RAW vs. Jpeg in Time-Lapse

Yosemite Milky Way
What color is the milky way? For this photo, I shot in RAW and later decided the best temperature was 3829K.

Jpeg or RAW?

This is the great debate among those who create time-lapse. The argument is basically whether you should use the smaller, more manageable jpeg and give up some control, or use the RAW format and reduce the total number of photos you can take while also increasing your post workflow.

What’s the Difference?

When you take a picture with a digital camera, all the available information is compiled into one large RAW format file. This file will keep the information just as it was captured until you decide to compress it. With point and shoot cameras, this information is often automatically compressed immediately after the photo is taken. This newly compressed file is called a jpeg. DSLRs give you the choice of which file to use. Here are the pros and cons of both:

RAW

One of the first things new photographers learn is that professionals always use RAW. The same is probably true for professional time-lapse makers. However, while an amateur can easily take a couple hundred portraits or landscapes in RAW, the format becomes trickier as we approach the thousands of shots needed for time-lapse.

The first problem is the size. A photo in RAW might be 23MB while its jpeg version can be 5MB. This means fewer photos will fit on a memory card and they’ll take up more space on your hard drive. Not only are they bigger, but you’ll still have to convert them to jpeg or a similar format before you can turn them into a video. Even after compressing the RAW files, you’ll probably want to keep them in case you need to make a change later. This means the difference per photo on your hard drive can be 28MB for RAW and jpeg vs. 5MB for just jpeg. This number goes up as your megapixel count increases. Faster processors and cheaper storage might end this problem in the future if they outpace the megapixel growth rate in cameras.

As I mentioned above, you’ll need to convert your RAW images once you put them on your computer. There are plenty of free conversion tools, but this is still a time intensive step in the post workflow. I allow a few hours just to batch edit one shoot of RAW files. A recent shoot, which resulted in 1300 photos, took over twelve hours to process and a total of 36GB on my hard drive once converted. The resulting video was about twenty seconds long.

If I had to pick one reason why RAW is inferior to jpeg, it’s this: I can’t tell if a video was shot using RAW images or jpegs. I’d challenge any expert to tell me the difference by only looking at the final video. It’s simply not possible when done well.

However, RAW does have its benefits. The most important reason to shoot with RAW is that it will give you the best looking photos possible. How much better depends on your familiarity with jpegs. Someone with a mastery of their camera and Photoshop won’t see much improvement, but RAW is very forgiving and allows for creative changes after the photos have already been taken. Jpegs offer a much smaller file, but no matter how good the compression, you’ll always lose some information from the photos.

One final benefit of RAW is you can choose to export photos in a number of different formats. I mainly use jpeg, but tiff files are also popular for videos and use in HDR.

Jpeg

These are much smaller files that take up less space and are easier to process into videos because they don’t require as much post work. The main problem with jpegs is you have to use proper settings during your shoot or else go back and try again.

Unlike RAW, jpegs require you set the white balance in camera. You can try to change the color settings later, but this is very hard and gives inferior results. For example, if I accidentally select sunny on a cloudy day as my white balance, or if my camera’s settings are less than perfect, all of my photos will have a blue tint. RAW files let you select and play with WB on your computer, which is where you’ll make the final video. What looks good outside on your camera’s lcd screen might not work on your home computer. If you decide to use jpegs, make sure you manually set your WB with an 18% gray card when possible and lock your settings. Adjust this every time you move the camera and as light conditions change. You’ll also find that choosing a white balance becomes much harder after dark.

Conclusion

If you have big memory cards, a large hard drive, and a fast processor, I’d definitely recommend RAW. My earliest videos were all shot in jpeg and some came out really well but I only use RAW these days. Once you’ve overcome the size limitations, the benefits of RAW far outweigh jpeg, in my opinion. I suspect this debate will end in a few years as more cameras are able to capture in RAW and as computers evolve. If you think I’m wrong or missed an important point, please let me know in the comments.


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