Are you confused about the difference between RAW or JPEG? Let’s chat about what to choose and when!

What do I choose? RAW? JPEG?! That seems to be the most popular question photographers ask.  A question that was primarily much easier to answer back when DSLRs were first being introduced to the market. Back then, technology was not as advanced as it is now, in terms of in camera sensors, firmware and components and also photo editing software.

Whether one should shooting RAW files or in JPEG has been a hot topic to say the least. The fact is, there are clear benefits to each one. However, most of your research on the topic will lead you to the same answer, shooting RAW!

The goal for this post is not to simply tell you which is better than the other, but discuss the age old debate from another vantage point.  One that describes each objectively, explain the pro’s and con’s of each and then explain which situations might make sense to use RAW file and likewise, when it might make more sense to shoot in JPEG.  At the end of the article I am hopeful that you will have a good idea of the shooting in RAW and JPEG. The goal is that you ultimately feel comfortable in deciding which is right for YOU and more important WHEN to use one over the other.

There is a ton of great articles already written describing what makes a RAW file vs a JPEG file including a great one here by SLR Lounge.  I don’t want to reiterate with the same level of detail so I will summarize with a bullet list (after all I want to make this easy to understand and not confuse you).

RAW vs JPEG: An Overview 

What is RAW?

RAW is a file format that captures all image data recorded by the camera sensor, which means you get uncompressed shots. You can think of RAW as your digital negative! A digital negative on steroids, definitely! Since you’re dealing with unprocessed files, the photos look dark and flat. 

RAW isn’t an image file per se because it requires special software like Microsoft Windows Photos or Adobe Photoshop for viewing. Hence, you need to post-process your photos on a computer. The best part about RAW files is that they have a better dynamic range, letting the images show shadows and highlights. 

In a nutshell, you need to consider these when using the RAW format: 

  • Unprocessed and uncompressed image data from camera sensor
  • Less sharpness and contrast (not processed)
  • Capture more dynamic range in a scene (range of tones from shadows to highlights)
  • Requires photo editing
  • Not viewable on computer without special software
  • Much larger file sizes

What is JPEG?

Your camera processes JPEG files within. Even if you’ll be managing exposure and temperature, shooting in JPEG file format means the camera will also process the photos to add blacks, brightness, contrast, sharpening, and noise reduction. 

Afterward, the camera will render the file to a compressed JPEG, making it the final version. While JPEG may have a lower dynamic range, they also tend to be sharper and higher in contrast, making them suitable for immediate sharing, posting, and printing.

Overall, here are key points to remember when shooting in JPEG format: 

  • Processed from RAW sensor data by camera firmware
  • Sharper and more contrast (initial process by in-camera firmware)
  • Less dynamic range (range of tones from shadows to highlights)
  • Doesn’t always “need” photo editing
  • A standardized file format, easy to view for anyone, anywhere
  • Much smaller file sizes

Reasons to shoot RAW

The primary reason that people choose to shoot in RAW is simply to have more control over the final look of the images. By capturing all of the camera sensor data for each image and leaving 100% of the image processing to a person, and not the camera firmware, you are in complete control of the images final look, and doing so with all of the image data.

  • Speaking of having all of the data, the main benefit from shooting in RAW is because you can more easily “fix” errors in exposure or white balance.  With RAW images you are virtually able to re-adjust the white balance to any of the predetermined W/B settings or even pick a custom Kelvin temperature.
  • Also since the RAW files retain a larger dynamic range than JPEG if you need to bring out the shadow tones while shooting in RAW or bring back highlight tones that would otherwise be “blown out” you have more room to do so with RAW.

For example, if you’re taking photos in quick situations with a lot of movement and constant changes when it comes to lighting, backgrounds, scenes, and subjects; then I’d recommend shooting in RAW because in those circumtances, no one can shoot with the perfect exposure each time.

It’s hard to freeze moments like laughter, a tear or a smile so you can adjust your settings to set up the correct exposure compensation or manually set the other settings of your camera.

When you’re shooting in RAW, you can quickly take a photo with enough RAW data so you can fix any possible errors in your post-editing process. This is incredibly useful if you are a wedding photographer or an event photographer.

