DSLR Image Formats

nikon_image_formatsIf  you have recently started looking at a DSLR and trying to work your way out through the different settings on it, you also might be wondering about the file formats menu in settings. While I completely understand that all look the same on the camera display, there are humungous differences when it comes to editing or post-processing these images! Oh yea, post-processing is very much an integral part of photography and do not confuse it with Photoshopping. Below is a quick guide on the different file formats and its explanation:

  • JPEG: (Joint Photographic Experts Group) Developed way back by a group of Photographic experts to compress pictures to save space. Back then, space was precious and all additional clicks meant you did go out and purchase a additional hard disk to store them. With nowadays techonology advancement, JPEG can be easily stored online and are accepted by majority of the cloud storage providers. While space is not a concern now, JPEG still remains the preferred format of storage for photographs given the amount of photographic data it can compress in a small space. With the different methods used for compression of these pictures, JPEG is available on your cameras (Nikon/Canon) in the following formats:
    • JPG Fine
    • JPG Normal
    • JPG Basic

To the naked eye and our regular screens, the quality difference between all these compressions is minimal, though JPG Fine will give you the highest quality and file size of them all!

  • RAW: This is the purest form of image data captured by the camera sensor available to you. JPG explained above are processed by the computer onboard your camera and compressed to fit in a space constraint with most of the details compromised, however a RAW image will carry all the details captured by the camera without any processing. This gives immense power for the editing softwares to paint beautiful photographs with immense color correction and white balance capabilities. Some of the reasons why I would use RAW images are:
    1. Highest level of quality captured by RAW images: JPG manages to store upto 256 bits of brightness levels, whereas a RAW image can store upto 16,384 levels of brightness giving you control on brightness, exposure levels and white balance of the photographs. Noise smoothening, too, of RAW files are much better than JPG noise processing.
    2. Recover shadows and blown out areas: RAW image detailing helps recover the shadows (dark areas) and Blown out (over exposed) areas of a photograph with optimal editing methods as compared to a JPG. RAW image can store higher image data and hence the data recovery
    3. Non-destructive editing: You can edit JPG and overwrite them to wipe of original capture data, whereas you cannot overwrite any image detail on a RAW image file, which makes it fool proof for editing. You can always go back to editing to create a new image over and over again!
    4. Better Prints: RAW images use the highest possible detail which makes it the best output for use in printing large prints. JPG in this case would scrap through and would fail in bigger prints.

Though RAW has its advantages, there are some downsides to shooting images in RAW too

  1. Takes up too much space: A 24 megapixel DSLR RAW image would take upto 2-3 times size of the JPG it generates. When a JPG would be limited to 6-7 MB per file for the highest quality, a RAW file would be closer to 25-28 MB depending on the image data stored. This will send your storage requirement for a toss!
  2. Slower processing: Processing large amounts of RAW images would significantly slow down your laptop/computer as well as your camera during shooting. RAW images take some time to be written on the storage card and may not be a good option when you are looking at conitnuous shooting like sports, action etc.
  3. Propreitory formats: Most of the manufacturers provide their own format for RAW images – Nikon goes with .nef images while Canon churns out .cr2 files, both of them requiring support to get your editing softwares reading them. There is a high chance that most of the editing softwares you use would already have the decode algorithm’s built into it.

Summing it up, as my experience goes, I keep shifting between RAW and JPG files from my camera as the situation demands. As I mentioned, RAW slows down your camera which disables it to capture action or sports photography and as a mitigation act, switch to JPG for easy and faster clicking experience. At the same time, RAW gives huge processing advantages including exposure, white balance and noise smoothening of the photographs. Over time, you will get a hang of using the best formats based on the situation.