RAW vs. JPEG: A major decision that any photographer makes when shooting digital. Especially when you’re starting out, before you know what you should know. Should I go with RAW or stick to JPEG? What are the benefits of RAW? What is RAW? The RAW vs. JPEG debate is as undecided as (or worse than) the Canon vs. Nikon one. It has been discussed to death, really. If you’re a new photographer trying to decide on which to shoot, don’t waste your time asking different photographers this question – and please don’t ask this in a photo forum – you’d end up more confused than you were before. Instead, let me explain both RAW and JPEG to you here, so without answering the RAW or JPEG question (which is impossible to answer!) I will try to simply give you a better understanding of what each format is, so you can actually make the final decision yourself, using your own common sense!
RAW and JPEG
Put simply, a RAW image is a file taken directly off your camera’s sensor, without any processing or compressing whatsoever. Every bit of data collected by your camera’s sensor is written to this file. Nothing is discarded. It’s a ‘lossless’ file
A JPEG is basically a RAW file that has been processed by your camera. Your camera captures the shot, then the hardware/firmware takes the RAW data and processes it immediately– applying certain settings etc. – and compresses it into a JPEG file. Compression discards much data that is considered not so important – so JPEG is a ‘lossy’ format
Pretty simple, right? Yes, it is. Now let’s get to the differences between the two – it’s as simple!
Because RAW files are uncompressed, they retain all the information captured by the camera sensor, including more color information, more detail, and higher dynamic range. For me, this is the biggest benefit of shooting RAW: with all this information, you can do pretty much anything when editing your shot. With the higher dynamic range retained in the RAW file, you can recover detail from blown out highlights, or very dark shadows – you can fix images under/overexposed by more than a couple of stops. With the more color information, you can get more accurate colors and hues, smoother transitions between tones. That sort of thing. In general, your output is a finer quality result than if you shot JPEG
In addition, camera settings are not applied directly to the RAW file. It is sort of ‘overlaid’, so that these effects are visible, but can be edited to your hearts desire, or completely undone, while processing your shots in Photoshop! These settings include the very important white balance, which is difficult to fix in JPEGs, as well as sharpening, noise reduction, contrast, saturation – all that! You can set your camera to shoot in a Monochrome – then open up the RAW file on your computer, and convert it back to color. You can fix the most horrible color casts created by incorrect white balance. If the built-in noise reduction has done a poor job, you can completely undo it, and do it yourself. Sharpening? No problem! The original data is all there in the RAW file, and that’s the best part about it
However, it’s not all good, of course. That’s why there’s the debate. The biggest negative for me about shooting RAW is the time it consumes to edit these files. Sure, people edit JPEGs too. But when shooting RAW, the files are unprocessed – meaning you need to do all the basic processing that your camera usually does internally, for every singleshot. Sharpening, noise reduction, contrast, saturation – all of that has to be added to manually to each shot you’ve taken in RAW. In JPEG, it’s already done – it can’t be edited too much later on, but it’s already done
The other disadvantage of RAW shooting is that a RAW file, being unprocessed, is not technically an image file, and cannot be viewed by any image viewing application on your computer. You need a specialized application, like Photoshop/Lightroom, or Adobe Camera RAW to open it – your RAW-capable digital camera should ship with software to open RAW files too. But if you want these images to be compatible with all applications, across platforms, you will need to export your processed RAW file to another format – TIFF is a common choice as it is a lossless format too – and this process can be time consuming, adding to your workflow. Also note that a RAW file isn’t a single format – each camera brand has its own proprietary format. Canon has its .CR2, Sony has its .ARW – so while some applications might open Canon’s RAW file, they might not open Sony’s ARW file. Compatibility across applications is an issue to consider
Oh, and as RAW files are uncompressed, they are pretty large files. A 16mp camera will produce a 16MB (approx.) RAW file at full resolution. So think about that. It’s not only an issue for computer storage and archival, but it can be an issue for your memory card capacity and write speed: continuous shooting with JPEG and with RAW are two completely different experiences!
