Is it true that you need to shoot Raw photos for the best quality?

September 30, 2011 at 9:12 am  •  Posted in Q&A by

Is it true that you need to shoot Raw photos for the best quality? Now that I own a 13  x19-inch printer I want to be able to make excellent large prints. Should I be shooting in Raw instead of JPEG with my Nikon D5100? I would prefer to stick to JPEG because I don’t want to do a lot more work in software…
—Jacques L.

Your camera produces gorgeous Large/Fine JPEGs, Jacques, so you may not see any difference in a 13 x 19-inch print if you switch to Raw capture mode. There would be a more apparent quality benefit if you were printing 16 x 20-inch images, but that’s less likely the size you plan to make—unless you extensively crop the images.

The key to getting the best results with JPEGs is accurate exposure. Check your image after taking a shot as well as its histogram in Playback mode as discussed in last month’s Q&A. If it’s not quite right, set exposure compensation and re-shoot.

There is a more important reason for using Raw capture. Image quality will be preserved even if you make fairly major corrections, to exposure and white balance, for example, using Raw-compatible software. That will be important in situations where you must shoot quickly and where you cannot get the same photo again a minute later. Unlike a fully-processed JPEG, a Raw file is simply raw data from the camera’s sensor and it has wider “latitude” for modifications. In other words, you can make fairly substantial changes without damaging the pixels.

Raw capture is also very useful if you must often shoot at high ISO levels in low light. With versatile software such as the Adobe programs you can set the exact amount of Noise Reduction (NR) before processing the photo and converting it to a TIFF. Try it several times, at different NR levels, until you find the one that provides the best result: acceptable graininess and the greatest definition of intricate detail. Often, that’s achieved by setting a lower NR level than the default, an option that’s open to you with Raw-format photos.

So, Raw capture is ideal whenever you absolutely must be sure that you’ll have a technically perfect photo. Take advantage of the slightly higher image quality and especially the wider latitude for making corrections in the converter software. Use Raw versus JPEG format particularly for important events, or once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunities, and you’ll have extra peace of mind.


  1. john S. / October 1, 2011 at 1:39 am /

    I have a Nikon D40 and from your info I’m not sure if I MUST use Nikon NX2 or is PSE 9 adequate.

  2. Peter K Burian / October 25, 2011 at 9:30 am /

    Good morning, John. Since the D40 is not a brand new camera, many software programs do support the RAW files that it produces. So yes, you can use Photoshop Elements 9 to modify the NEF files and convert them to TIF.

    I prefer to use Nikon NX2 since I feel that this program provides the best possible quality from a Nikon RAW file. (Granted, this software is not inexpensive.) Cheers! Peter Burian

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