Photography Formats – Raw vs JPEG

Photography Formats - Raw vs JPEG

Photography Formats – RAW vs JPEG

Though most articles concerning photographers’ use of raw vs JPEG files refer to the issue as a debate, the decision to use one or the other comes down to personal preference. You need to learn about and experiment with each of the formats’ limitations to make an informed decision about which file type suits your workflow.

To put it simply, using a JPEG image is like shooting a roll of film and sending it in to be developed by a lab. Using a raw file is akin to developing your own film–in fact, raw files are often referred to as a digital negatives. Both types of files originate from the same source–a digital negative–but the difference is evident when it comes to processing the final image.

What is a JPEG file?

JPEG (an acronym for Joint Photographic Experts Group) is the default image format for most cameras, including both DSLRs and point and shoots. To create a JPEG, the camera takes the information it gets from the image sensor and uses an algorithm to compress it into a viewable format, omitting any information about the file it deems unimportant. The resulting image is a compressed, 8-bit file with a .jpg file extension that can be opened on a computer without any additional steps.

JPEG files are written to the memory card quickly and take up only a small amount of space. Because the files are compressed, they have a lower dynamic range (span between the darkest darks and the lightest lights) and less detail than the image sensor first recorded while taking the picture.

Photographers can control some aspects of the camera’s JPEG conversion algorithm. For example, prior to taking a picture, they can tell the camera how much contrast or saturation to apply to each image using the camera settings. As for post-processing, JPEG files are referred to as “lossy”. Every time a file is adjusted and saved, some data is lost, so this type of file is best used as-is.

What is a raw file?

A raw file is the unprocessed and uncompressed file that a camera begins with before creating its default JPEG. It’s not actually a viewable image until it’s processed using conversion software, which calculates the color and brightness level for each pixel. The raw image is unaffected by the camera’s settings regarding contrast, saturation, and other adjustments, so it’s likely to look fairly flat once it’s converted and viewed on a computer. The image you see on your camera’s LCD is actually a JPEG preview based on the way the camera would process the file.

Raw files, which are 12 or 14 bit, contain more information about the image than a JPEG. They take up more space on the memory card. The camera manual for the Canon 5D Mark II, for example, estimates that one high quality raw file takes up 25.8 MB of memory space, while the highest quality JPEG takes up 6.1 MB of space.

Each brand of camera has its own proprietary raw file format. For example, Canon uses CR2 or CRW, and Nikon uses NEF. Fortunately, raw files can also be converted to DNG (Digital Negative), which is an open source camera raw format that can be used with any camera or software company’s product. It retains all raw image data and is more future-proof than the proprietary file types.

The photographer makes all adjustments to the digital negative based on his or her preferences. Raw files are lossless. This means that making adjustments to the image during post-processing does not alter the original file data. Your processing is just telling the software (Photoshop, Lightroom, etc.) how to save the file when you’re ready to convert it to a JPEG or other similar file format. You can control virtually all aspects of the image–white balance, saturation, noise level, etc.–during post-processing without damaging the file.

Raw vs JPEG – why choose one over the other?

Though it may seem as if raw files have all the advantages, there are several reasons you might set your camera to record JPEGs:

  • They make for a fast turnaround time for sharing with others or creating immediate slideshows.

  • They’re a quick option for snapshots that don’t require any editing.

  • They take up less space on your memory card and computer, so they’re a good choice when memory is limited.

  • They don’t give you much leeway when it comes to making technical errors in-camera, so they’re valuable for practicing your photography basics.

  • They don’t require any special–and potentially expensive–conversion software to open.

Raw files clearly have many advantages:

  • They give you creative freedom. You can apply filters, change brightness levels, dodge and burn, etc. without harming the file.

  • They allow you to adjust white balance after the photo is taken.

  • They allow for fixing errors in exposure by bringing out more from shadows and highlights.

  • They let you revert back to the original version to start over with editing.

  • They are high-quality, large files that can be used professionally.

There are times when each of the format options come in handy. Basically, when you are deciding between JPEG and raw formats, you are asking yourself if you want the camera to process your files in a fairly generic way that’s lower quality but easier to use, or if you want the high-quality raw data so you can spend the time to creatively process the image yourself.

The good news is that most cameras let the user shoot in a RAW + JPEG mode that captures both an unprocessed version of the image and a converted JPEG image simultaneously. This way, the photographer can use the JPEG immediately and/or choose to process the RAW file for greater artistic control.

There is a lot to consider when it comes to using RAW vs. JPEG files. Shooting raw files seems to be popular with serious photographers, but it’s not for everyone. You may find that you love spending time processing your images and controlling every aspect along the way, or you may discover that JPEGs meet your current needs. Think about what you require from your digital images, then try shooting simultaneous raw and JPEG files to see which option works best for you.

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Profile photo of Nicoal Price About Nicoal Price

​Nicoal is a New England photographer with a penchant for learning. Her work ranges from nature-inspired portraiture to outdoor product photography. Visit for more info.

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