Last Updated on May 7, 2023 by Photography PX
Today, practically every device with a camera offers both the RAW and JPEG file format. And it’s often the first choice you make when setting up a new camera for the first time. So it’s not surprising that “What’s the difference between shooting RAW and JPEG?” is a common question most photographers ask. But, the answer isn’t that RAW merely offers more tools to rescue an otherwise unrecoverable image.
Instead, that’s simply one of a slew of other benefits. Sadly, both formats also have many lesser-known downsides, some of which go overlooked. Either way, though, selecting either RAW or JPEG has a significant and lasting impact on the post-production workflow and the resulting options you have. As such, you must know how they differ and which is beneficial when. So, in this post, we’ll discuss both in-depth and help offer some practical guidance on which is best for your workflow.
Table of Contents
What Is a RAW Image?
Let’s start the discussion by talking about what a RAW file is.
A RAW file is a camera’s native format that contains all the unprocessed data from its imaging sensor. Contrary to what some think, a RAW file isn’t a visual format. Instead, it’s a file that contains the data representing the analog-to-digital conversion of light to voltage.
Light comes in through the lens, strikes the photodiodes of each pixel, then gets converted into an electrical charge via the camera’s processor. And this conversion occurs at each of the 24 million pixels on the sensor, or whatever the camera’s resolution is. All the values are then combined as an uncompressed readout and encoded as binary data, ones, and zeroes, in a single file.
So, really, a RAW file stores data about how much light, in either the red, blue, or green spectrums, happened over the exposure, not an image. Because of this, a RAW file isn’t something we can view directly since it’s merely binary data. Thus it requires conversion to an actual visual file format like JPEG, TIFF, or PNG, which is why it ultimately requires photographers to use post-processing software or a RAW converter to view, edit, and share the file. However, to make it easier in the field, all cameras process a full-sized JPEG preview thumbnail alongside the RAW data from the sensor to display the recorded image onto the viewfinder or LCD. And the camera also embeds relevant metadata, like exposure settings, time, or lens, and an image header to assist the conversion software in interpreting and cataloging the image data.
In the end, though, a RAW file is uncompressed data taken straight from the camera’s image sensor. Because of this, it’s entirely unprocessed with zero sharpening, saturation, and contrast applied. And that lack of processing is why they usually appear lackluster and a bit flat. It’s important to highlight, though, that this file is proprietary and camera model-specific. Therefore you’ll need compatible software to open it. Otherwise, you cannot view the data and thus the image. Sadly, we initially see this lack of support every time a new camera comes to market. And slowly software distributors, like Adobe or Phase One, update their RAW processing engine to support the new camera. But, despite this inconvenience, the benefit is that it stores the maximum amount of data in the file, specifically tonal and color data, giving us more room for post-processing.
What Is a JPEG Image?
So, if a RAW image is essentially binary numbers or readings from a camera, what is a JPEG? Well, it’s a complicated process, but one worth noting. When you set your camera’s Image Quality settings to capture JPEGs, the camera takes the RAW data from an exposure and immediately moves it through its image processor. The processor first starts by guessing the light intensity across all of the pixels on the sensor, effectively reducing the incoming data to a third. And that, in turn, directly causes a loss of tonal and color data since it throws away the other two-thirds. Next, it applies the pre-defined saturation, contrast, and sharpening values set in the Image Quality settings. Here, it also specifies both the working color space and the White Balance value or preset used. Lastly, it applies the level of lossy compression set in the Image Quality settings, ranging from high to low compression, and saves the file to the memory card or running buffer. And now you’ll see a fully “developed” image on the rear LCD or in the viewfinder.
This in-camera processing workflow is ultimately what sets RAW and JPEG apart. With JPEG, you receive a compressed file with less tonal information, which is excellent as this results in smaller file sizes. But, this also inadvertently makes the file and your photography workflow as a whole destructive, as there’s a slight loss in quality from this conversion. And while that has its advantages, as we’ll cover, the image is fully developed the moment you take the shot.
Of course, most cameras have a detailed user menu to adjust the settings of color, compression, contrast, sharpness, and noise reduction. But, since all camera manufacturers have varying algorithms to interpret color as a whole, they all produce different quality JPEG files when it comes time to decipher the missing color data from converting RAW. Some have more pleasing colors or better accuracy than others. But, by shooting JPEG in-camera, you’re entirely subject to their version of the color, which may or may not resonate with your intention. The result, in some cases, is less creative flexibility. But, not always.
