RAW or Jpeg which to choose and why.
From RAW's rich detail to JPEG's convenience, unravel the secrets behind your camera's image output. Learn which format to use, why and when. Read on.
I sipped on the hot coffee in my hand as a few themes for the next Photo tutorial rattled about my brain. I know I’ve missed telling you something simple but crucial I thought. Then it hit me. RAW or Jpeg which to choose and why. I know, not as exciting as a shampoo head-massage from a supermodel but the info in this little article is a game changer.
So RAW or Jpeg which to choose and why.Before we get into that here’s the basic’s. For photographers and yes that includes you, there are three main file formats. JPG, TIFF and RAW. This is true whether your shooting on a stunningly expensive DSLR or your iPhone.
The primary difference between these formats is whether they are compressed or not. Files that are compressed like jpg are referred to as ‘Lossy’. Formats that are uncompressed, such as TIFF or RAW are generally referred to as ‘Lossless’. Pretty simple so far, right? If your mingling with the photo crowd and you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, you can refer to RAW files as ‘Digital Negatives’. We’ll get to this in a bit.
Stuffing Your Card
So, what’s the big deal? The most popular image format on the planet is jpg. From the images on your favorite website to the photo-file’s your phone produces. Take a second to read the last few letters at the end the file name of your favorite puppy image and you’ll see.jpg.
There are several advantages to setting your camera to shoot and record jpg files.
The two main advantages to setting up your camera to shoot in jpg mode, is that you can easily and quickly share your photos with friends and family. Jpg’s can be read by almost every electronic device on the planet, irrespective of style or brand. The other is that because the images are compressed, you can literally stuff hundreds if not thousands of images onto your camera’s memory card. Great right?
Should photos be Processed?
This is a small article detour but I promise it's relevant:
OK, confession time the title above is just me poking the argument that seemingly never stops between those that think that no images should be processed in any way because 'It's cheating" or because they think it somehow changes the pure nature of real photography.
Let me explain as simply as i can; in an age of digital photography, every single image that is shared in print or electronically via the internet is unequivocally processed! When your camera spits out a Jpeg image 'It has been processed'. In order for the camera to produce a Jpeg file, no matter your cameras brand or model name, it has added contrast, detail enhancement, colour profiling and saturation algorithms. So, the only question you have to ask is whether you think your camera's 'guess' at what enhancements should be added are better or worse than your own. If you think, as the photographer who actually took the shot that your opinion and judgement matters, then perhaps you should be the one who processes the final image and chooses the ultimate look and feel of the shot.
When it comes to RAW or Jpeg which to choose and why, there are a few things that you will need to remember about Jpeg's. Yep, there is a dark-downside to jpeg’s and it's a big one. The Jpg format is lossy and as the name suggest, in order to compress the image file to a smaller size, your camera has to dump image data and then compress what’s left.
Let me explain. Your average 22 MP (Mega Pixel) camera records around 28 MB of data for each photo. If you’ve selected the jpg option in your cameras file format menu, your camera will produce jpg files that are approximately 7mb in size. Twenty-two minus seven, where did the other 15mb of data go? When your camera converts and compresses your image to a jpg file, it throws away image data, never to be seen again. Fundamentally you’re getting a watered-down version of what your camera actually saw. To make the image file smaller, you loose color data, detail data and contrast data, hence you're only seeing a fraction of what your camera is really able to produce. To my mind this is a fools economy and undermines all the legitimate reasons as to why you probably upgraded to a better camera or phone.
Let's look at some quality comparison examples below: PURE RAW left / Camera jpeg right.
The image on the left is the RAW file straight from camera with all processing settings zeroed. . The image on the right is a Jpeg produced file with the settinge set by the camera. As i mentioned above, every Jpeg is processed as the camera adds saturation, colour profiling, exposure algorithms and white balance to produce the final Jpeg file. I think you'll agree the Jpeg looks good and certainly sightly better then the darker flatter RAW file.
