jPEG Verses RAW Files For Retouching

For those of you that are interested in becoming a High-End retouch artist and are wondering whether to use jPEG verses RAW, this information is for you.

What exactly is the difference? RAW files are raw image sensor data, unprocessed and are similar to a negative from back in the film days, but it is not a negative it is just a compilation of information which needs to be processed. RAWs are not an image until they are processed further using software by a computer.  JPEGs are a digital image which is the result of a RAW file that has been processed by the camera adjusting sharpness, color and contrast. The camera records the jPEG and then deletes the RAW file. Most Cameras will give you the option of saving both RAW and jPEGs and some will offer a TIFF option as well.

As far as quality goes, there’s no difference. JPegs are a smaller file which take up less space and do not require any further processing. If you’re shooting sports or weddings or events, you can take fit a lot more jpegs on your memory card than you can RAW files. Most jPegs are acceptable enough for most clients and require none or very little further processing. For the purpose of high-end retouching, RAW files are the preferred choice, as you can control the color, clarity, exposure, sharpness, etc much better than you can with a camera processed jPEG. Chances are if you have an interest in being a high-end retoucher, then you’re a control freak and it makes perfect sense to begin with unprocessed data in where you have complete control from the beginning.

So What are the cons of choosing jPEG vs Raw?

Let’s start with RAWs. Digital technology continues to evolve and as with many different companies providing their input, a mutual baseline of standard has not yet been established. Nikon uses a NEF filie format, Canon uses CRW and neither side is recognized by the other. Advances in technology are leaning more towards a universally recognized format called DNG, however that has not been solidified as of yet. Lightroom and some other software RAW processing packages give you the option of converting your RAW over to a DNG file which seems to be the favored direction for a more universally recognized standard. As technology advances, newer software will become available to process RAW files more effectively. that means that 20 or 50 years from now, software of the future may not even recognize what a NEF file is. You may have heard someone say or read somewhere that RAW files go bad over time. But to clarify, it is not the RAW file that will ever degrade or go bad, it’s the ability of future software and technology to be able to read and process it. jPEGs are already a universally recognized file and will most likely be decades into the future. Although Personally, I shoot in RAW format and prefer to take control of the entire processing, at some point I may have to archive my entire library to make duplicate copies in a jPEG or TIFF form for use in the future. Hopefully, that will never happen, but it is always a lingering thought. As far as I’m concerned, RAW is the way to go for me. I convert to a DNG file which embeds any sidecar file (xmp) into the DNG file leaving me with only one file footprint in my Library.

So what are the disadvantages of using jPEG’s for High end retouching? When the need arises to do a seriously strong exposure or color correction, the information is just not there. There just isn’t enough information in a “fully baked” jPEG file to do the necessary adjustments. I had to go back into my files a few years to find this example in the image above. Although the in camera processor did a fairly good job of keeping the shadows and highlights within an acceptable range, you can clearly see that the highlights are completely clipped. even after dropping the exposure a half step and using the recovery slider all the way at 100, I was still unable to reveal any of the texture in the scales. What that means is that when this file goes to print, that entire clipped area will be read by the printer as all white.

As long as the image sensor captured a usable amount of information in the RAW file, in most cases the detail in both the shadow and the highlight areas can be brought back.

The bottom line is that although jPegs are the prefered choice for most shooters because of fast processing and transfer times, there just isn’t enough information in an off camera processed jPEG to do all of the adjustments as well as you could with a RAW file. There are other factors such as reduced color space, reduced bit depth and over sharpening in a jPEG which to most high-end retouch artists are just not worth giving up.

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