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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
The name of the game is dynamic range! The use of HDR is necessary when the dynamic range of the scene exceeds that of the camera sensor. Using the HDR technique allows us to take multiple images with varying exposure values and later merge them into a single HDR image with an extended dynamic range. Again, RAW images are ideal since merging compressed and processed JPEG images can produce less than stellar results.
Using RAW format is necessary if you are looking to produce large prints. A 24 Mpix digital file (6000x 4000x) allows me to produce 20-inch prints with a resolution of 300dpi. I must upscale the original file using specialized software if I want to print even larger photos. RAW images work much better since JPEG images often produce compression artifacts when they are upscaled.
Lighting conditions can vary from sunlight and artificial light to overcast or mixed lighting from natural and artificial sources. To produce natural looking photos, it is important to adjust the camera’s white balance (WB) controls.
RAW format allows you to adjust the white balance later without sacrificing quality. Simply shoot first and adjust the white balance later if you are unsure about the lighting conditions.
Truth be told, RAW files are more forgiving. As a new photographer, perhaps you did not get the proper exposure during your shoot. Shooting in RAW improves your chance of recovering the image and correcting your mistake during post-processing and editing.
Shooting in RAW gives fine art photographers greater freedom to achieve their artistic vision since they interpret reality through their own creative lens rather than in its natural state.
With each new generation of cameras, the algorithms that convert RAW images to JPEG are becoming more and more sophisticated. Since the quality of JPEG photos is drastically improving, shooting in JPEG is becoming more common for photographers who are not yet comfortable working with RAW images or in programs like Lightroom.
JPEG files are much smaller and allow photographers to shoot and record images much faster. You can shoot 10 RAW frames per second and take up to 100 shots before the camera’s buffer is filled. Then, you have to wait until the images are recorded to the memory card before you can shoot again. You can shoot 14 JPEG frames per second and take up to 350 frames before the camera’s buffer is filled. This advantage is huge when you’re photographing action sports or wildlife.
Related article: Best Budget Lens for Wildlife Photography
Photographers typically do not have time to edit photos when they are photographing live events. Usually, the photo is instantly transferred once it is captured. This means that there is no need to shoot in RAW if the photo is not edited afterward.
To minimize photo manipulation or the chance of it, many news agencies now require that all photo submissions are shot in JPEG format only.
It is time to switch to JPEG when your memory card is quickly filling up. After all, having a low quality JPEG image is better than not having anything.