Thankfully, there are key advantages to having the final image ready in-camera for some situations despite these downsides. And it’s important to note that the JPEG image format is currently the most popular format amongst display devices due to its highly efficient compression. It’s also the de facto standard image file on the internet. So there’s virtually no need for specialized software to view or transfer this file. And it’s a far easiest file format to work with.
Benefits of RAW
With the uncompressed and unprocessed nature of RAW comes several benefits. But, they all combine to give you, the photographer, more creative flexibility. Let’s cover each of the benefits below.
You have complete freedom to adjust the white balance. The camera captures all of the exposure values in the essential spectrums: red, green, and blue. And you can change the appearance or temperature of the image freely since this setting isn’t baked in.
Like white balance, the color space, like sRGB or Adobe RGB, isn’t saved directly into the file. So you can change the working color space later on if needed.
You’ll capture the full-color gamut that your cameras are capable of. That means you’ll likely capture images in either 14-bit or 12-bit, producing 4.4 trillion or 68.7 billion colors, respectively. And that is quite a substantial difference in color accuracy, tonal quality, and how fine the color gradations appear over JPEG’s 8-bit gamut or 16.7 million colors. The difference in color depth is why we see color banding and blockiness in many JPEG images online. And this is a case that’s merely the result of lacking information.
You capture the actual exposure values of the scene or the camera’s true working dynamic range. Dynamic range refers to the exposure value (EV) latitude between the darkest shadows and the brightest highlights. RAW files, recording upwards of 16,384 levels of brightness rather than 256, often include information in the overexposed highlights and the darkest blacks. So even if those areas appear clipped at first, you can usually recover those areas to reveal the tones and detail underneath. And thus, you get better highlight and shadow recovery with RAW. This kind of data is irreversibly lost during the conversion process used to create a JPEG file. So recovering detail in overexposed highlights or the shadows is rarely an option. And you’re usually out of luck.
Noise Reduction & Sharpening
You get an unprocessed file that’s entirely free of in-camera noise reduction and sharpening. And that gives you the freedom to use a more complex sharpening technique or algorithm on the photo later on. You can also use more advanced noise reduction tools, like DeNoise AI by Topaz Labs, which generally work better.
RAW files are uncompressed by default unless you set the camera to the lossless compressed RAW format. But, in both cases, you still avoid any image compression artifacts that plague JPEG. These unwanted side-effects include a loss of sharpness, contrast, color detail, and pixelation or blockiness.
You now start a genuinely non-destructive workflow, which is, arguably, its greatest benefit. When you edit the file using a RAW converter, like Adobe Lightroom or Capture One, all changes act as adjustment layers. So what you’re really editing is a reference file. For example, adjusting the contrast in Lightroom doesn’t directly change the contrast of the file. Instead, it only changes the interpretation and the contrast of the onscreen JPEG preview. These changes then become a set of instructions to apply when you output the file to a JPEG, PNG, or TIF. Then and only then do the changes become permanent. But the RAW file itself is always left untouched. And in this regard, we have a truly non-destructive workflow that always lets you go back and start over.
Downsides of RAW
With that said, there are also some unique downsides and cons to shooting RAW. Below are the most noteworthy ones.
You always have to tackle the post-processing workflow burden with this file format. There’s no escaping it. Even something as simple as converting to a more web-friendly format like JPEG requires involvement and, often, specialized software. The fact that it requires post-processing adds considerable time to your photography workflow. And it’s particularly not ideal when you’re traveling without access to the necessary software and hardware tools on a mobile device. You can, of course, work around it and have a mobile-first workflow, but it’s not nearly as convenient as using a computer. So eventually, you’ll have to whip out the computer to handle the files.
Capturing all of the data from each of the sensor’s pixels requires space, and it ends up creating substantially larger files in the process. A larger file size means each image takes up more memory on your SD card and more storage space on your computer or hard drive. In fact, the RAW file averages 20-30 MB, making them roughly four times larger than the average JPEG file, which averages 5-10 MB. Their larger file sizes also mean they quickly fill up your camera’s buffer during continuous shooting, causing the frame rate to drop and the camera to slow. And that could be the difference of shooting at 5 FPS versus the 10 FPS advertised for your camera.
