My Two Bits

Or rather, my 4 bits. Every serious DSLR camera on the market today is capable of capturing image information in more than the common 8 bits per channel (24 bits total). Most, like my Nikon D80, have internal hardware that operates with 12 bits of color information per channel, but as soon as you store the image in traditional JPEG, the extra 4 bits are forgotten. (I say “traditional” JPEG because the new JPEG2000 standard can store up to 16 bits.) The only way to get the full range of color detail is to use whatever “raw” format your camera supports. For Nikon, this is NEF.

Is it worth it?

Purists say “yes”, casual photographers say “no”, and everybody in between has an opinion. If I had to give a single, all-encompasing answer, I’d say “no”… yet I have my D80 set to save in “raw”. Why? “Just in case.”

In fact, my D80 is set to “RAW+JPEG(normal)”. Though this may seem a waste as far as storage goes, it actually saves both time and space. Upon transferring all my photos from camera to computer, I run a script that reads the EXIF data and sorts all the JPEGs in to folders for permanent storage based on the date they were shot. The raw files then all go to a single folder where they await deletion. I use the JPEGs for almost everything, including cropping, printing, and sending to friends. In fact, the only time I use the NEF files are if I think a photo needs significant exposure correction and is worth the time to do so. Only then do I go to the NEF, convert it, do my adjustments, and save it out as an 8-bit image. I use the raw files when I have to stretch color/luminosity information because otherwise you end up with posterization. For example, expanding a set of 64 values to full-range 256 (a stretch of 4:1) will leave 3 of every 4 values empty. Much better to exand 1024 values to 4096 (same 4:1 stretch but at 12 bits) and then reduce it to 8-bit, thus still filling the entire final 256-value range.

For the most part, if the color information is not what you want it to be, then the photograph was not exposed correctly in the first place. You’re better off taking more shots, trying to correct the exposure on-site, than trying to correct it later on. There are times, though, when you’re limited by the dynamic range of the camera and you’ll want the extra bits in order to skew the exposure, compressing it at the upper end while expanding it at the lower end. I have to do this with pretty much every sunset or sunrise shot since it’s almost impossible to get the sun, sky, and ground detail at the same time with a digital camera. Film can do it, but digital cannot.

To summarize, 8-bit resolution is sufficient for display, printing, and most editing. The only use for 10, 12, 14, or 16 bit images is to stretch the intensity values of the colors (together or individually) so that you don’t end up with only a 5, 6, or 7 bit image which is not suitable for display and printing.

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14 comments to My Two Bits

  • It’s an interesting article. Although I don’t share the same viewpoint, you make a compelling argument.
    I only shoot RAW (since I don’t want to store both), but I run an automated script (Photoshop) to extract the JPG files.
    Usually I only spend the time on a photo if it deserves a little more attention, but most JPG are fine for my site.
    Thanks for your feedback!

  • Thanks for the feedback!

    It sounds like we’re pretty much in agreement, then. I shoot the combination because it’s not easy for me to have a script that converts the RAW to JPEG automatically. I also have a lot of faith in my D80 to make as good a choice as any other script for doing the conversion.

    Plus, the RAW is 10MB and the JPEG is 2MB, so it’s only a 20% premium. I’ve never shot more than 1/2 my card at any one time, so it hasn’t been an issue (yet).

    It’s only when I feel a photo is good enough for making sales that I’ll go back to the RAW when doing any necessary exposure correction.

  • Really? I keep flipping my cards over every few hours on some trips. I guess one of the main reasons is my nag for shotting large Mosaics.
    The automatisms in Photoshop are actually quite good to deliver usable results even for sales 🙂
    I haven’t encountered a publisher asking for more adjustments.

  • I’ve only had my D80 for a month, now, and haven’t gone on any real trips yet. The most I used it was following my 2yr-old son around “KidZone” for a day. The weather here has been awful all fall.

