Quick Tips: Should I shoot RAW or JPEG for Underwater Photography?

To kick off the new Quick Tips series, we will look at why shooting RAW instead of JPEG is best for underwater photography or any photography. But before we begin, I want to tell you a little bit about the new series. Quick Tips is a collection of short articles that are straight to the point and give you my best advice on questions we often see in the industry. The idea is to build out a resource over time of all these common questions in photography & cinematography that you can easily reference. So check back soon for more, and follow me on Instagram or Facebook to get the latest updates! Now, let’s jump into this month’s quick tip. 

Should I shoot RAW or JPEG for Underwater Photography? 

For those looking for the quickest answer, you should always choose to shoot in RAW. But let’s explore both formats and understand why utilizing camera RAW is the better option for photography. To start, RAW and JPEG are file formats in which your camera can capture photos. You’re probably familiar with JPEGs since they are prevalent in the digital age. We use them to post to Facebook or Instagram or send a quick screenshot via email, and so on. One of the reasons they are so popular is that they are compressed files, so they tend to be relatively small in file size. However, this compression is not ideal for photography, especially when editing the images. JPEGs essentially bake in the camera settings, white balance, sharpness, and color profiles. They also tend to mess with the dynamic range of an image due to the compression process. This causes us to lose some of the different tones and the gradation of highlights and shadows. On the plus side, though, photos shot in JPEG are ready to share straight from the camera. But with that being said, most photographers would prefer to tweak their images anyway in post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom, Luminar, or even Apple Photos.

The sun breaks through a school sardines of the coast of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico
A scuba diver swims through a cave in Marsa Alam Egypt

Camera RAW files are essentially higher quality and can be thought of as utilizing all the raw data from the capture versus working with a finished product like a JPEG. This means RAW file sizes will be larger than JPEGs and require some photo editing software to convert them into a shareable file like a JPEG or PNG. But this also means you have incredible opportunities to capture and edit the photo. In terms of shades of color, JPEGs are 8-bit and can only contain around 16 million colors with 256 tonal values per channel. In contrast, a 12-bit RAW image could hold upwards of 68 BILLION colors and 4,096 tonal values per channel. Many newer cameras utilize 14-bit and even 16-bit RAW images, pushing those billions into the trillions. This means we can achieve much more realistic shading and color tones. We can already see a gigantic jump in what we can play with when switching to RAW, just in terms of color and tones. 

RAW files also offer a wider dynamic range. This means you have a better chance of recovering the highlights and shadows of an image that is underexposed or overexposed compared to JPEG. Camera RAW images commonly utilize uncompressed or lossless compression, meaning they will not suffer from the messy compression artifacts you might see in JPEGs. They also offer finer adjustment potential when editing the images since none of the settings are baked into the file. If you want to change the white balance (a massive advantage in underwater photography), the color space, or pretty much any other factor of the photo, you can do it with ease. Lastly, one of the lesser-spoken-about advantages of shooting RAW is that you can bake copyright info into the file. So, suppose you have an issue with someone using an image without permission. In that case, it’s easy to prove you are the creator since you hold not only the original RAW file with the copyright owner baked into the file from when the photo was captured. 

So, to wrap it up, when it comes to underwater photography or any type of photography,  it’s better to choose RAW as it gives us a wealth of benefits that allow us to expand our creativity, improve our edits, and protect the ownership of our images. While JPEGs might be great for some other things and will probably play a role in our daily lives for the foreseeable future, RAW is still the best option for photography. Drop me a comment on Instagram or Facebook to let me know what topics I should cover in the next Quick Tips! Make sure to check out our “Ask a Pro Photographer” sessions during the last week of every month on Scuba Diving Magazine to submit your questions. 

A school of jacks circling in sun beams from Cabo Pulmo National Park, Mexico