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Why Choose JPEG over Raw on Your Nikon D5200?

Your Nikon D5200 offers the two file types common on most of today’s digital cameras: JPEG and Camera Raw, or just Raw for short, which goes by the specific moniker NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) on Nikon cameras. Pronounced jay-peg, the JPEG format is the default setting on your Nikon D5200, as it is for most digital cameras.

JPEG is popular for two main reasons:

  • Immediate usability: All web browsers and e-mail programs can display JPEG files, so you can share them online immediately after you shoot them. The same can’t be said for Raw (NEF) files, which must be processed and converted to JPEG files before you can share them online.

    And although you can view and print your camera’s Raw files in Nikon ViewNX 2 without converting them, many third-party photo programs don’t enable you to do that.

  • Small files: JPEG files are smaller than Raw files. And smaller files consume less room on your camera memory card and in your computer’s storage tank.

The downside — you knew there had to be one — is that JPEG creates smaller files by applying lossy compression. This process actually throws away some image data. Too much compression leads to defects known as JPEG artifacts.

Fortunately, your camera enables you to specify how much compression you’re willing to accept. You can choose from three JPEG settings, which produce the following results:

  • JPEG Fine: At this setting, the compression ratio is 1:4 — that is, the file is four times smaller than it would otherwise be. In plain English, that means that very little compression is applied, so you shouldn’t see many compression artifacts, if any.

  • JPEG Normal: Switch to Normal, and the compression ratio rises to 1:8. The chance of seeing some artifacting increases as well.

  • JPEG Basic: Shift to this setting, and the compression ratio jumps to 1:16. That’s a substantial amount of compression and brings with it a lot more risk of artifacting.

Note, though, that if you keep your image print or display size small, you aren’t likely to notice a great deal of quality difference between the Fine, Normal, and Basic compression levels, although details in the Fine and Normal versions may appear slightly crisper than they do in the Basic one. It’s only when you greatly enlarge a photo that the differences become apparent.

Given that the differences between the compression settings aren’t that easy to spot until you enlarge the photo, is it okay to stick with the default setting — Normal — or even drop down to Basic in order to capture smaller files? Well, only you can decide what level of quality your pictures demand.

The added file sizes produced by the Fine setting aren’t a huge concern, given that the prices of memory cards fall all the time. Long-term storage is more of an issue; the larger your files, the faster you fill your computer’s hard drive and the more DVDs or CDs you need for archiving purposes.

But in the end, you may prefer to take the storage hit in exchange for the lower compression level of the Fine setting. You never know when a casual snapshot is going to be so great that you want to print or display it large enough that even minor quality loss becomes a concern.

And of all the defects that you can correct in a photo editor, artifacting is one of the hardest to remove.

To make the best decision, do your own test shots, carefully inspect the results in your photo editor, and make your own judgment about what level of artifacting you can accept. Artifacting is often much easier to spot when you view images onscreen.

If you don’t want any risk of artifacting, bypass JPEG altogether and change the file type to Raw (NEF). Or consider your other option, which is to record two versions of each file, one Raw and one JPEG.

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