewards are well worth it. There is so much flexibility working with a RAW file!
Don’t dismiss the JPG file. This will appeal to some people for various reasons, and some of the best photographs I have seen were shot as a JPG. Just remember to consider the size and detail you choose for possible prints or the very best quality image. Always store your master JPG file separate and work with copies.
Give it a try. Look at the manual and videos for Darktable. I’ve used it and it will do everything you would want to do; adjust highlights and shadows, sharpen, correct white balance, correct exposure and a whole lot more. And, it’s free!
In the next installment, I will submit a workflow to help you get started with post-processing your photos. This will tie in nicely to this tutorial. See you then and as always happy shooting!