RAW vs JPEG – The Ultimate Guide
I did not plan on writing a dedicated article on RAW vs JPEG. Why? I thought this ship had sailed long ago, and the time of heated debates over which format is better was well into the past. But, what I realized in teaching photography is that this topic is still confusing and unclear for every generation of newcomers who decide to join the exciting and wonderful photography realm.
Here is my attempt to write the only photography guide you will ever need to understand the difference between RAW and JPEG. Hopefully, you will have a profound Zen experience and move forward with your photography, never thinking about the issue again!
My First Encounter with RAW
When RAW format became available in modern DSLRs, I did not have a camera that supported it. I had read a few articles about the new format, but the advantages of shooting in RAW were not entirely clear. Instead, I was converted into a RAW fanboy by purely empiric experience.
I somehow got access to a RAW photo—I do not remember exactly how or from where—and opened it in Photoshop. When I started playing around with the image, I almost had a heart attack from pure excitement.
In Photoshop or any other editing program for that matter, when you start moving the editing sliders for things like Contrast and Saturation, you keep pushing the slider further and further until the image breaks up. This is when you know that you’ve reached the limit and cannot go any further. You need to dial it down.
What I experienced during my first encounter with a RAW image was the latitude of how much further I could push it, by a factor of two or more.
Even without fully understanding how the new format worked, I was already sold. I never looked back. The experience was the principal motivation for me to purchase my first DSLR—a Can
RAW vs. JPEG – Low Tech Explanation
Here is the best explanation of the difference between RAW and JPEG in the most extremely simple terms I have ever found.
Imagine that the RAW image is actually dough and, instead of being a photographer, you are a chef. You add different ingredients to the dough and then place it in the oven to bake. By the end of the process, you have a beautiful cake.
Now, think of the cake as the JPEG image. It looks and tastes good, but it will always be a cake—you cannot make it into a pie or a dumpling simply because it is a cake. But, if you start again with the dough, you can bake or cook anything you want. The only limit is your creativity and talent.
Hopefully, you can see where I am going with this example.
Understanding JPEG and RAW formats
Like uncooked dough, the RAW format is the unprocessed raw data that the camera sensor collects from a scene. Alone, the RAW format is unappealing, but it offers a world of potential.
If RAW is the uncooked dough, then JPEG is the final product or end result. Once you bring your artistic vision to life and finish editing a RAW image, you save it as a JPEG. While the JPEG image is beautiful, there is no going back to the original.
If you are satisfied with the cooking analogy, you can skip the next section and go directly to practical applications of RAW vs JPEG formats in photography
JPEG vs RAW – the Technical Explanation
Now that you have a general idea of RAW and JPEG, let’s get more technical.
The RAW format begins when a digital camera’s processor converts and records analog light into digital data made up of ones and zeros.
Camera sensors are made of tiny units called pixels. When a camera has a 20 Mpix sensor, it has 20 million pixels. What does this have to do with RAW format?
When the shutter button is pressed and light hits the camera’s sensor, every pixel measures the intensity of light. How? Each sensor counts the number of photons that reach the pixel. The voltage in each pixel is changed by the charge of the photons and the voltage values are then recorded by the camera. These values make up the RAW data, which is a collection of voltage values from each of the 20 million pixels.
The biggest challenge when recording color images is that the sensor’s pixels are actually color blind. What does this mean? The pixels can detect the entire light spectrum, but they cannot measure the intensity of individual colors like blue, green, or red. Ironically, only greyscale images would result if the pixels only measured and recorded the intensity of the full light spectrum.
Color filters are placed in front of each pixel to overcome this color-blind limitation. Each filter blocks two of three colors—blue, green, or red—and, as a result, causes each pixel to measure the intensity of one color. The data is recorded to a RAW file that includes data on the light intensity produced by one color from every pixel.
The camera takes the RAW data and runs it through its image processor when we shoot in JPEG mode. The complex process begins when the processor tries to estimate the value of light intensity of each pixel’s two missing colors.
The processor then applies contrast, sharpening, and saturation before it sets the color space and white balance, which is determined from the camera’s settings. These settings are what the photographer specifies before taking the picture.
JPEG compression is applied and the image is saved to the camera’s memory card in the final step.
Identical Sensors Produce Different JPEGs in Different Cameras
It is not surprising to have identical RAW data produce different results. For example, popular camera models like Sony and Nikon might use the same sensors and record the same RAW data, but each company uses different algorithms (color science) to interpret color data that produces different results. In fact, it is common to find reviews praising one camera manufacturer over another for producing JPEGs with more pleasing or realistic colors. This is simply because each manufacturer has a different approach to interpreting data.
In contrast, shooting in RAW is much simpler since every pixel’s voltage information is recorded and saved to the camera’s memory card.
Once the data is saved, photographers can manually interpret color data and apply a variety of edits—contrast, saturation, white balance, etc.—using RAW processors like Lightroom, Capture One, Camera RAW, or Raw Image.
Nondestructive RAW Processing
I assume the photography term “nondestructive RAW processing” makes a little more sense now. After opening a RAW file in Lightroom, we can edit the image by moving different editing slider (Color Balance, Contrast). These edits only change our interpretation of the data instead of the file itself. And, since we cannot preview raw data, Lightroom does the work for us by creating a JPEG version that leaves the RAW file untouched.
To put it simply, shooting in JPEG format we depend on estimations, averages, and algorithms of the camera’s processor to interpret raw data and create the final image.
Shooting RAW gives us full control over the development process and allows us to create multiple variations of a single RAW image. However, this is much more time-consuming and requires both skill and experience.
When Using RAW
The bright skies and dark shadows of landscape photography force us to deal with an extended dynamic range of light. This makes shooting in RAW highly preferable since the JPEG format compresses images and inevitably clips the dynamic range.
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