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Nikon Raw NEF File Quality Option Comparison Testing | 14-bit Lossless VS 12-bit Compressed

By Matthew Saville on March 11th 2016

Hi there, Nikon owners! Have you ever noticed that your camera has a menu option called NEF (RAW) recording? It controls the raw file quality, giving you a choice between 14-bit and 12-bit, as well as (depending on which camera you have) a choice of uncompressed, lossless compressed, and compressed.

If you’ve ever wondered how big of a difference all of these options could make, keep reading, and watch the video below. The truth may surprise you!

Nikon NEF Raw File Quality Options Compared

[ADVENTURE REPORT: CLIMBING MT WHITNEY’S 97 SWITCHBACKS AT NIGHT]

Mt Whitney Switchbacks Under Stars

Disclaimer: Memory Is Cheap, Memories Are Priceless!

First and foremost, I must begin with this caveat: If you find yourself only capturing a few thousand raw photos each year, and hardly ever shoot high-action types of subjects in repeated bursts, then you’re welcome to stop now and just make sure your Nikon DSLR is set to the most common setting: 14-bit lossless NEF. Memory cards and hard drives are dirt cheap these days, and getting cheaper every month.

However, if you ever find yourself shooting extremely high volumes of photos to the tune of tens of thousands of images per month, then I would implore you to consider what I am about to present. It could potentially make a huge difference in your post-production, and even in your shooting experience.

So, you should be wondering, just how much space CAN you save? Here are a few quick figures:

  • Nikon D800E 12-bit compressed file: 31.3 MB
    (that’s less than 1 megabyte per megapixel)
  • Nikon D800E 14-bit lossless compressed file: 44.3 MB
  • Nikon D800E 14-bit uncompressed file: 78.8 MB
    (that’s more than 2 megabytes per megapixel)
  • Nikon D750, 14-bit lossless compressed:
    32 GB memory card = 588 photos (estimated)
    64 GB memory card = 1.1K photos (estimated)
  • Nikon D750, 12-bit compressed:
    32 GB memory card = 1K photos (estimated)
    64 GB memory card = 2K photos (estimated)
  • Canon 6D 20 megapixel CR2 raw file: 20-30 MB

[Rewind: CANON RAW CR2 FILE DYNAMIC RANGE AND NOISE COMPARISONS]

 

Nikon-NEF-Raw-File-Compression-Test-05Nikon D800E, Tokina 11-16mm @16mm 4:5 aspect FX mode, Lightroom CC

Nikon 14-bit Uncompressed Versus 12-bit Compressed

Keep in mind that YouTube (and screen capture video software) may have slightly affected what you just saw. Compression can harm both color and detail. So, here are high quality 100% crops, straight from the original NEF files.

The following results are from a properly exposed scene, with the following extreme adjustments applied:

Screenshot 2016-03-10 04.34.47

Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-01 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-02 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-03 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-04 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-05 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-06

The following results are from a 2 EV underexposed scene, with +2EV added to the same set of Lightroom edits:

Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-07 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-08 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-09 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-10 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-11 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-12

The following results are 2 EV over-exposed scene, with -2EV added to the original set of Lightroom edits:

Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-13 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-14 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-15 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-16 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-17 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-18

Another thing to note is that these images have been overedited on purpose, in order to exaggerate any potential differences. Then again, if you frequently “go crazy” on your raw files in Lightroom, you might be used to such maxed-out sliders. You may even ask, what if we completely trash the images? I’m glad you asked. Even when I intentionally destroy the images, (and attempt to make the smooth sky posterize), they still look nearly identical:

Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-23 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-24 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-25 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-26

Oppositely, if your editing style is relatively natural and minimal, for subjects like portraits and weddings, then you’ll be far less likely to ever notice a difference. For example, here are 100% crops of the unedited files. Can you see a difference at all?

Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-19 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-20 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-21 Nikon-NEF-Raw-Compression-Test-22

Nikon Raw File Compression Sample Images Available

In an effort to avoid receiving numerous comments disputing these results or even accusing me of doctoring them (what nefarious reason could I possibly have for lying to you?), here’s an offer: If you’re either fascinated or curious, feel free to send me a message on Facebook if you’d like to play around with all these original NEF files yourself!

Nikon NEF Settings Verdict

Overall, I’m just astonished that these files held up so well, period. Having performed a Canon Raw CR2 quality test over three years ago, and having edited raw files from innumerable other cameras including Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Fuji and Panasonic, I’ve seen just how funky it can get when you mess with your raw file options, let alone over-edit them in post-production.

Personally, I’d rather have a compressed NEF file that is still full-resolution, than a downsized raw file that barely saves any file space and yet compromises on shadow quality! So, kudos to Nikon for offering these options in the first place. No other digital camera maker offers this many options, as far as I know.

(It might be important to note, however, that Nikon’s new small NEF file which debuted in the Nikon D810, has so far been underwhelming; it sacrifices tons of resolution and file editability, yet barely any filesize! Click here to check out the D810 review.)

