Which is better—RAW or JPEG? I thought the decades-old debate between shooting RAW or JPEG had already been settled. That is why I never intended to write an article on the subject. However, as an educator and photographer, I soon realized that the debate is very much alive for photographers who are excitedly starting out on their photography journeys.
This discovery led me to create a comprehensive guide to understanding the differences between RAW and JPEG. My goal is twofold—that this is the only guide you will ever need on the subject and that you will gain such a deep understanding on the topic that you can easily move forward in your photography.
My First Experience With RAW
Although I had read a few articles about RAW format before it became available in modern DSLRs, my camera at the time did not support RAW format nor did I completely understand its advantages. So, instead of exploring RAW with my own camera, I was introduced to it completely by accident. Truth be told, I gained access to a RAW photo, but I cannot remember how this happened or who the photo was from. What I do remember is that once I started editing the image in Photoshop, I was overwhelmed with excitement.
In most editing programs like Photoshop, moving the sliders adjusts things like the Exposure and Clarity of the image. These sliders can only be pushed so far until the image completely deteriorates.
When editing a RAW image, I quickly learned that I can push these sliders over twice as far. I realized this gives me even more freedom to bring my artistic vision to life. I was sold!
Although I did not fully understand how the RAW format worked, I was motivated to make a change and purchased my first DSLR that supported the RAW format—the Canon Digital Rebel.
How Do RAW and JPEG Work – Low Tech Explanation
Before we introduce technicalities, let’s use a simple cooking analogy to show the difference between RAW and JPEG images.
Put on your chef’s hat for a moment and imagine that a RAW image is dough. As the chef, you add ingredients to the dough before baking it in the oven. When you remove it from the oven, you’ve made a beautiful cake for everyone to enjoy!
Let’s be honest—the cake is beautiful and delicious, but it is still cake. It is not pie nor is it a batch of cookies. It will always be cake. However, if you start over from scratch with the dough, you can use different ingredients—your talent and creativity—to bake anything you desire.
Do you see where I’m headed with this example?
Understanding JPEG and RAW formats
Like uncooked dough, the RAW format is the unprocessed raw data that the camera sensor collects from a scene. Alone, the RAW format is unappealing, but it offers a world of potential.
If RAW is the uncooked dough, then JPEG is the final product or end result. Once you bring your artistic vision to life and finish editing a RAW image, you save it as a JPEG. While the JPEG image is beautiful, there is no going back to the original.
You can skip to the next section on practical applications of RAW and JPEG if you are satisfied with the cooking explanation!
RAW vs JPEG – the Technical Explanation
Now that you have a general idea of RAW and JPEG, let’s get more technical.
The RAW format begins when a digital camera’s processor converts and records analog light into digital data made up of ones and zeros.
Camera sensors are made of tiny units called pixels. When a camera has a 20 Mpix sensor, it has 20 million pixels. What does this have to do with RAW format?
When the shutter button is pressed and light hits the camera’s sensor, every pixel measures the intensity of light. How? Each sensor counts the number of photons that reach the pixel. The voltage in each pixel is changed by the charge of the photons and the voltage values are then recorded by the camera. These values make up the RAW data, which is a collection of voltage values from each of the 20 million pixels.
The biggest challenge when recording color images is that the sensor’s pixels are actually color blind. What does this mean? The pixels can detect the entire light spectrum, but they cannot measure the intensity of individual colors like blue, green, or red. Ironically, only greyscale images would result if the pixels only measured and recorded the intensity of the full light spectrum.
Color filters are placed in front of each pixel to overcome this color-blind limitation. Each filter blocks two of three colors—blue, green, or red—and, as a result, causes each pixel to measure the intensity of one color. The data is recorded to a RAW file that includes data on the light intensity produced by one color from every pixel.
The camera takes the RAW data and runs it through its image processor when we shoot in JPEG mode. The complex process begins when the processor tries to estimate the value of light intensity of each pixel’s two missing colors.
The processor then applies contrast, sharpening, and saturation before it sets the color space and white balance, which is determined from the camera’s settings. These settings are what the photographer specifies before taking the picture.
JPEG compression is applied and the image is saved to the camera’s memory card in the final step.
