Loss of Raw Benefits


Today’s Question: I shoot raw and I export images as JPEGs in Lightroom Classic for general uses such as a screensaver, a website, a digital photo album, and printing smaller-sized prints. How much of the benefits of shooting raw am I losing in the raw to JPEG conversion and final output?

Tim’s Quick Answer: In this context you aren’t actually losing benefits of raw capture, since you would have optimized the photo based on the raw capture and the JPEG format was (mostly) well-suited to the type of sharing.

More Detail: Raw capture provides a number of benefits over JPEG capture, including higher bit depth for greater dynamic range, the lack of JPEG compression artifacts, and more. With a photo that has been properly exposed the benefits of raw capture aren’t exactly huge, but there are benefits.

In particular, raw capture provides greater tonal range latitude and dynamic range. That translates to greater flexibility with adjustments in post-capture processing. For example, because of the higher bit depth of a raw capture you can apply stronger tonal adjustments without the risk of as much loss of detail, such as a loss of smooth gradations that can occur when applying strong adjustments to a photo at a lower bit depth.

Naturally, a JPEG capture will contain less overall information than a raw capture, and will often exhibit at least minor evidence of the visible grid pattern that results from JPEG compression. In the case of sharing online you will typically be saving the final image as a JPEG regardless. That means you would still be sharing an image that doesn’t contain as much information as the raw capture, but you would have still gained the potential benefits of the raw capture in the first place.

In other words, even if you’re going to be sharing a photo as a JPEG for online sharing or other purposes, I still recommend using raw capture in the first place. Note, however, that when printing photos I recommend using a file format without compression that will potentially degrade the quality of the image, such as is the case with JPEG capture. So, for printing I would export the photo as a TIFF file, but for other digital sharing I would export as a JPEG, but still use raw capture for the original photos.