Look at the drawbacks I mentioned with RAW: that’s where the JPEG shines. It’s compressed, so it’s smaller. It is already processed so it saves time – you don’t need to manually process each picture – and unlike RAW, which can look a quite flat and dull when you first view it (prior to processing), JPEGs look great right off the camera. Oh, and it’s a JPEG file. An official image file. It can be opened by any image viewing app across all platforms. 100% compatibility
But then there are the benefits of RAW shooting, which you really notice after shooting RAW. The post-process capability of a JPEG will seem very, very limited – due to the fact that compression removes all data that appears unnecessary in the image – data that can be very useful when editing your shots. In addition, camera settings like white balance, sharpening, NR etc. are all applied and cannot be undone in a JPEG. It’s processed, you see. You can edit JPEGs a little, of course – but if you want to retain a good quality image, you don’t want to edit too much. So if your white balance is off by more than a bit, you’re going to find it hard to fix in a JPEG. If you overexposed the shot by more than a stop, and you’re trying to recover detail from highlights in a JPEG – good luck! If you shot in Monochrome mode in your camera (in JPEG), you can’t convert back . And if you think the noise reduction applied to your JPEG was too harsh and you lost detail – too bad! You can’t fix that either. Basically, if you want to do a lot of editing – even if your shot has the basic exposure and color elements perfect, but you still want to edit it a lot – HDR, that sort of thing, you want RAW, not JPEG
Have a look at this image:
I intentionally overexposed this shot by over 2 stops, completely blowing out the sky and even overexposing the foreground – and I shot two versions: one in JPEG, one in RAW
Taking the JPEG version of the shot, and cutting down on exposure in Photoshop by over 2 stops, see the ghastly result I got. Hardly any recovered highlights, and even the parts that appear to be recovered look pretty bad. A totally unusable result, really. That’s because the JPEG file has discarded all the data that I could have used to recover this detail. It’s already processed and compressed, remember?
Now see the RAW image – underexposed in Photoshop by 3.5 stops! See the sky, see the additional detail I was able to recover…the blue of the sky, the red of the sun…all that – that’s the beauty of RAW and all the image information it retains!
Then let’s have a look at a camera setting that’s easy to notice: white balance. Again, I intentionally shot this picture with horrible white balance so I can try to fix it when processing on my computer. Shot in JPEG and RAW, here’s the original:
Trying to fix the JPEG, this is the best I could do:
See how there’s a purplish cast in some parts, while some parts of the wall look white? Also notice how the image has lost quality – it doesn’t look quite as smooth as it should. This is an extreme example, to show you how bad JPEGs can do, due to the fact that white balance is already applied and saved – but even in lesser cases, it can be hard to fix
Now look at the RAW. As these settings are not applied and saved to the file, there’s pretty much no limit to what you can do when editing these same settings. Fixing this was a breeze
You can’t even tell that the original was so bad – again, all this color information is saved, so it’s really no surprise that all this detail can be pulled back out to correct the image
And that’s RAW and JPEG – but although RAW is starting to look very good right now, don’t forget the negatives of RAW and the benefits of JPEG just yet. Being the optimist that I am, I’ll discuss just the advantages of using both RAW and JPEG, to summarize what I just said. And as a little tip, let me tell you that the advantages of one are the disadvantages of the other – so work from there
Advantages of RAW
- Better quality: without going through the technical bits, it is fair to say that RAW files can produce better quality images, especially for prints, than JPEGs
- Better control over dynamic range and exposure: you can fix underexposed or overexposed images and get detail from highlights and shadows when editing, far more than you can with a JPEG
- Complete post-process control over White Balance, Contrast, Color Saturation etc.: in JPEGs, these can be edited but only to a minor degree. In RAW, you have complete control over all this – you can even undo and start from scratch
- Complete control over detail: sharpening and noise reduction, in addition to the stuff mentioned above, is all controlled by you. In JPEGs, these are all added in-camera, so while you can add more when post processing, you can’t reduce these effects
Advantages of JPEG
- Less processing required: of course, everybody edits JPEGS…but the basic editing, the stuff that is not done in RAW – noise reduction, sharpening, contrast, etc. – is already done for you in JPEGs, saving you a lot of time and hassle, and generally does a good job
- Better-looking result right off the camera: because RAW files aren’t processed like JPEGs, they initially look rather weak, with low contrast, boring colors etc. JPEGs look great right off the camera
- Smaller files: compressed files are smaller files – easier to handle, better for burst shooting
Shooting RAW or JPEG
So as you can see, both formats have their advantages and disadvantages, much like anything else you can think to argue about. I for one think it’s rather ridiculous to blindly defend either RAW or JPEG and make that your ‘standard’ – if they both have benefits, use these benefits to assist you. Not the other way around. You don’t have to stick to one format – shoot either one, whenever you feel that this particular format will benefit you. For me, I find that RAW is really useful for me in many instances – so that’s what I shoot most often – but even then, there are times when it just makes sense to shoot JPEG
To help decide which to shoot, look at the following factors and consider how RAW/JPEG affects your work:
Editing Flexibility/Recoverability: This is the biggest difference between RAW and JPEG, if you really look at it. So ask yourself if this amount of control is necessary for your current project. Is this current shoot really important? Can I afford to get a shot or two wrong? Do I only get one attempt at capturing this? Will I need to edit the result a lot? What do I have in mind for this shot? Think about all that
If it’s an important shoot that I cannot afford to get wrong, I will always shoot RAW. This gives me opportunity to edit and fix many types of errors (apart from composition!), which cannot be done in JPEG. It takes the pressure off a bit, to be honest!
