I’m constantly asked by novice landscape shooters whether I shoot in RAW or I shoot in JPEG format with my camera. I always shoot in RAW when doing landscape work and portrait photography. The only time I record images in JPEG is at action events where I’m rattling off a lot of shots at high speed and can’t afford to burn through my memory cards too quickly using larger files.
A RAW file from my Canon EOS 5D contains 4096 levels of tonality between pure black and pure white. A JPEG file can only contain a maximum of 256 tones between black and white. That’s all the camera keeps when packaging each JPEG. Whenever you have to make extreme exposure adjustments to a JPEG image, those missing tonal values come back to haunt you. A sky blown out to pure white remains so. An image shot in RAW will have extra information there — information that you can’t necessarily see — but that can be tweaked back out of the file.
Here’s a picture from this morning. It was a relatively high contrast scene as the clouds behind the barn were back lit by the sun:
If that had been shot as a JPEG, it would have been a throwaway image as that blown out sky would not have been recoverable. However, since I always record in RAW, I was able to produce the following after some tweaking in Photoshop:
Sure, RAW files are big and bulky, but that’s because they’re chock-a-block full of extra tonal levels, image information that can either make or break an photo you’re working on. Storage is cheap, but good pictures are priceless. Shoot in RAW from now on. (If your current camera doesn’t allow you to save in RAW format, update your list for Santa.)