If you’re starting as a photographer, you may have heard of RAW and JPEG files. But what do these terms mean?
Developing your style of photography takes many steps, and it doesn’t just involve taking pictures. Understanding camera technology will help you bring your craft to the next level, and an important part of that is learning how to store, process, and edit your photos effectively.
In this article, I’ll break down the differences between JPEG and RAW photo formats, as well as their strengths and weaknesses.
Wondering what’s best for you? Read on to find out.
What is RAW?
As the name suggests, a RAW image is the raw, untouched data collected by your camera. It is a file format that produces high-quality images using all of the data recorded by your camera’s sensor.
RAW images are not your typical image. They require specialized software to be opened and edited. The most popular tools used to edit these files are Photoshop and Lightroom.
There are two key features of using RAW files during post-processing.
First, RAW images posses greater post-processing capabilities. This means that RAW images have greater control over the adjustments to highlights, shadows, contrast, and white balance.
Second, edits done to RAW images are “non-destructive.” RAW files achieve this by saving all edits in a separate text file known as an XMP file while leaving the original file untouched.
Good to Know: The RAW file format does not have a single standard format. As a result, each camera brand has its proprietary RAW format. Some of the most popular include Cr2 (Cannon), NEFF (Nikon), and ARE (Sony).
What is JPEG?
JPEG is a compressed file format. This makes the file size of the photo significantly smaller than RAW photos and gives you much more space to hold photos.
The default shooting mode for most cameras and smartphones is JPEG unless otherwise changed. Shooting in JPEG allows you to store more photos on your memory card.
Compression also means that it doesn’t take hours for images to load when we browse the Internet, and we can easily send images to friends without taking up too much space in their inbox.
However, as JPEGs are compressed, they experience a drop in quality (especially compared to RAW images).
Despite these convenient uses for JPEG files, they do have their downsides.
A JPEG is much less flexible when it comes to editing: most of the important, useful data has been deleted to decrease the size of the photo.
The camera also automatically makes adjustments to images when saving them as JPEGs, including changes to the saturation, contrast, and sharpness. These are much more difficult to correct or alter if your image is saved as a JPEG.
Good to Know: JPEG is an acronym for “Joint Photographic Experts Group,” the name of the company that created the file format. It’s often shortened to JPG because early computers (at the time) could only process file extensions with three letters. The terms “JPG” and “JPEG” are used interchangeably—for the sake of clarity, I will use JPEG in this article.
Pros of RAW
The compression algorithm determines the quality of a file format. There are two types of compression that file formats use: lossless and lossy.
RAW images use lossless compression which retains all of the data gathered by the camera’s sensor.
By using all the data from the sensor, every piece of a RAW image is an accurate depiction of the real world.
JPEGs use a lossy compression algorithm which eliminates some digital information. As a result, some of the images are ‘assumed’ rather than captured.
Larger Range in Brightness and Color
The bit depth of an image determines the tonal range and color gamut. An image with a higher bit depth will have a wider tonal range and color gamut.
RAW images are typically 10-14 bit, with the most common being 12. On the other hand, the standard size for a JPEG image is 8-bit. This means that on average RAW images have four more bits of information than a JPEG.
So how do bits affect RAW images?
The tonal range indicates the different brightness levels and image can have. The higher the bit depth, the more accurate brightness can be.
RAW images produce images with a wider tonal range and color gamut.
A JPEG, 8-bit image, translates into 256 colors at each channel or a total of 16 Million colors. On the other hand, a 16-bit, RAW image can have 65,536 or a total of 281 trillion possible colors.
The additional bits of RAW images give them the pallet to produce photos with accurate brightness scale and colors. As a result, RAW images have smooth color transitions and less banding artifacts than JPEGs.
RAW images produce images with greater detail. In particular due to the lossless compression method and higher bit depth.
RAW images record and store more information from the scene than JPEG images. The additional information recorded by RAW images results in a more accurate depiction of the real world.
This means that the minute details of textures, patterns, and objects are captured with much greater accuracy.
Since RAW images record and keep much more data than JPEGs, they are exceptionally beneficial when editing images.
