Shooting in RAW or JPEG is one of the biggest debates in photography. Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages, which we will discuss in this article. Shooting your HDR images in either RAW or JPEG will be a decision based on your workflow preferences and shooting style. However, if you are just starting to learn HDR photography, we highly recommend that you shoot in RAW instead of JPEG since you have much less control when shooting JPEG. In addition, the majority of the techniques we teach in HDR Tutorial requires you to have the RAW files. Another reason why we recommend shooting in RAW is because we cannot shoot single-shot HDR images in JPEG.
SHOOTING IN RAW
If you are just starting out in HDR photography, we highly recommend that you shoot in RAW.
The advantage of shooting in RAW is that it opens up a lot more options in post production. When we are shooting an HDR image, we do not take it directly into Photomatix or into any other HDR processing software. Instead, we bring the 3, 5, or 7 frames into post production and prepare them for HDR processing first. Before we process our HDR image, we need to check the color balance, temperature, noise and detail of the image. If we want to make any adjustments, such as noise reduction or exposure adjustments, we need to use the RAW files to get the best results. Then, we can take those files and export them to Photomatix (or any other HDR processing software). Photomatix will then use the JPEG versions of the edited images to create the final HDR image. Essentially, we are taking one of the RAW photos and processing it as a natural image. Then, we try to bring back as much tonal range as possible before combining the edited RAW file with the final HDR processed image to create a blend of the two. Finally, we will master and finish that blended image inside of Lightroom.
(RAW original frames, processed and prepared for Photomatix blending)
Although shooting in RAW gives us more flexibility to make adjustments, this will make for a slightly longer workflow. As mentioned before, RAW images need to be processed and then converted to JPEG for HDR processing. Although the majority of HDR processing software can process RAW files, Lightroom and Photoshop can do a much better job of RAW to JPEG conversion. These extra steps can be a little more time consuming, but you do have more control over what you can do with your images.
SHOOTING IN JPEG
If you have a firm understanding of HDR photography and the different settings on your camera, you can choose between shooting in RAW or shooting in JPEG. Pick the one that best suits your workflow system and photography style.
Since the images are already processed and are ready to be directly taken into your HDR processing software, shooting JPEG bracketed images is generally a slightly easier workflow. However, this simplicity does bring disadvantages, which we will discuss next.
The same HDR process with RAW images can be done with JPEG images, but you do not have the same flexibility as you did with the RAW files. This is because there is much less information in a JPEG file when compared to a RAW file, so you will not get the best results. In addition, you will not have the option to tweak or adjust the exposures in post production. If you plan to shoot bracketed HDR sequences in JPG, be sure to turn down your in-camera contrast and sharpening settings! Even so, your original un-edited images may look like this:
(JPG bracketed sequences: possible, but not optimal)
Another huge disadvantage of shooting in JPEG is that it is impossible to shoot a single-shot HDR image. This is because a JPEG does not capture enough tonal range or does not have the information to give us the options to process the image the way we want to in Lightroom. In addition, we need to perfect the white balance when shooting in JPEG since we do not have full control. Although we can make temperature and tint adjustments, we still do not have full control over white balance. As a result, we will not have many options when it comes to detail enhancing.
JPG 1-shot HDR: Worst idea ever!
RAW 1-shot HDR: Do-able, if your camera can handle the amount of shadow & highlight recovery!
RAW bracketed frames merged and blended for the smoothest tones and highest-quality details!
From Left to Right: JPG 1-shot, RAW 1-shot, RAW bracketed blend
You can try shooting in both RAW and JPEG to decide on what works best for you and your workflow. However, it is best to shoot in RAW until you have mastered the overall process of HDR photography. If you eventually feel like you have a firm grasp on HDR photography, then try shooting in JPEG to see if you prefer that over shooting in RAW. Just remember that if you do decide to shoot in JPEG, you need to dial in your adjustments perfectly since you do not have as much flexibility as you would when shooting in RAW. For us at Lin & Jirsa Photography, we only shoot in RAW because we often do single-shot HDR images and we want to have the most possible options in post production as well.