In summary, in challenging lighting conditions, scenarios where having utmost control on final images and exposure correction, or if you are shooting in an extremely fast paced environment that you don’t have time to really dial in the settings of your digital camera or white balance, RAW may benefit you.

Get the Highest Level of Quality 

When you shoot RAW, you can record all of the data from the camera’s sensor, giving you the highest quality files possible. Consequently, you obtain more elements to edit, allowing you to have more control in enhancing an image to achieve better output. 

Record Greater Levels of Brightness 

As we’ve mentioned, RAW files are mostly unprocessed data. This is a huge advantage for editors because RAW photos contain all levels of brightness within. The more levels you have, the smoother the transitions of tones. 

Unlike JPEG format, which only saves 256 levels, RAW records between 4,096 to 16,384 levels of brightness. This is also why JPEG takes photos in 8bit, while RAW can either capture in 12bit or 14bit. With more levels to work on, you can make more changes in blacks, exposure, contrast, and light, without reducing an image’s quality significantly.

Correct Underexposed and Overexposed Images 

There are times when it can be difficult to achieve proper exposure, especially when you have to modify the settings of your camera.

The best part about RAW files is that they contain a wide dynamic range. This means that even if the images are under- or overexposed, the visual information for the poorly exposed areas is still intact in your file. 

Enjoy Non-Destructive Editing 

In the battle of RAW/JPEG, RAW wins in the aspect of non-destructive editing. When it comes to RAW vs JPEG, when you make changes to a RAW file, you’re not actually editing the original data. Instead, you’re generating a new set of instructions or modifications for how the JPEG version will be saved. 

In effect, you don’t have to worry about ruining the original image file or accidentally saving over. With a RAW file, you can always reset your changes and start over again. Meanwhile, JPEG loses quality each time you make and save adjustments.

Control Over Sharpness and Noise

If you want to achieve crisp details in your photos, you need to make sure you have more control over sharpness and noise reduction, especially if you didn’t use a flash during the photoshoot.  

Shooting in RAW format provides you access to sharpening and noise editing features in Adobe Lightroom. When you edit the sharpness, you increase the sharpness of the smallest details in a photo. Partnered with noise reduction, you can modify all visible elements in the RAW file that may make the photo look grainy. 

Photography Tutorial: RAW or JPEG
Sum 41 – Copyright Cole Joseph Photography

When photographing a concert where you can’t use flash, stage lights are changing constantly and it is best to shoot in manual mode shooting RAW gives more room for editing when creating a final image.  The RAW image on the above left was overexposed by a flashing burst of stage lighting, a JPEG image would have most likely not been able to recover the detail and highlights as I was able to do with the image on the right!

Photography Tutorials: RAW or JPEG

This image above was overexposed from the flashing stage light, see images below to see how much of the photo was recoverable from a shoot in RAW.  I purposely processed in both color and black and white to show both as being acceptable looking final images.

Photography Tips: RAW or JPEG
JPEG from RAW – Processed as Color
Photography Tutorials: RAW or JPEG
JPEG from RAW – Processed as B&W

Reasons to shoot in JPEG

The main reason people will use this format is the file size and a often faster editing workflow.  Unlike RAW files, JPEG files have already been partially processed in camera and thus look much better right out of camera so when the exposure is correct (or close to it) in camera there is very little “fixing” that needs to be done to the image from an exposure standpoint.

  • For photographers working extremely long events with 1,000’s of images, the smaller size  can be a benefit in terms of memory card and computer hard drive space.
  • If you are just leisurely taking photos and not a hired photographer, this might be better format for you.
  • Also in sports photography or anytime shooting multiple frames per second, to shoot in JPEG is almost a necessity since the smaller size processes in your camera quicker where shooting in RAW can quickly fill your buffer.
  • If you don’t have photo editing software that will read and process a RAW file.
  • Anytime you are taking photos to be posted and shared straight from camera.

For example, one of the best uses I can think of shooting in JPEG is sports events. If you are shooting action sports, you’ll probably shoot several burst sequences in rapid succession trying to get the perfect shot of a movement or a goal.

If you’re shooting in RAW, your camera’s buffer will quickly fill up in these circumstances. Eventually, your camera will no longer process all the buffered images and you won’t be able to keep shooting because your camera is moving those photos from the buffer to storage.