When editing RAW images, it is much easier to recover details from images that have been over or under-exposed. The same can be said when adjusting the white balance, contrast, highlights, and lowlights.
Easily Adjust White Balance
White Balance is a vital aspect to any photo, especially if you are taking pictures in different light temperatures.
Traditionally, photographers identify and adjust their white balance in their camera settings before they push the shutter button.
But, with RAW images, you can adjust your image’s white balance with extreme accuracy long after they have taken the shot.
In fact, RAW images are so powerful that adjusting the white balance in camera and in post-processing produces the same results.
So, if you’re shooting with RAW and you forget to adjust your white balance or set the incorrect white balance, there is no need to worry.
The same can not be said for JPEG. Attempting to adjust the white balance in a JPEG during post-processing often produce inaccurate results.
So, when shooting in JPEG, you must have the correct white balance before you take the shot, or you may never be able to get what you truly want.
Getting the right white balance and color adjustments can define your photo, and shooting in RAW is without a doubt, the best way to get your desired results.
When editing a RAW file, you are performing non-destructive editing. What is non-destructive editing?
Non-destructive editing allows you to edit your photo without damaging or losing the original file. So how is RAW editing, non-destructive?
RAW images save all edits in a separate file, known as an XMP or sidecar file. The sidecar file stores the editing instructions made during post-processing.
Since the RAW file stores the edits in a separate file, the original file remains intact and untouched. This is what makes RAW editing, non-destructive — the ability to retrieve your untouched RAW image without having to save a duplicate file.
This gives photographers peace of mind, knowing that if you make a mistake while editing, you can easily retrieve your original file and start over.
RAW images produce better prints. The improved quality, details, and color space all contribute to this.
RAW images also tend to have fewer artifacts such as banding which can be very clear on a print.
Also, the artifacts that are present with RAW files, such as noise, chromatic aberration, and color banding can be removed using post-processing software.
Select Color Space on Output
Color space can be a bit complex. A very simplified explanation is that color space is the selection of colors an image has at its disposal to create an image. Each color space will have a different range of color to select from.
RAW images are unique because cameras don’t assign a specific color space to them. You select the color space of a RAW image upon export. This means that you can choose which color space best suits your photography needs.
Your image’s color space with JPEGs, on the other hand, is set by your camera settings.
Changing your color space settings in JPEG can cause color issues and result in a loss of more detail. This can be a problem when you need a single image in multiple color spaces.
RAW avoids this issue by giving you the highest and most accurate images given the color space you select.
When you shoot in RAW, when you select your new color space, you will not lose any detail or image quality.
Enlarge Photos Without Loss of Detail
When adjusting the size of an image, your camera approximates the colors of adjacent pixels. During this approximation process, there is a loss of quality.
The file format you are using will determine the extent of quality loss. RAW images produce the least amount of quality loss compared to any other file format.
This is because RAW images have much more digital information due to its lossless compression. As a result, the approximation process has much more digital information to use. The additional data allows for a much more accurate approximation process.
RAW files can always be used and edited again in the future.
They’re not limited by the photo editing system you have at the moment. When new software is released or you change programs, you can still improve your old photos with the new technology.
Cons of RAW
Needs to Be Processed
RAW files are the raw and untouched data gathered by the camera. As a result, RAW images often appear unfinished or dull if left untouched.
Certain changes and edits need to be made to RAW photos before they are complete and ready for presentation. This is not ideal if you need to produce images immediately.
For example, event and wedding photographers are often expected to have images instantly ready for viewing.
If you were to show a RAW image to a client, they would likely feel ripped off and claim your camera is taking poor quality photos. In situations like these, JPEGs are better because you can present finished and edited pictures instantly to your clients.
When you shoot in JPEG, on the other hand, your camera process you images right when you take them. That being so, JPEGs are often ready for presentation right as you take them unless a photographer wants to make minor adjustments.
As a rule of thumb, most photographers shoot in raw if they plan on doing some post-processing after taking an image.
Larger File Size
The more details, colors, and quality of RAW images come with a price, larger files. As a result, you can save less RAW images than JPEGs given the same storage space on your computer or camera.
