UNDERSTANDING “RAW” AND “JPEG”

The back of a DSLR camera and showing the settings

If this title sounds a bit technical, then you are right. But to some photographers, this is totally something they are used to working with all the time. So, for you new photographers, and those who haven’t tried RAW format yet, I hope to clarify today, exactly why there are 2 different formats to your camera, and why you would use either one.

WHAT’S THE REAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO FORMATS?

These days, pretty much every camera – including smart-phones, has the option to shoot in RAW, JPEG, or both. These are file formats, simply different ways of rendering and storing your image after you hit the shutter button.

However, while both RAWs and JPEGs will do a decent job of faithfully capturing a scene, they aren’t equally capable and do offer different functionalities, benefits, and drawbacks.

So let’s look at some quick definitions before doing an in-depth comparison:

WHAT IS “RAW” FILE?

RAW files are unprocessed, unfiltered, raw data that comes straight from your image sensor.

Therefore, a RAW file cannot be viewed by the human eye (it’s not a visual display!), and must be converted to another file format such as a JPEG or a TIFF for actual viewing. In other words, it is only data. It is not an image.

Because RAW files are unprocessed, they have zero sharpening, chromatic aberration removal, saturation, contrast, etc., applied to them. In fact, when RAW files are initially rendered for viewing, they tend to look quite unimpressive, with low contrast, low saturation, and a touch of softness.

Note that different cameras produce different RAW files, such as .CR2, .NEF, and .CR3. So when processing a RAW file, your software must be compatible with the specific RAW format.

WHAT IS A “JPEG” FILE?

A JPEG is a standard image file format that’s readable by pretty much every image program on the market, as well as internet browsers. In other words, a JPEG is an essentially universal method of displaying images.

However, unlike a RAW file, a JPEG is a processed version of an image. In fact, a JPEG image always starts out as a RAW file, but then undergoes various modifications, often including:

  • Compression (where some image data is deliberately discarded)
  • Sharpening
  • Increased saturation
  • Increased contrast

This processing occurs in your camera, by the way, not on the computer (though you can certainly further process a JPEG in a program such as Lightroom). So as soon as you put your memory card into your laptop and pull up a JPEG, it’s already been edited in camera.

THE BENEFITS OF SHOOTING IN “RAW”:

Remember how I mentioned that JPEG files are compressed and are missing data, whereas RAW files are, well, raw?

This comes with a serious consequence: RAW files can be converted into beautiful, large, detailed images. And while JPEGs can look great, you may end up with unpleasant compression artifacts such as banding, halos, loss of detail, and more.

RAW files allow for greater highlight and shadow recovery

RAW files contain information at dynamic range extremes – the brightest highlights and the darkest shadows. So even when an image appears totally blown out or underexposed, you can often recover detail in clipped areas.

But JPEGs discard this information, so if you blow out the sky and want to bring back some detail, you’re probably out of luck.

RAW files allow for extensive image adjustments (i.e., post-processing)

RAW files are uncompressed. Therefore, you have plenty of latitude when post-processing your photos. You can tweak contrast, change colors, adjust tones – and a RAW file will take it all in stride.

JPEGs, on the other hand, cannot be modified extensively. And when pushed or pulled too much, JPEGs will start to show banding and other problematic artifacts.

WAIT !!!! JPEG DOES HAVE SOME ADVANTAGES:

Remember how RAW files contain all of the information captured by your camera, whereas JPEGs are compressed? Well, it majorly reduces JPEG file size – so while a RAW file might take up 20 MB of storage (or more), JPEGs take up substantially less.

This is a big deal for two reasons:

  1. If you’re working on a computer with limited space and you don’t want to spend lots of money on external hard drives, JPEGs can be a lifesaver.
  2. You can fire off bursts of shots without stopping because your camera can record JPEGs much faster than RAW files. Here, the specifics will depend on your camera; for reference, the CANON EOS R5 can shoot around 350 JPEGs at 12 frames per second, compared to 180 uncompressed RAW files.

Don’t want to spend lots of time behind the computer? No problem; JPEGs are instantly viewable and are processed in camera.

Yes, you can process them beyond your camera’s sharpening, contrast, and saturation adjustments, but it’s not a requirement, and you can share JPEGs to social media without stopping for a lengthy Lightroom edit.

pathway between trees towards house
Photo by Mike on Pexels.com

SO, WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU CHOOSE?

If you want to create high-quality prints, or you want to spend time post-processing (i.e., enhancing and correcting) your photos, or you want the ability to do either of those things just in case, then you absolutely must be shooting in RAW.

In fact, if you’re on the fence about shooting in JPEG or RAW even after reading this far, then I highly recommend you just switch your camera over to RAW and leave it there. RAW files are just too darn useful to give up unless you have a really good reason to shoot JPEGs.

And if it helps, nearly all professionals and serious hobbyists shoot in RAW, especially those who photograph:

  • Landscapes
  • Wildlife
  • Flowers
  • Insects
  • Architecture
  • Cityscapes
  • Weddings/events

Of course, as I emphasized above, there are reasons to shoot in JPEG. I’d recommend going the JPEG route if you absolutely hate post-processing and don’t think you’ll ever want to work in Lightroom; that way, you’ll have easily shareable images that require no extra work. And if you don’t have the storage for RAW photos, then JPEGs are the way to go.

I’d also recommend using JPEGs if you’re photographing on a very tight deadline (self-imposed or otherwise) and you need to get your images uploaded and viewable, fast. If you’re shooting a family party, for instance, you could work in JPEG then immediately share all the images on Facebook without a significant delay for editing.

Finally, you might consider using JPEGs if you want to use your camera’s burst mode without restraint. The other option, however, is purchasing a camera with a very deep buffer, and I’d urge you to go this route if possible (that way, you can shoot indiscriminately and you can capture RAW files).

lake and mountain photo
Photo by Geoffrey Werner on Pexels.com

CONCLUSION:

What I would do if you are set up to work on “lightroom”, shoot some photos in “RAW”, then shoot the same type photos in “JPEG”, and then work with both of them in “Lightroom”. The only way to know which you would like better is to try them both. You might just become a master of “POST PROCESSING” when all is said and done. Which is not a bad thing.

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This article is mostly written by Darren Rowse of Digital Photography School. Thanks for helping us all with this information.