RAW Or JPEG For Motorsport Photography

by Mar 9, 2021

RAW or JPEG? This is probably the most hotly debated topic in photography amongst amateurs and professionals alike.

While RAW is usually the general consensus, the reality is that motorsport photography has its own specifics and nuances, and it’s important to weigh all the factors in before you make a choice.

In this blog post, I’m going to explain the difference between the two formats as well as some of the advantages and disadvantages of using either and share what I personally use and why.

RAW Photo Files

RAW photo file format is exactly that: raw. It’s all the unprocessed information that passes through the lens and onto your camera sensor.

It’s less of a picture format and more of a file containing digital information that can be turned into a picture. Typically, those files are huge, so make sure you’ve got plenty of space and memory on your cards or drives.

Advantages of RAW

Shooting RAW has plenty of benefits when it comes to post-processing images because the file contains all the information that makes it to your camera’s sensor.

With RAW, you have much more to work with when it comes to editing and manipulating the photo in order to get it to look exactly how you want.

For some photographers, this can allow them to incorporate a range of different effects to give the photo a more stylistic look. In my case, as a motorsport photographer, it makes it easier to alter the photo to look exactly how I saw it with my own eyes. It’s well known that what the human eye sees and what the camera sees never quite matches up.

The human eye is, in most cases, the best visual device there is with more dynamic range in colours and sharpness, so even the best and most expensive cameras can struggle to match it – and that’s where the RAW format truly shines, as you can develop seriously spectacular images with it.

Disadvantages of RAW

The main downside with RAW files is that they’re very large and take up a significant amount of memory in comparison to other file formats.

This makes your memory card fill up faster (and hold less photos), which means that transferring photos to your computer, laptop or external hard drive or even backing them up to the cloud takes much longer.

As a motorsport photogrpaher, you don’t always have the luxury of long post-processing time as clients and editors require a fast turnout of images, especially after big events.

It’s also worth noting that when taking burst shots (for example, holding the shutter button capturing multiple shots in high action moments), the camera will likely hit the buffer trying to write many photos to the memory because of the sheer amount of information it’s having to process.

This is less of an issue in top of the line cameras, but it may be a problem when you’re just starting out.

Advantages of JPEG

JPEG is a file format that most of us are familiar with. It’s the standard format that most modern digital cameras use to capture, process, and store their photos.

JPEGs are a smaller, more compressed file format in comparison to RAW images. This means that they take up less memory – often less than half for the same image. This allows you to store heaps more photos on your card or device.

Not only that, the JPEG image is a processed file, which means is that you can take those photos straight off the card or camera and publish or upload them to the internet immediately. Different camera manufacturers have a variety of levels of picture profiles that determine the level of processing.

In addition, the smaller file size means that the camera can ‘write’ more photos to the memory card in a shorter time, allowing you to take more photos in burst shots. These smaller files are also much quicker to transfer to a computer or hard drive, or to upload.

Disadvantages of JPEG

The main disadvantage of JPEG images only really applies to either professional or serious photographers – their lack of digital information.

Although a decent camera can create JPEGs with loads of visual information, especially when considering their file size, it’s never as much data as a RAW file. So if there’s some serious editing or alternations that need to be done, or you’re looking to create an absolutely perfect end result, then shooting RAW might be better for you.

What Do I Use – RAW or JPEG?

Depending on the situation, I tend to use both RAW and JPEG for different scenarios.

Over the years as a professional motorsport photographer, I’ve progressively upgraded my camera gear and now have the top-level equipment, so issues like buffering and file sizes are less of a concern for me.

In most instances, I’ll use RAW as my preferred file format. I’ll shoot around 15-20,000 photos on average at the motorsport events I attend and I cover about 40 events per year.

I’ll let you do the math on my storage requirements each year, let alone the number of memory cards I need to carry with me to cover each event. And yes, I keep (and have multiple backups of every photo I capture), but that is something I have factored into my business and my associated running costs.

My main reason for using RAW is the versatility it offers. It gives the most options for editing should I get any number of weird and wonderful requests after an event. Once a race has been run, I’ve got what I’ve got – I can’t go back and re-shoot it. RAW format, however, allows me to post-process the existing shots in multiple ways.

I do still shoot in JPEG, too. In the age of social media and rapid news delivery, there are instances where I need to shoot and send photos out directly from the camera, and that’s where JPEG comes in handy.

I’ve got a live FTP solution that I use to send photos over the internet (4G/Mobile Data) directly back to my computer in the media centre for instant distribution to certain customers.

There are particular instances where speed is a more pressing issue than the post-production. And it’s in this instance where the compressed JPEG file is the better option for me.

Customers can have images from my cameras within seconds (if the internet bandwidth allows). Still, I will record both JPEG and RAW so I have both options and can deliver a more polished final image as soon as I am able.

Everything with photography is a balancing act, and you need to remember that everything is a trade off.

There is no one perfect format you can use all of the time: you’ll have to experiment and practice with both image formats according to the situation and the requirements. No one system will ever be perfect, and as you progress, you will find what works best for you.

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Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.

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