The sizes of RAW and JPEG files will vary based on the camera and camera settings you are using. But the general consensus is that RAW files are about two times larger than JPEGs, and in some cases even larger.
After looking over some of my own files, I found the average size JPEGs are around 3x larger than RAW files. In particular, the average size of my JPEGs is 10MB while the average size of my RAW images is 30MB.
Let’s look at this from a cost and quantitative perspective.
A quality 4TB hard drive typically cost around $250.
At $250 here is the cost to store JPEGS and RAW images:
4TB = 400,000 JPEG files = $0.000625/ photo
4TB = 134,000 RAW files = $0.00186/ photo
Given the file size assumptions above, you can store 266,000 more JPEG images given the same storage space. This means it would cost a$250 to store 400,000 JPEG files and $670 to store 400,000 RAW files.
Keep in mind that for most photographers, 134,000 files of storage space is sufficient for several years of photos.
Slower Frames Per Second
When shooting in RAW, your frames per second will be lower than when shooting in JPEG.
This is because RAW images spend more time in your camera’s buffer than JPEG images.
The buffer is a temporary storage space (RAM) where your images are saved before it is saved on your memory card.
This can be a problem when shooting in burst or if you are taking photos quickly.
Cameras can only handle a certain amount of data in the buffer. Once it reaches its maximum point, you will need to wait before you can take another photo.
To minimize this issue, you can start by purchasing a faster memory. Sandisk offers memory cards that process 95 MB/second. If this does not improve your cameras speed, you may need to buy a camera with a larger RAM.
Proprietary Format- Imperfect Algorithms
RAW files are unique to each camera manufacturer. Each camera manufacturer uses a different proprietary algorithm.
This means that the specific encoding instructions are not released to the public. As a result, post-processing companies must reverse engineer these algorithms so people can use their software.
This poses issues for people with new cameras and those with old RAW files. Owners of new cameras may have to wait until software companies can crack the new RAW file algorithm before they can edit their photos.
There is also some concern that old RAW files may eventually lose support, leaving them without any options to re-edit their old images.
For those using older versions of RAW files, I would not worry too much about discontinued support. Post-processing software typically only adds support and does not remove it. Also, most camera-specific software will support every version of their RAW data.
To help find a solution do these issues, Adobe introduced DNG, an open-source file format in 2004. The goal is for DNG to become the standard RAW file format for photographers.
Photographers using RAW files for the first time often notice the dull and washed out colors.
When comparing an original JPEG and RAW file side by side, the JPEG will appear more vivid and polished.
RAW files also tend to appear to have unbalanced contrast, more noise, and less sharp than JPEGs.
The reason for this is that RAW images, unlike JPEG, are unedited images. When you use RAW, you are expected to edit your pictures to reach the finished product.
This can be an issue for photographers who don’t intend or know how to use post-processing software.
More Files to Manage
While the fact that RAW files can preserve the original data after each round of edits has many benefits, it doesn’t come without disadvantages.
With RAW files, all of your settings and edits are saved in separate XMP files. This adds a file that needs to be backed and sorted, which can be overwhelming to some.
It’s a lot to keep track of and can slow down your editing workflow.
Because RAW photos are so large, it takes much longer to back them up on your computer. This is good to take into account if you are working with a tight deadline or otherwise need more time to edit your photos.
Pros of JPEG
Smaller File Sizes
Probably the greatest benefit of JPEGs is their smaller size.
This comes at the price of some quality, of course, but has a profound effect on how many pictures you can take and store effectively.
You’ll save space in your camera’s buffer, the memory card, and your computer, which makes all the difference if you work within time constraints or a tight budget.
Faster Continuous Shooting
When shooting action sequences, it is critical to take multiple pictures in a quick burst to get the best possible shot.
Because JPEG files are significantly smaller than RAW files, they move from the camera’s buffer to the memory card much faster and more efficiently. As a result, JPEGs can shoot more frames per second than RAW files.
Being able to shoot more frames per second can come in handy when you are shooting action shots. But, make sure that your memory card is quick enough for your camera’s processing ability. Typically, a memory card that can process at least 95 MB/second is a safe bet.