Identical Sensors Produce Different JPEGs in Different Cameras
It is not surprising to have identical RAW data produce different results. For example, popular camera models like Sony and Nikon might use the same sensors and record the same RAW data, but each company uses different algorithms (color science) to interpret color data that produces different results. In fact, it is common to find reviews praising one camera manufacturer over another for producing JPEGs with more pleasing or realistic colors. This is simply because each manufacturer has a different approach to interpreting data.
In contrast, shooting in RAW is much simpler since every pixel’s voltage information is recorded and saved to the camera’s memory card.
Once the data is saved, photographers can manually interpret color data and apply a variety of edits—contrast, saturation, white balance, etc.—using RAW processors like Lightroom, Capture One, Camera RAW, or Raw Image.
Nondestructive RAW Processing
I assume the term “nondestructive RAW processing” makes a little more sense now. After opening a RAW file in Lightroom, we can edit the image by moving different editing slider (Color Balance, Contrast). These edits only change our interpretation of the data instead of the file itself. And, since we cannot preview raw data, Lightroom does the work for us by creating a JPEG version that leaves the RAW file untouched.
To put it simply, shooting in JPEG format we depend on estimations, averages, and algorithms of the camera’s processor to interpret raw data and create the final image.
Shooting RAW gives us full control over the development process and allows us to create multiple variations of a single RAW image. However, this is much more time-consuming and requires both skill and experience.
When Using RAW
The bright skies and dark shadows of landscape photography force us to deal with an extended dynamic range of light. This makes shooting in RAW highly preferable since the JPEG format compresses images and inevitably clips the dynamic range.
The name of the game is dynamic range! The use of HDR is necessary when the dynamic range of the scene exceeds that of the camera sensor. Using the HDR technique allows us to take multiple images with varying exposure values and later merge them into a single HDR image with an extended dynamic range. Again, RAW images are ideal since merging compressed and processed JPEG images can produce less than stellar results.
Large Format Printing
Using RAW format is necessary if you are looking to produce large prints. A 24 Mpix digital file (6000x 4000x) allows me to produce 20-inch prints with a resolution of 300dpi. I must upscale the original file using specialized software if I want to print even larger photos. RAW images work much better since JPEG images often produce compression artifacts when they are upscaled.
Difficult Lighting Conditions
Lighting conditions can vary from sunlight and artificial light to overcast or mixed lighting from natural and artificial sources. To produce natural looking photos, it is important to adjust the camera’s white balance (WB) controls.
RAW format allows you to adjust the white balance later without sacrificing quality. Simply shoot first and adjust the white balance later if you are unsure about the lighting conditions.
As a Beginner – RAW Will Cover Your Mistakes
Truth be told, RAW files are more forgiving. As a new photographer, perhaps you did not get the proper exposure during your shoot. Shooting in RAW improves your chance of recovering the image and correcting your mistake during post-processing and editing.
As a Fine Art Photographer
Shooting in RAW gives fine art photographers greater freedom to achieve their artistic vision since they interpret reality through their own creative lens rather than in its natural state.
When Using JEPG
As a Beginner Who Does Not Edit Photos
With each new generation of cameras, the algorithms that convert RAW images to JPEG are becoming more and more sophisticated. Since the quality of JPEG photos is drastically improving, shooting in JPEG is becoming more common for photographers who are not yet comfortable working with RAW images or in programs like Lightroom.
JPEG files are much smaller and allow photographers to shoot and record images much faster. You can shoot 10 RAW frames per second and take up to 100 shots before the camera’s buffer is filled. Then, you have to wait until the images are recorded to the memory card before you can shoot again. You can shoot 14 JPEG frames per second and take up to 350 frames before the camera’s buffer is filled. This advantage is huge when you’re photographing action sports.
Photographers typically do not have time to edit photos when they are photographing live events. Usually, the photo is instantly transferred once it is captured. This means that there is no need to shoot in RAW if the photo is not edited afterward.
As a Reporter Working for AP or Reuters
To minimize photo manipulation or the chance of it, many news agencies now require that all photo submissions are shot in JPEG format only.
When Space is Limited on Your Memory Card
It is time to switch to JPEG when your memory card is quickly filling up. After all, having a low quality JPEG image is better than not having anything.