If you’re shooting in JPEG, on the other hand, you’ll be able to shoot many more photos before you can fill the buffer. In circumstances like these, it’s better if you shoot in JPEG, adjust your temperature and exposure settings in your your camera and shoot away!

Smaller File Size

The size is one of the popular reasons why some photographers prefer JPEG over a RAW file. When it comes to sizes in RAW/JEPG, the latter utilizes only 5.12 MB of space on a memory card, whereas RAW file image can consume up to 26.6 MB. 

If you have limited memory cards or storage space for a whole-day event, sometimes you’ll be left with no choice but to shift to JPEG. 

Greater Burst Depth

Are you into action or sports photography? If you’re photographing a game, you’ll mostly shoot in burst or continuous setting. As a result, the buffers of cameras fill up faster when you opt to shoot in RAW. 

If you’re dealing with this problem, you can always switch to JPEG so you can shoot for a longer burst.

Excellent In-Camera Processing

If you want more in-depth post-processing, then choose RAW. If you want instant, minimal editing, JPEG is the answer. 

Most phones, digital cameras, and DSLRs nowadays are sophisticated enough to make adjustments instantly. For example, setting the file format to JPEG allows the camera to work on the color saturation, white balance, tone curve, red green and blue, and sharpening of an image. Hence, choosing JPEG can be a time-saving approach. 

Instant Compatibility and Shareability 

Photographers will always face RAW files vs JPEG files compatibility issues. One of the best things when you shoot in JPEG is that a wide range of devices supports the data readily available. Something that’s not possible with a RAW file.

This means that you can quickly upload the files on social media. Additionally, image compression makes it easier for websites and emails to load JPEG images faster. Thus, you must choose to send the JPEG versions of photos to your clients. 

On the other hand, RAW files need an editing program to manage the RAW data, like Adobe Photoshop or like Lightroom, for viewing and editing before you can export, share, and download the final photos. 

Challenges Your Creativity

When shooting RAW photo, most people don’t pay extra attention to the settings of your camera since they can post-process the images later.

Although you can also edit JPEG images, you have fewer elements and layers to recover, so you know you have to get your camera settings correctly during a photoshoot. If you want to practice shooting in Manual mode, choosing JPEG will give you more experience. 

Photography Tips: RAW or JPEG

The top photo is the unprocessed JPEG straight out of the camera, all that needed to be done was some basic color correcting and editing to give a bit more POP to the final image.  I changed the white balance a tad (made cooler), added some contrast, a slight vignette and was done.  Shooting this wedding image in RAW image originally would have given me zero benefit from JPEG as no major “corrections” were needed.

RAW or JPEG

Another example – JPEG image straight from camera is on left.  Final image on right got a bit of contrast on the image and the graduated filter tool was used on the sky to bring down the exposure a bit and boost contrast to enhance the overall look of the image without looking “fake” or over-processed.

Food for Thought

If a JPEG is simply the output of the RAW image data, through basic in camera processing such as contrast and sharpening; and if white balance and exposure are accurate in camera as shot then shouldn’t there should be zero difference in overall final image quality between the starting point being RAW and JPEG?

I feel its a valid question that we all need to ponder and think about.  Which begs the next question…

Is there any compelling reason to shoot in RAW if you are able to accurately get the right exposure in camera and not require substantial “fixing” while in post, photo-editing?

What Do I Do?

I primarily shoot JPEG since most of our work is weddings & portraits where the lighting isn’t rapidly changing from shot to shot and I can get the exposure close enough that I can make whichever tweaks needed in Lightroom for my final images.  Of course being able to shoot JPEG when doing weddings and editing around 2,000 images is very helpful compared to RAW in terms of workflow, especially since shooting the megapixel monster Nikon D800.

I will shoot RAW in the most challenging, changing and fast paced conditions which I want the extra latitude in post processing such as shooting concerts with no flash and changing/flashing lights.

However, for everyday shooting and even most of my portrait and wedding work we have had no problems shooting and getting the exposure spot on or very close in which shooting RAW would give no additional benefit to us.

I hope this post gives some insight, education and lets you know when shooting in either format can be the right move and when another format can outshine the other.  As with most things being versatile is never a bad thing and being able to shoot in both file formats and having a workflow for post processing both RAW and JPEG is certainly a good idea.

Thanks for reading!

Cole