File Sharing & Compatibility
Camera manufacturers haven’t standardized RAW files, nor are they designed to work across multiple manufacturers. Instead, each file is proprietary to both the camera make and model. And that inevitably means not all image editors can open all available RAW files. For example, a Sony-branded software like Imaging Edge, Cannot read a Canon CR3 RAW file. Instead, it only reads the various Sony ARW compliant files. And it’s the same for Canon’s EOS Utility. But even then, both of these viewers have to go through software updates to support the newest camera models in their lineup. Otherwise, even they don’t support new RAW files by default. And this general lacking compatibility makes the RAW file format challenging to work with, as it always requires specialized software. Not to mention, it leads to sharing issues. RAW files aren’t the easiest format to share quickly online due to their file size and viewing software requirements. So you’ll most certainly want to convert the file to a more compatible format like JPEG before releasing them. And this just adds to the complications.
Benefits of JPEG
Now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons of shooting RAW, let’s cover the same for JPEG.
Doesn’t Require Post-Processing
This file format doesn’t require post-processing since JPEG images are naturally processed in-camera by the RAW to JPEG conversion. So most of the changes you’d naturally make in editing, like adding saturation, contrast, and sharpening, are baked into the file from the beginning. Of course, you can always add more processing if you’d like. But there’s no real requirement to do so. And this fact makes the format ideal when traveling or times you want an instantly usable image that doesn’t require extra work or hassle. It’s also ideal for new photographers who are learning the basics of how white balance, sharpening, contrast, and other settings affect the image since you can see these effects in real-time.
Since JPEG files are compressed and lack much of the core information RAW offers, they’re much smaller. In fact, they average only 5-10 MB in size, making them about 1/4th of the average RAW files size. And that means they use less storage space on your SD card, computer, and hard drive. Hence you get faster backups, easier file management, and faster continuous shooting speeds since the camera has less data to process in the buffer. And that’s a big win if you’re working with limited storage on your memory card or shooting sports.
File Sharing & Compatibility
Unlike RAW, JPEG is the standard format across most modern display devices. So it’s highly compatible, easy to view, and doesn’t require specialized software. And given their efficient compression and small file size, it’s also easy to share online to a website or social media platform.
Downsides of JPEG
With that said, there are also some unique downsides or cons to shooting JPEG. Below are the most noteworthy ones.
JPEG files have lossy compression applied during the conversion process. This type of compression results in a smaller file size, which is great. But, it also causes compression artifacts or a loss of detail, contrast, color, and posterization. How noticeable these effects are vary based on the quality setting of compression you set on the camera. But, even JPEG Fine, the highest quality setting, causes some loss in detail, especially if you’re shooting a subject close-up, say during macro photography. The difference isn’t always critical, though. But many photographers find this loss of detail a deal-breaker for professional applications.
Since JPEG files throw away 2/3rds of the color data during the conversion process, the white balance preset permanently gets baked into the file. And while you can change it slightly after the fact, you don’t have complete freedom to change this setting once it is set.
Like white balance, the color space, like sRGB or Adobe RGB, is saved directly into the file. But, sadly, this isn’t something you can change directly after the fact.
The JPEG format is limited to 8-bit color, producing only 16.8 million possible colors. The camera discards all of the other color data during the conversion process. So by shooting JPEG, you’re effectively limiting the colors your camera captures to a third of its true capabilities. Sadly, the result of its 8-bit gamut is less color fidelity, harder color gradations, and a slight dullness. The tones of the photo are also a bit flat. Overall, this loss in color depth is a huge downside for those who value color fidelity and enjoy print images.
Since the conversion throws away 2/3rds of the light intensity values, this format also contains less dynamic range and limits the detail you can recover in the shadows or highlights. And, in general, overexposing or underexposing an image more than an EV stop results in a complete loss of detail. Thus, you’ll want to pay close attention to the histogram when using this format in high contrast scenes, such as landscapes or backlighting.