No Editing Required
JPEGs experience a certain amount of automatic processing by the camera. Some examples are noise reduction, sharpening, contrast, white balance, and saturation adjustments.
As a result, JPEGs are more polished and refined than RAW images. In most cases, they can be presented as a final product immediately after capture.
Thus, JPEG images are better than RAW images for time-sensitive projects that require immediate results.
For example, weeding or even photographers will benefit from shooting in JPEG. Doing so will enable you to present a finished product immediately after it is captured.
Perfecting Your Camera Skills
Shooting in JPEG will encourage you to master your camera settings. The limited editing power of JPEGs leaves you with no other choice.
Using JPEGs will refine your eye to make sure you are using the proper camera settings. Making a mistake with your settings can be the difference between getting a picture.
Standard File Format
JPEG is the standard image file format used across the world. They can be open be nearly any device, software, or web application.
Rest assured that if you shoot in JPEG, it is unlikely that you will have any trouble sending, opening, or sharing your file. This makes them ideal for sending finished images to a client.
Unlike, RAW images, JPEGs give you the ease of mind that you will be able to quickly and effortlessly shared your JPEG images with others.
Choice of Compression
A benefit of shooting in JPEG is that you can select the level of compression applied to your images.
Depending on the camera, your number of compression choices may vary. But, in most cases, cameras offer at least three different JPEG compression algorithms.
Each algorithm will apply a different level of compression. Algorithms with more compression will result in smaller files and more artifacts. Likewise, less compression will produce larger files with fewer artifacts.
Depending on your photographic needs, you can choose the compression algorithm that suits you.
Cons of JPEG
JPEGs use lossy compression, which reduces an image file size by discarding “non-essential” data from the image. Your cameras will scan the image and approximate similar areas of an image. The actual data from the approximate areas are then discarded.
One of the main disadvantages of JPEG compression is that the loss is permanent. Once it has taken place, it can’t be reversed.
Another major drawback is that the compression process result is an image that is of lower quality than RAW images. In particular, JPEG compression typically causes images to appear less sharp and less detailed.
Further, your JPEG images will experience this compression quality each time you save it, further degrading the quality of your image. Be cautious when saving JPEGs, try to only save JPEGs 1 or 2 times to avoid any unnecessary loss of detail.
JPEG images have a smaller bit depth than RAW files. Most JPEG images are saved at 8-bits per channel, which results in 24-bits for the entire picture. RAW files, on the other hand, can be as large as 18 bits.
The smaller bit depth means that JPEGs will display a scene with fewer colors and tonal ranges.
Narrower Dynamic Range
One of the downfalls of lossy compression and a smaller bit depth is a lower dynamic range.
Dynamic range is a measure of the difference between the lightest and darkest tones of a picture. Because JPEGs take up less space, there is less room to differentiate a nuanced dynamic range.
This means that JPEGs can express fewer shades of brightness compared to RAW images. As a result, images experience clipping faster than RAW files.
RAW vs JPEG Comparison: Photo Editing
I will use photoshop to show the difference in editing flexibility between RAW and JPEG images. I will do this by comparing the effects that the exposure, highlights, shadows, and white balance sliders have on each file format.
Below is the original photo of each file format, with JPEG on the left and RAW on the right. I will follow this convention in the following images as well, the JPEG image will always be on the right and the RAW image will always be on the left.
When comparing the original photos there are a few key differences between RAW and JPEG. First, both photos are underexposed. Although they are underexposed it is clear that the JPEG was able to capture more colors. The blues in the water and the greens of the grass are more pronounced in the RAW file, even when unedited.
It also easy to notice the difference in details between each photo. The RAW image displays more texture and ridges in the rocks throughout the photo. For example, if you look at the rock to the immediate left of the frame, you’ll find more ridges and texture in the raw photo.
Highlights + Shadows
In the image below I adjusted the shadows and highlights simultaneously in both images. The reason is that the highlights and shadows are completely separated in this photo. All the highlights take place in the background and all the shadows in the foreground.
If you look at each photo it is clear that the RAW recovered more highlights and shadows. In both the foreground and the background the RAW image was able to adjust the exposure and recover most of the details.
