Raw with a Compact Camera


Today’s Question: I’m planning to buy a medium-priced superzoom compact to photograph birds while hiking and I intend to shoot in RAW. In researching cameras one reviewer made a passing comment wondering why anyone would bother to shoot RAW, noting the small sensor found in superzooms. This surprised me. What are the pros and cons of the claim and would JPEGs be better? I don’t expect the quality I would get from my mirrorless system, but I would still aim to get the best results possible.

Tim’s Quick Answer: I would actually argue the opposite of what that reviewer suggested. With a smaller sensor on a compact camera, I’d be even more interested in shooting raw to help overcome some of the limitations of a smaller sensor.

More Detail: I too have heard photographers suggest that there is no point in using raw capture for compact cameras or smartphones, because the quality of the sensor in such a camera is so inferior that there’s no benefit in using raw capture. I don’t agree with that notion at all.

To be sure, there are disadvantages to a small sensor size. If you had two sensors with the same resolution, with the only real difference being the size of the sensor, the smaller sensor would generally produce an image with more noise and less dynamic range. The reduced dynamic range could, among other things, result in gradations within the image that are not as smooth as they could be.

The higher bit depth of raw capture helps to maintain smooth gradations. In addition, raw processing can help produce an image of better quality than what could be achieved with an in-camera JPEG capture. Furthermore, JPEG captures involve lossy compression and the potential for compression artifacts that are visible in the final image.

When image quality is a top concern, I recommend using raw capture regardless of what type of camera you’re using. That includes the use of a compact camera or smartphone, for example. I would only use JPEG capture if you want to prioritize smaller file size, wider compatibility with other software and devices, and a more streamlined workflow after the capture.