Merely converting a RAW file to JPEG in-camera makes the process destructive, as the camera interpolates the data and throws away any extraneous information permanently. So from the beginning, you lose valuable data from what the sensor captured during the time of exposure. Plus, any additional adjustments or changes to a JPEG image in the editing stage results in a generation loss of image quality. And all of these changes are cemented forever, too, so you can’t go back and undo the changes. It’s also important to highlight that the camera settings used during capture directly impact JPEG images. So applying too much in-camera sharpening, noise reduction, or contrast can destroy the photos from the beginning. And there’s no way to undo these effects after the fact.
Conclusion – Should You Shoot RAW or JPEG?
So should you be using RAW or JPEG for your photography? This question really depends on you and your shooting style. And while RAW is the superior format, given its added image quality and general flexibility, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should always use it. So below are some of the main reasons we’d suggest shooting with one format over the other.
When to Shoot JPEG
- Turn Around Speed & Ease of Use – If you hate the idea of post-processing your photos to a final image or you need a quick turnaround time for a shoot, say posting a highlight from your travels in real-time or working a tight deadline, shooting JPEG is best. Here you’ll get readily usable images and, if shot correctly, you can skip all of the hassles of editing. Using JPEG would also be best if you’re taking photos casually and you want to keep the photography workflow simple. Or if you want to proof images to show a client as a slideshow or in a gallery.
- Limited Storage – If you forgot to reformat your SD card or clear off old photos and now have limited storage space, shooting in JPEG is best to conserve the remaining space you have. The same applies if your computer or mobile device has limited storage for offloading photos.
- Sports, Wildlife, and Photojournalism – If you’re a sport, wildlife, or journalist photographer, speed is of the essence. Not only do you need photos for a quick turnaround, but you’ll also want to maximize your camera’s continuous shooting performance. Some agencies may also require JPEG images to prevent any photo manipulation. In that case, shooting JPEG is a must. But beware, you’ll want to use a semi-automatic mode, correct metering, and the right focusing settings to ensure the exposures don’t vary wildly throughout a session. Otherwise, shooting RAW would be best since these situations are pretty sporadic and constantly changing. But, it will slow down your camera’s buffer and burst rate.
- Personal Use – if you’re shooting a casual birthday party, thanksgiving dinner, or a selfie, it’s unlikely the added dynamic range and tonal information will make a difference. So for casual personal outings, shooting JPEG will make the workflow simple.
- You’re a beginner – If you’re new to photography, save the time learning about post-processing. Instead, focus on mastering your camera and going out and practicing. Shooting JPEG will make the process easy and reduce some of the challenges in the beginning. You can always learn about editing when you’re ready.
When to Shoot RAW
- High-Quality Printing – If you want to print your images with the most detail and color fidelity available on your camera, shooting RAW is best. Doing so unlocks the maximum dynamic range of your camera, its full-color gamut, and you’ll capture the highest quality photos. You can also upscale the original file if necessary for large format prints above 20-inches long and do so without the artifacts JPEG produces.
- Creative Flexibility – shooting RAW is best to edit your images with the maximum creative freedom to make them unique and stylized. It’s also best if you have the intention of editing images years later since you’ll maintain the original data captured during exposure. And that’s a great means to get better as a retoucher and develop your eye or style with time. Shooting RAW will also help you recover any mistakes during shooting, say the exposure or white balance was off.
- Professional Use – if you’re shooting professionally for a client or your portfolio, then shooting RAW is best, so you can maximize your camera’s image quality.
- Dynamic Range, HDR, and Tonal Detail – if you’re shooting in high contrast environments, like landscapes or backlighting, shooting RAW will help ensure you capture the best images possible. It’s also a must if you’re creating an HDR merge. Otherwise, you may struggle to capture enough exposure latitude or recover details in post-processing since JPEG has a limited dynamic range.
For us, personally, we shoot mostly JPEG + RAW. And we adjust the in-camera settings, like contrast, film simulation, color tone, and grain, to create unique JPEG images that are difficult to replicate in post-processing. But, we always prefer having the original RAW files, too, so we can go back later and re-edit them as we grow. While I don’t personally enjoy editing as much as Victor does, we must showcase editing from start to finish as a brand. And we also provide original RAW files with some publications. So in some situations, we don’t have much choice. Thankfully, storage is cheap these days, and there are many excellent image-culling and cataloging applications. So it’s not the end of the world to catalog both RAW and JPEG files. And the mere flexibility you get with RAW files, when you need it, far outweighs their downsides. Not to mention they unlock your true artistic creativity, and isn’t that the point of photography?