The D800E‘s 14-bit uncompressed raw files do have a faint bit more “pop” or “bite” in the shadows, compared to any of the other file type options, and, of course, the -2 EV underexposed images show a noticeable tint difference. However, that is about it! Personally, I feel 100% confident in shooting 12-bit compressed NEF for anything that is high volume, from wedding photojournalism to astro-landscape timelapse photography.

I hope that this test has at least opened you up to the thought of using a compressed raw format, even though it’s such a taboo thing among serious photographers.

 

Nikon-NEF-Raw-File-Compression-Test-03Nikon D800E, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @ 16mm 4:5 FX mode, 10-stop ND, Lightroom CC

Nikon-NEF-Raw-File-Compression-Test-01Nikon D5300, 14-bit NEF, Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC, Lightroom CC

So, would you consider setting one of your user modes to add this quality option to your toolkit? I’d greatly appreciate your comments, of course, whether you think this is the worst idea ever or an incredibly helpful trick!

Take care and happy clicking,
=Matt=

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

Follow his personal wilderness adventures: Astro-Landscapes.com

See some of his latest wedding photography featured on: LinandJirsa.com

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Pierre Cognet-Ponomareff

    Here is an interesting addendum: according to an article in nikon support database, lossless can be retrieved in nikon own softwares, while uncompressed is advised for use with third party software. 

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    • Matthew Saville

      That is very interesting. I’ve seen no need whatsoever for fully uncompressed files, thanks to the technology involved with lossless compression. But, good to know!

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  2. Boris Štromar

    Thanks for the article. I see a lot of difference in 14bit uncompressed and 14bit lossless photos in the “dark” image. As an astrophotographer, I think I’ll switch to the uncompressed version, as every little bit helps.

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  3. Ralph Hightower

    Informative! I’m a newcomer to DSLR photography (12/2013), but an oldie with film (1980). I don’t think my 5D Mk III has the option of 12-bit vs 14-bit, but I did change the color range from sRGB to RGB.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hey Ralph,

      You’re correct, Canon has no raw compression options, only size (resolution) options.

      Do check out the article I wrote testing that subject here: https://www.slrlounge.com/canon-raw-image-size-and-dynamic-range-comparison/

      Also, regarding sRGB versus RGB, in-camera it won’t matter if you’re shooting raw; a color space is not applied to raw images until you convert it to something else like JPG or TIF, or open it in Photoshop. However, on Canon the cameras all name files differently when you use RGB, so I prefer to just leave my cameras in sRGB. It puts the underscore between the file name and number sequence that way.

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  4. Mark Romine

    You sir, have a lot of patience. :) Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Moise Oiknine

    With a D810 the uncompressed 14 bit is around 80mb/image. For wedding and event shooters this means you will have to upgrade all your memory cards to 128Gb…and the high speed CF ($150) and SD ($80) cards are not in any sense cheap. You are only as fast as your slowest memory card and every shot needs to be on both cards simultaneously. I carry 6 CF and 12 SD to rotate backups…that’s an $1,800 investment. Backup hard drives that are reliable are not cheap. You mentioned above that “Memory cards and hard drives are dirt cheap these days, and getting cheaper every month.” If anyone has had a memory card/hard drive just stop working your heart drops and the embarrassment of letting your customer know what happened is the first thing that comes to mind. That coment at the end of the article, “Personally, I feel 100% confident in shooting 12-bit compressed NEF for anything that is high volume, from wedding photojournalism to astro-landscape timelapse photography” is one of many reasons I shoot Nikon (not getting into the the big battle here). Great article Matthew, always something new to learn.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Hi Moise,

      By and large, I’d stand by my argument that memory cards and hard drives are “dirt cheap” for the average photographer. Personally, however, I would never recommend a sub-par make or model of memory card, period. I only ever recommend top brand memory cards, and even then I only recommend the top-shelf models of those brands that have a lifetime warranty. (Even Sandisk does have a few “cheapo” cards here and there, without a lifetime warranty, I think. Or they did, 10 years ago.)

      However, having said that, a 32GB pro-grade Sandisk card can be had for $30 these days, and a 64 GB card can be had for $60. That’s just under $1 per GB, which IMO is very impressive. Hard drives, similarly, are down below $100 per 1TB, even if you stick with the top quality options. And most photographers, hobbyists at least, only really need 2-4 memory cards total, plus maybe 1-2 TB per year worth of hard drive space. If you’re a low-to-mid-volume hobbyist.

      So you’re right, a wedding shooter who goes full-bore with 14-bit uncompressed NEF files will find that memory cards and hard drives are NOT cheap, and this is something I’ve argued for a while now. Neither is the processing power of the computer required to get through those photos in a timely manner, either.

      But, as both a timelapse and a wedding event photographer, as well as a fine art landscape and nature photographer, I have maybe 500-600 GB worth of memory cards that are professional-grade, and I don’t think I spent more than $500 on them in total. Mainly because I bought pro-grade cards, but only a few of them are “insanely fast” cards, the rest are just “fast enough” cards…

      Thanks for commenting!

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