We can also see distinct differences in the histograms of each photo. The histogram of the RAW image has mainly mid-tones because the slider was able to recover both the underexposed and overexposed areas of the photo. On the other hand, the JPEGs histogram has primarily highlights and shadows, which means the adjustment had a very minor impact.
In the photos below I adjusted the exposure to determine the extent that each file format could recover the underexposed foreground. If we compare the two images, the RAW image was able to recover more of the shadows in the foreground than the JPEG. The RAW image is significantly brighter with more details.
Comparing the histogram you will see the JPEG still has a large area of the curve in the shadows. On the other hand, the histogram of the RAW image was able to pull more of the curve towards the mid-tones.
In the photos below the white balance was adjusted using the dropdown menu. I applied the auto white balance to each photo, mainly because that was the only option JPEG offered. It is important to note that when editing a RAW image there are more preset choices to adjust the white balance.
In this regard, RAW images are far superior at adjusting white balance. You can see in the image below that the RAW image is much warmer and was able to recover more of the color. While there is hardly a difference from the original JPEG and the auto white balance JPEG.
Why Shoot RAW, not JPEG?
RAW is the choice of most professional photographers because of the flexibility and benefits it offers.
First, shooting in RAW produces images that are of better quality. RAW images have a higher dynamic range meaning that you can capture the tonalities of a scene more accurately.
Also, since RAW images have more bits it has a much wider color gamut. The wider color gamut provides an image with a greater range of colors to use when creating an image.
Images with a higher dynamic range and wider color gamut produce images with greater accuracy and fewer artifacts such as banding.
Another one of the most sought after features of RAW images is their editing flexibility. This flexibility is unmatched, and one of the primary reasons professional photographers shoot in RAW.
Using post-processing software settings such as white balance, contrast, highlights, lowlights, and noise, among many more can be adjusted very easily.
This enables you to correct most of the mistakes done on the field during post-processing.
Editing also offers excellent artistic flexibility. Photographers can alter and edit their images to meet their exact photographic needs.
Further, edits made to RAW images are non-destructive. This means that the original file is never truly edited, rather they are saved in another file called an XMP file.
Why Shoot JPEG, Not RAW?
If you are short on storage space or time it’s often best to shoot in JPEG.
Shooting in JPEG will give you the ability to produce images that are smaller in size but still in relatively high quality.
Also, due to their smaller file size, cameras are capable of shooting faster frames per second compared to RAW.
The additional speed offered by JPEG can be the difference between missing and getting a shot. This is especially true for motion and action photographers.
Another amazing advantage of JPEG images is that the camera does all editing and no outside editing is required.
For photographers in need of producing images immediately to clients such as event photographers, this is a huge advantage. This is also very helpful for photographers who don’t plan on editing their image at all
Finally, when shooting in RAW you have peace of mind that there will not be any issues opening or closing your file. JPEG is a standard file format that is used worldwide as a standard image file.
The Compromise: RAW + JPEG
Shooting in JPEG + RAW can be useful if you are unsure what type of file will best suit you.
In this shooting format, one copy of the RAW image, as well as one copy of the JPEG images will be stored. By doing it this way, you’ll have more time to decide, and once you do, you erase the unnecessary file type from your camera.
This is also a good method for those in need of immediate photos but will still be editing the photos in the long term.
This will enable you to present a finished photo as you capture it and still maintain your ability to edit your quality RAW images in the future.
Keep in mind that shooting in this format takes longer to store in the camera’s buffer also take nearly double the storage space.
RAW vs JPEG: Which Should You Choose?
As with most debates, there is not necessarily one right answer.
I mostly shoot in RAW, because the freedom to edit my photos according to my liking without sacrificing quality is important to me.
However, that doesn’t mean that JPEGs don’t have a time and a place. They are great for shooting bursts and short action sequences, or if you are operating on a very tight deadline.
Plus, not every photo needs professional-quality editing and revisions.
In reality, the format you choose depends on much more than just the pros and cons of each.
They both have their advantages and disadvantages, and the best file format highly depends on both your practical and artistic preferences.