RAW Versus JPEG Exposure | What's Right For You?

The spectacular Gásadular Waterfall on the edges of the sea on the island of Vágar on the Faroe Islands.

I’ve long been an exponent of RAW exposure and processing. But that doesn’t mean I recommend it to everyone. Quite the reverse!

While RAW is the best option for those prepared to process their image files on the desktop, it’s not for everyone. The whole problem with the RAW vs JPEG discussion is the notion of best, which should probably be replaced with the term most appropriate. So, regardless of what’s theoretically best, what matters to most folk is what is the most appropriate way to expose, process and store their files.

If photography for you is about being out and about and recording the world around you, and the notion of spending significant periods of time processing those photos on your computer is unappealing, then JPEG is for you.

A stormy sky over Tórshavn Cathedral in the Faroe Islands.

The Making Of A JPEG Image In Camera

Do you remember back to the days of film based photography? While it was possible to process your own photos in the darkroom, the vast majority of photographers left that up to photo labs bearing the name Kodak, Fuji or Agfa. Well, by setting your camera to JPEG you’re doing a similar thing. The original RAW data recorded by the camera at the moment of exposure is processed, in camera, to produce a result with which most folk are usually happy. All the more so if Little Johnny is smiling.

Setting your camera to JPEG enables the camera to both record and process your photos. Incidentally, JPEG is an acronym for the Joint Photographic Experts Group. Sounds like a bunch of blokes to me!

Why RAW Exposure and Processing Is Right For Me

Because I come from a darkroom background, including days as a newspaper photographer and nine years studying photography at a tertiary level, the idea of being able to process my RAW files to better render the subjects and scenes photographed in line with my own, individual aesthetic was appealing.

What’s more the notion of spending more time on the computer than in the field was acceptable as it was akin to the kind of commitment I was used to from my darkroom days. Not my preference, but a compromise I was prepared to make in the name of image quality.

Small boats and yachts moored in the harbour on the island of Nólsoy in the Faroe Islands.

JPEG Is Efficient

Like most other things in photography your choice to be a RAW or JPEG photographer will involve compromise. JPEG is an efficient format. The camera processes the file, in an instant, for you. It’s then compressed which allows for greater storage capacity on your camera’s memory card and, later, on your computer or external hard drive.

You can, of course, choose to further process the JPEG file yourself, at a later stage. But you’ll be working with a JPEG file and it’s important to understand that that file will be far less responsive to adjustments in color temperature compared to an original and appropriately exposed RAW version of that same image. But you’ll have more hours in the day available to you.

So, what’s the best option for you and your very own, individual circumstances?

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru