The raw vs JPEG showdown : Which file format is better? :: Digital Photo Secrets

The raw vs JPEG showdown : Which file format is better?

by David Peterson 10 comments

Since the dawn of digital photography, photographers have been fighting it out, trying to ascertain which photo file format is best. Some will swear by RAW files with their seemingly limitless options, while others claim JPEGs are smaller, quicker, and better. I’m here to help break down the differences, similarities, pitfalls, and perks of both RAW and JPEG to maybe even settle this age-old (or decade old) battle.

Breaking down JPEGs

JPEGs are compressed photo files, meaning your camera looks at all the information it captures and saves only the information that it deems important, and that’s what you see when you look at your photo. If you are curious like me you’re probably wondering what the letters signify. JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the committee that created the file type. Sometimes you’ll also see this file format abbreviated without the E as JPG.

With a JPEG, in its manicured nature, there is no need to process anything; the files will be ready to open on any computer and readable on pretty much any device. The JPEG format is standard across brands so regardless of what type of camera you use, the file will be the same. The files themselves are a complete picture. They have high contrast and vibrant colors and the camera even sharpens the image for a polished final product. The file can be taken from your camera’s memory card and printed without having to do anything.

JPEG files are also considerably smaller than RAW files. What would be a 10MB file in the RAW format could easily be compressed to a 2MB file in the JPEG format. Their small size means you can take a long series of photographs without having to wait for your camera or memory card to buffer, making it less likely you’ll miss the perfect shot while waiting for your gear to play catch up. JPEGs are easier to share with others; they are typically small enough to be emailed without resizing and uploaded to social media websites like Facebook and Flickr quickly and easily. It also makes long term hard drive storage less of an issue than it would be with RAW files, because the files are smaller, they take up less hard drive space and transfer from memory card to hard drive more rapidly than RAW files.

Decoding RAW files

Unlike JPEG, RAW isn’t an acronym for anything, it simply points to the file types unprocessed nature. A RAW file is uncompressed data from your camera’s internal sensor. It contains all the unfiltered information your camera collects when you take a photograph. If you camera collects 10MB worth of information, then your file will be 10MB; it’s an exact and unedited copy. Theoretically, those files should be capable of being printed at a larger size than with a JPEG without losing quality, although many modern cameras have enough information saved in a JPEG to retain their visual quality at poster size or larger.

Those huge RAW files might also cause problems relating to how quickly your camera can write files onto the memory card. When shooting in raw be sure to bring extra memory cards because the large files fill space quickly and you don’t want to be caught out. If you shoot in RAW you might need an external hard drive, probably multiple hard drives, depending on how many of your pictures you plan on keeping in the format.

The RAW file is in its all natural form, it needs to be cultivated. RAW files have to be processed to be useable, printable, and useful as a photograph. Straight out of the camera they are low contrast, muted in color, and actually a little blurry. Much like negatives with photographs shot on film, in order to be useable they must be processed. This processing is usually done with the RAW conversion software that would have come with your camera although most third party image editing programs can convert RAW files from most of the top brands. Or you can use software such as Adobe Camera Raw, these programs allow you to fine tune your image before it’s converted into a photo file, thus giving you a little more control over your photo before you even really get to the official post processing. Because the files are uncompressed and essentially unfinished, you have more control over the final photo right down to being able to fix common problems like overexposure and underexposure because more of the image information is stored in a RAW file, so you have more to work with.

And The Winner Is...

So, now that you’ve got the answer, the question still remains. Who’s the winner, the ultimate fighter? Well, there is no clear winner. Much like your choice of camera brands you can choose where to lay your allegiance, based on your goals and the type of photograph you take. If you aren’t sure which format you prefer, most DSLR cameras have the option to shoot in a mode that creates a RAW file and a JPEG at the same instant. Having both a RAW file and JPEG of the same photo will allow you to see the differences and edit both in post-processing. If you do decide to double up, use the highest capacity memory cards you own so you don’t run out of room.

Use RAW if:

You plan to do a lot of post-processing and want ultimate control.
File size is not a major concern.
You intend to print at sizes exceeding 20inx30in.

Use JPEG if:

You are concerned about space on your memory card or hard drive.
You are shooting a scenario where you need to take multiple photos in quick succession such as during a sports event.
You plan to do minimal editing.
You want to share large sets of pictures by email or upload to the internet without having to convert and resize.

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Comments

  1. Thormod (Tom) Nordahl says:

    Important to remember that you always shoot RAW, even when the camera produces a jpg. The question is whether you want to the post processing or leave it to the camera manufacturers built in software.

    If you want to do the job, you can forget most of your cameras exposure settings. All that is left is:
    ISO, Shutter speed, Aperture and Focus.
    Anything else are settings for the manufacturers software.

    So, the issue is, do you think you can do a better job than the manufacturer? Give it a try. Save both the RAW file and the largest jpg. Don't look at the jpg. Process the RAW file in GIMP* and then compare.
    Will yours be better? Of course not!!! But you will have had a glimpse of the awesome possibilities of RAW processing, and maybe some of you will be hooked. Those will become better photographers.

    *or your favorite image processing software

  2. jackalyn herron says:

    Thank you! In school we only used JPEG, and was taught very little about RAW. I work as a photgrapher now, and I'm finding more and more there are things I don't know and should have. I will continue to study as I work. The article has given me a better understanding of RAW shooting. Can't wait to try out shooting in RAW.

  3. Zbigniew says:

    I am using the lossless JPEG compression format. So, theoretically, I should be able to convert these files to any other format without losing any data unless round-up errors of the Fourier transform used to compute the JPEG representation of the image are significant. Any comments?

    cheers,
    Zbigniew

    • David Peterson says:

      Yes, lossless jpg does not lose data, and if you use the newer JPEG-LS and 12-bit compression then you'll get close to the ability of RAW images. However these kinds of jpg files are not able to be read by a lot of software.

      If you want an uncompressed file format, stay in RAW - or use the newer DNG format which provides lossy compression.

      David.

  4. Anneline Peters says:

    Hi David,

    This is exactly the anwers I have been hoping for. I have recently gone one a 1 day course to master my camera's settings and The difference was explained so i starting shooting in RAW, but I am not intending to print in bill boards and I prefer doing minimum editing. So I will go back to shooting in JPEG unless otherwise required.

  5. Patrisse says:

    Dear friend
    As I told you I worked as a reporter in Portuguese TV during 35 years. Replying your question I think that it depends on the kind of work. If you have to sent to the press something with the utmost urgency without post processing in your computer and as good as possible, of course jpeg is the key! If you are impassioned for landscapes, models...etc then raw is the best choice.

  6. deon says:

    Thanks Dave, l am using raw, and I think I am go to do some JPEG shooting it going to force to have my exposure right the first time.

  7. david maxwell says:

    GREAT article.... finally made up my mind.......... shot much RAW just because web sites say you should....I did not like all the editing,,,,,,and the photos are for me and my family....not gonna make big prints.... even had one computer that would not accept RAW,,,,, the hell will all the "experts" gonna do what I want.....shoot only JPEG

    again Thanks for the article

  8. Tyran Bothma says:

    The best raw processing program I have used is Lightroom (Adobe), I have tried Canon's own converter and PS Adobe camera raw. I will recommend Lightroom to anyone for the best results.

  9. Andre says:

    Hi, I follow you for a while and your tips are very good and i learnt a fair bit but i have one important question

    WHICH SOFTWARE IS BEST TO PROCESS RAW FILES, NEF TO TIF? i tried various but with some a lot is lost during the process, poor color .......

    pls advise

    Andre

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Difficulty:
Beginner
Length:
7 minutes
About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.