If I’m taking some simple family vacation shots, or something that is not so important to get spot-on in terms of exposure and color etc., I really wouldn’t mind shooting JPEG, and save myself the hassle of post processing a couple of hundred RAW files later on
Time To Process: If you’re the type who enjoys processing every single shot, go for RAW. All the time. Because in my opinion, this is the biggest problem in RAW – the time it takes to process a batch of RAW files individually. But if you’re like me, and you’re not a fan of spending too much time in Photoshop, think about how much time you want to spend behind the computer. Big part of the RAW vs. JPEG thing
Compatibility: RAW files need to be exported to TIFF (or JPEG) if you want to share them with others who might not have your RAW-viewing software. Because even if your client or your family or whoever has some sort of RAW-capable software, they might not be able to read your particular camera’s RAW format. It’s always safer to export to TIFF. This takes time too
Size: RAW files are huge. They can be around 3 times as large as JPEGs. Put that ratio into thousands of images, and you realize how much more space you’re talking about when shooting RAW. And like I said earlier, check how your camera’s continuous shooting mode handles RAW compared to JPEG. On one of my cameras, the frame rate is the same (8fps) for both JPEG and RAW, but while it can buffer pretty much unlimited JPEGs, it can only buffer 25 RAW images before it needs to stop shooting and start writing the files. If this is important to you, RAW might not be your best bet
RAW and DNG
Before I end this post, I’d like to bring up the DNG format, a source of another debate: RAW vs. DNG. Maybe you’ve heard of it already. DNG (Digital Negative) is an Adobe-created image format, which is basically a RAW file – uncompressed, unprocessed – but it is a standard, a single format, and is intended to improve compatibility when shooting RAW. A DNG has all the benefits of RAW files, plus a few added positives, while maintaining this single format that will hopefully become a standard in the future – and applications in the years to come probably would not support Canon’s .CR2 file, but will definitely support DNGs. So if you want to future-proof your work (like me), convert your RAW files to DNG. It’s a better option than TIFF
Currently, very few cameras allow you to shoot DNG, so if you need to convert your proprietary RAW files, but hopefully that will change soon!
And that’s about it. Hopefully now you understand what RAW is, and how it is better than JPEGs, and how it is not better than JPEGS too
If I had to recommend one, I’d definitely suggest shooting RAW. It gives you complete control over all aspects of the shot post-process, and lets the camera do very little automatically, which is important (to me). Having said that, I never dismiss the value of shooting JPEG
If you’re only worried about the final image, and you don’t care about spending hours processing pictures, and getting it all to look right – this is the ideal workflow, really – then RAW is the one to go for. But lets face it, we all love to do this – to get the perfect customized look in every single image – but sometimes time just not let us do that. So for the few shots that do not require such attention to detail, give yourself a break. Shoot JPEG
In addition, if you’re a beginner, and you just started off with your DSLR, you might want to spend a few weeks shooting JPEGs and getting the basics right first. With RAW, you might be disappointed with your initial results, as they require a lot of processing to look good – with JPEGs, the basic processing is done, so you get a better-looking result on your LCD. Just a thought!
And yeah – I’m done. Questions, thoughts, all that – leave a comment! Or send me a direct message. I’ll reply to you as soon as I see it. And don’t forget to follow pixelogist.me on Twitter @pixelogist_me. Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own
- Adobe expands DNG format with inclusion of smaller, Lossy DNG option (dpreview.com)
- Adobe Expands DNG Specification to Include Lossy Compression (petapixel.com)
- White Balance: What’s it all about (pixelogist.me)