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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