  • Nice article and I appreciate the comment left on my site. I haven’t quite made up my mind on whether to shoot in RAW or JPEG format yet. I see the advantages and disadvantages of both, but I really haven’t figured out which one works best for the images I like to shoot. I’ll have to continue to play with both formats and draw some sort of conclusion down the road. For now though, I shoot in both.

  • Brian,

    Thanks for the comment at You have a great site here and I look forward to seeing more of your work and reading more of your thoughts.

    I’ll place a link to you in my sidebar.


  • Hi,,I ran across your comment on one site,,and thought I’d check out your blog,,I too feel like a artist with a camera,,I love taking pictures,,Scenery also B/W,,not into the technical terms of all,. and perhaps my photo’s that I take my night appeal to all,,but I love the shots I take. Check it out on a boring night,,,when I have no picture to post I usually put a off color humor. May your batteriers never run out on those perfect shots,,,I hate when that happens–

  • Max

    Great article and great blog. As I’ev just made the leap into the world of DSLR photography, this is something I’m still undecided on…

  • You can do much more with a NEF than a JPG. Other than increased storage space and different workflow, there’s no win with JPG. Of course, more storage and ease of workflow are exactly the reasons why someone might want to shoot JPG to begin with.

    Storage is so cheap that shouldn’t normally be a reason.

    The pain of raw workflow is why I shot JPG RAW when I got my D200. I actually shot the JPG in small mode, because that was plenty large enough for 99% of what I would do with the shot, and I knew I had the NEF lying around should I need it for that rare occation.

    However, this all changed with Adobe Lightroom.

    Adobe Lightroom is a beta product and has its beta issues, but it’s so freaking wonderful for my workflow that I switched to 100% raw, and bought Adobe stock(!). I find that I use Photoshop much less now, because the common things (tweaking exposure, white balance, cropping, rotating, sharpening, etc) can be done from Lightroom.

    Lightroom just *works*, and my workflow is so much smoother now even than when I shot JPG only. Even if you want to shoot JPG, Lightroom is a huge win due to its flowing workflow.

    Give it, or Apple Apperture (not a free product, but not beta) a try and you’ll never go back. And you’ll probably find that you switch to all raw, just because that makes things all the easier.


  • You can do more with RAW/NEF, yes. However, if you set your camera settings correctly while making the exposure, then there should be very little to do.

    Also, not everyone can afford or wants to pay for Photoshop and not everyone uses Windows or Mac.

    I will definitely be giving Lightroom a try. I need to switch my PC over from Linux to Windoze because soon it will be shared with my wife.

  • […] across time, there have been epic battles. David vs Goliath, Intel vs Motorola, RAW vs JPEG. And of course, film vs digital. Everybody has opinions on this, so why should I be any different. […]

  • Pretty much in full agreement there. I like to hedge my bets with raw jpeg. I wish I didn’t need raw but sometimes…

  • george

    Sure.. if you always take a perfect shot there is no need to do anything in the computer.. but who really takes perfect shots. I used to shoot JPG and in general was very happy. But, I can’t tell you the number of times I needed to change the exposure or modify the white balance… with the RAW file.. at least I know I’m not losing any data by making these adjustments.

    Sure.. it takes some time to convert and edit the files.. but not that much time. Worst case.. just apply some profiles with Auto and export the whole lot to JPG.

    I think as Lightroom get better and quicker.. you’ll want to shoot RAW exclusively.. I know I do and love the workflow. Thx for the article though.. gave me some thought.

  • An update… I’ve changed my attitude slightly over the last couple years with regard to this.

    1) I now shoot in “RAW + JPEG(basic)”: It turns out that even “basic” has a pretty high Q-factor and nothing is gained by setting it higher when you have the RAW versions available.

    2) I no longer delete the RAW files: The RAW versions sit beside the JPEG ones and stay forever. No matter how much I shoot, it really doesn’t make a dent in today’s hard drives so why bother to give up something you may want in the future.

    3) I keep all my editing in full 16-bit resolution in Photoshop PST files. I still save the output as a high-quality JPEG, however, because it’s just easier to pass around that way. When Gimp finally becomes 16-bit capable, I’ll probably abandon Photoshop for it.

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