Why the RAW vs JPG Debacle no longer makes sense

nikon-d7000-vs-canon-60dSince about, oh, the dawn of digital imagery, Camera manufacturers have been searching for more space to store larger photos, thanks to an ever-increasing demand by a public thirsty for the highest possible resolution coupled with new lens materials that the person-on-the-street could afford to take high resolution images with. Actually, about 90% of cameras today capture images that no printing press is capable of reproducing… by a factor of 5.

When it comes to storage formats JPG had a bad rap, it was lossy, colours would change during storage, edges would become blurry. Traditionally digital camera manufacturers like Nikon and Canon had a so-called pro format – RAW – that preserved all the details in an uncompressed, unedited way. And it did, for about 2 years, and was the de-facto standard for serious photographers the world over.

RAW images are essentially memory dumps of the sensor chip, with no modifications. Each channel in a RAW file represented each of the primary colours the sensor was picking up, namely red, green, and blue. The pattern on the chip is unique to prevent a moire effect that would occur if the pixel array were evenly spaced.

After 2 years of RAW images and continual sensor density upgrades both Nikon and Canon realised RAW files were just too big and so a change was in order. Nikon’s marketing was aimed around the production of RAW images for pro-sumers, or ‘sorta’ pros, while Canon aimed for a similar market of people who were upgrading from their point-and-shoot pocket range and were looking for something a little more serious.

So RAW files started getting really big, around 60MB per file. That’s a lot of data for a single photo. Nikon simply started saving JPG’s with a RAW extension, and required users to use a proprietary plugin to convert the ‘RAW’ files to an editable format. Canon did something similar, and no one was the wiser because no one, not even pros, noticed.

And then came JPEG-L. JPEG-L does not stand for JPEG-Large, as some believe, but JPEG-Lossless. It takes advantage of increased processor power on modern cameras to run complex algorithms that find clever ways to compress data with little or no pixel loss. Canon included a JPEG-L format switch for a while, but since the details were quite technical and ‘nerdy’ to understand it simply saved its JPEG-L files with a .RAW extension and people, just like the NIKON crowd, believed that they were still saving in an uncompressed format.

Tell a professional photographer that their RAW files are actually JPEG files and they will laugh and call you ignorant, because everyone knows RAW is better than JPG, right?

Not anymore.

Nowadays the average camera can produce results far greater than what even Vogue could publish on their cover (at least technically; aesthetically pleasing photos still have no substitute for an art background and experience)

Even today, pro togs believe RAW is better, even though they are not even using true RAW files anymore, they just think they are. But perception is everything and the myth of RAW pervades… and still abounds in modern prosumer camera sales. But it’s just a sales gimmick.

A simple peek into the RAW file using a binary editor reveals the truth, but photographers seldom have the low-level experience to know that JPEG files stored in a RAW wrapper are actually JPEG files. Nikon even tried to mask the header bits for a while in an effort to thwart casual pixel peepers, but you can’t mistake JPEG data once you know what it looks like. Also, every RAW file is now a different size, which means it has been compressed. (Original RAW files were all the same size because they were pure memory dumps)

So, does it make a difference to shoot RAW or JPEG? Well the answer lies in how you adjust the photo before saving it. In JPEG modes you can use image warmth, contrast enhancement, etc, to tweak the image before saving. Disable all these enhancements and you are left with the identical image, pixel for pixel, to the RAW image. So there is no advantage. Actually, it is more cumbersome to use RAW because you need special plugins, explorer integration is limited which means you can’t tell which file is which.

But it doesn’t matter. Go ahead and save those photos in JPG format. There is not a photographer on the planet who can tell the difference, because there is none.