Straight to the question: what format should you use in travel photography: raw or jpeg?
In travel photography you should shoot in both formats, raw AND jpeg. Do not shoot only RAW, especially if you post on the social environments like Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
This is the short version of the answer. Now let me explain why
Some of my motivations do not apply to other niches as wedding or portrait photography, but just to travel photography.
And let me say that I do not agree with the common saying that RAW is best. Sometimes I even change my setting to shoot JPEG only because the camera performs better, and you will see when.
By the way, why should RAW be better?
Because in most of the cases it is an uncompressed format. I say most because there are a few cameras brands that do compress the RAW files but they do it in a losslessly way (no information lost). Sony is one of them.
JPG files are instead compressed in a lossy way, this means that part of the photo information is lost during the compression process. This may affect the quality of the image
Keep in mind also that most of the mobiles and the point&shoot cameras save only in JPEG, which is fine as these photos are more memories than anytyhing else.
But let’s go deeper into more facts that may help to decide when to do travel photography in RAW or JPEG, or both at the same time.
JPG is an 8-bit compressed file which stores up to 256 levels of brightness (dynamic range).
RAW is a 12-bit (nowadays even 14-bit file), which stores up to 4096 levels of intensity.
These are typically the two formats you are offered to save on a camera. What a difference!!
In case you do some post-processing, to recover the shadows or the highlights, just to give an example, the raw format is the way to go, no question about.
If you don’t do post-processing then just use JPG, quicker and easier. Moreover, you can send the JPEG files straight to your friends or to Instagram, something you can’t with a RAW file (you need a special viewer)
But remember that once the camera has saved the photo in JPG, you have lost over 3800 levels of intensity that you could use in future, maybe in two years time, when you decide to start doing some post-processing, even things as easy as White Balance.
You can read a deep analysis of the dynamic range on this great post of Cambridge in colour.
The 8-bit JPEG file can only memorize 256 (2^8) shades of the primary colours (red, green and blue) giving a total of around 16 million (256^3) possible colours.
The RAW file can memorize so much more:
The question you may have is:
Do we really need all these colours?
Probably not on a well-exposed photo, however, if you want to recover the colours from the shadows or the highlights you would notice the difference in result between the two formats.
What I have described as “recovering” it is actually a 5-second process on a software as Lightroom
The JPG file is stored in compressed format and you will lose information.
Just think about the over 3800 levels of brightness or the colours. And there is more.
The positive thing about JPEG is that your file may be a fifth in size compared to RAW.
So, if you have a small memory card or you are travelling and you don’t have too much memory left, then switch to JPG.
My suggestion is just to upgrade to a bigger memory, nowadays it is so cheap, compared with the information you lose when shooting JPG.
The size of the file should not be a decision maker
Photos are made to be printed. Of course not all of them, only the nicest ones.
Every end of the year I organise a book with all the photos that I like, as in the old days when I was printing the photos once back from a holiday.
The printing industry works mostly on 8 bits.
Blurb, one of the best for printing books, uses either JPG or PNG, both 8-bits.
If you shot and print, no post-processing, you may just be happy to use only the JPG format.
Does printing at 16-bits make a difference?
If you can find a place that prints 16-bits, give a try, and let me know what you think.
I was said there is no difference unless you have very well trained eyes. I don’t as I can’t see the difference, at least in A4 format.
When shooting we all pay most of our time, rightly enough, to the composition.
There are however other technical decision to take as White Balance, Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness etc.
If shooting in RAW you may be able to change them later in post production, if not happy with them.
Unfortunately, when shooting in JPG you have a limited range of manoeuvrability.
Just remember that you cannot make miracles, if the photo is either not in focus or not sharp, there is just no way to improve that.
You cannot view RAW files straight on your computer. This is probably the biggest issue with this format
You need a software like Lightroom, Adobe Bridge or Photoshop, just to mention the most popular Adobe apps.
Nowadays the software is updated automatically so that even new cameras get included in a timely manner.
In the old days, you had to download drivers and mess around, which was not ideal.
If you don’t have the above Adobe products, or similar, and you don’t want to invest in them then you should consider using the software provided by the camera manufacturer.
Actually, these are usually quicker to use but they offer a limited range of tools.
As an example, Canon provides the ADP software.
Another free option is the FastRawViewer. It tends to be updated to the last camera, very well maintained.
You can set the format on your camera menu, usually one of the first options.
My suggestion is to set it on the new cameras as JPG+RAW. Change it to JPG only if you have one of the below cases.
I may add here that the RAW file includes in itself a JPEG preview image. This is the image you see on your LCD or the EVF. It’s a poor quality JPEG.
The answer is in most of the cases.
Post-processing is today part of the photography work and RAW files are the best source to start from.
So why not using only RAW?
If your process is to shoot, move your photos to the computer and start the post-production then RAW only is the best option.
If, however, you like to download some of the photos on the fly over your mobile, enhance them with apps like Snapseed and post them straight away on your socials then you really need both formats.
There are two reasons for that:
As an example, with the Sony app, I can download the files from the camera, even if I save RAW only. However, the resolution is really poor, almost unusable once I process it on Snapseed.
If I save in RAW and JPEG, then the Sony app downloads the high JPEG resolution, which is the best you can have.
The easiest answer is when you do not do post-processing or when you just want to share the photos without enhancing them.
There is however also another case, an interesting one, which I use rarely however it helped me in a few cases.
I changed to JPEG only when shooting in continuous mode and I was after the highest burst rate (number of photos/second).
Using JPG files you may find that you shoot more quickly and possibly for a longer period before the camera’s buffer memory is full
In travel photography usually, there is not much action however you may find yourself in the middle of a local race and changing to JPEG would allow you to make more photos and catch the right moment (shoot and pray technique).
Check your camera manual to see what is the difference.
The most famous software for photo archiving is probably Adobe Lightroom.
This package includes also a lot of post-production options which, in full honesty, cover the needs of most amateur or semi-pro photographers.
One the features I love the most is that Lightroom saves only the changes I do on the photo and not a new file every time. That would be a killer when working with RAW files
Also, I do not have any duplicated images (you can do virtual copies). This is especially important nowadays with cameras shooting up to 50M.
Here it is a new format, to make things even more confused, TIFF.
This format is available as 8-bit or 16-bit.
Cameras usually do not save in TIFF format.
So when should you use it?
If you shoot in RAW (12-bit or 14-bit) and you need to send the processed file to your customer than you can convert it to TIFF 16-bit without losing any information.
TIFF is a common high-resolution format that all computers can read. It is a format used also by the printers.
Obviously, it will be a bigger container than needed, but there are no other solutions (12-bit TIFF does not exist).
If you think that this post has helped and you want to know much more about travel photography then you should read and download the FREE Ultimate Guide to Travel Photography (no emails required), a 70 pages PDF file.
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Stef Ferro is the founder and editor of MEL365, a travel & photography website made to enhance the travelling experience and improve the photography work.
Stef is a professional travel photographer with past experience in the cycling and film industry.
Stef runs travel photography workshops in Melbourne and around the world.