BELOW: The left image is the RAW file straight from camera with all processing settings zeroed. As you can see it's darker and flatter than either the camera processed Jpeg file or the correctly processed file that was created using Adobe Lightroom. Have a careful look at the Processed RAW image (using Lightroom), the balance of highlights and darker tones is better balanced and the colour and detail both have more visual depth than the camera produced Jpeg file (as seen above right)
Think of this in car terms. Your 22MP camera is a Ferrari, capable of 200 mph. Selecting jpeg only mode is like driving your Ferrari only in 2nd gear, on cheap fuel using re-tread tires. Seriously, why would you?
To make matters worse, jpg files are substantially less editable than RAW files, so if you're thinking about post-processing or enhancing your favourite photo, well, you're going to struggle with a Jpeg file. Sure, you can still edit a Jpeg but you have substantially less wiggle room and data to play with.
RAW files are bigger. There it is, but with memory cards and external hard-drives being cheaper today then they ever have been, the extra size really isn’t a big deal. If you're a pro or simply want to produce the best image possible, then RAW is the file format to select. The RAW file is effectively all the data and color your camera saw and captured when you pressed your camera’s shutter release button. All the extra data in the image means you can post process, using RAW Image editing programs like Adobe Lightroom, Luminar Neo, ON1 Photo RAW and others. And, if you want to print the image in large format, you can upscale RAW files without loosing details and produce some very large and detailed prints.
The superior quality, detail and flexibility of RAW files is why they are often referred to aa ‘Digital Negatives’. They hold and show all the detail, depth, drama and colour that your camera’s sensor actually recorded.
Bear in mind that RAW files are proprietary and each camera brand uses a different RAW format. But manufacturers supply software with your camera so you can view the RAW files and even convert them to jpg or TIFF files to share with your friends or family. FYI, TIFF files can be easily read just like jpg files, by most electronic devices but they are uncompressed and very large.
When To Use JPEG (JPG) and when to shoot in RAW
Is each format useful? Yes.
But, is there clearly one format that is superior? Absolutely! Don’t let anyone tell you that JPEGs are just as good as RAWs, because the bottom line is that they are not! There is a vast difference in the amount of information retained in a RAW file compared to a JPEG as you will soon come to see.
Stating that RAW is a clearly superior file format, does that mean that you should always be shooting in RAW? Absolutely not. Both formats have their uses, and we use both formats frequently. So, here are some guidelines of when you would want to shoot RAW versus when you would want to shoot JPEG:
1. If you are shooting in any scenario where things are happening quickly or where there is a lot of energy or changing light then Go RAW – If you’re photographing special lifetime moments where people are sharing their emotions, then its all about the content and energy of the shot. No one's got the superpower to nail the "perfect exposure" every single time. RAW lets you click away swiftly, gathering enough data to fix any exposure hiccups later.
2. When you’re shooting vibrant or dramatic landscape and you need to capture the Full Spectrum of light and drama then shoot RAW – RAW is your backstage pass to those beautifully lit landscapes that make you feel like you are there. It hands you the keys to post-production paradise, letting you tweak highlights, shadows, and tone-map like a photographic ninja.
3. If you have the need for speed? (JPEG or RAW+JPEG) – If your recently shot images absolutely have to be crammed into a keynote presentation or some other time sensitive scenarios then go for JPEG. But, if you crave the flexibility of post-production and you want the benefit of instant usability, go RAW+JPEG. Just a heads up: keep spare memory cards close by.
4. Web-Worthy Shots (JPEG) – Crafting shots for quick social post don't demand perfection. Does a small 600-pixel image on Facebook marketplace need the RAW treatment? Probably not. Save time, aim for JPEG. Get your exposure and temperature right and click away.
5. Tight on Space (JPEG) – We’ve all been there, found a great photo Op only to realise we’re running out of space on our memory cards. Now is a good time to switch to JPEG. Remember that one good JPEG is better than no RAW photo at all!
6. Personal Clicks (JPEG and/or RAW) – If you’re shooting a personal get together, a BBQ or your kids playing soccer at the weekend, you probably don’t need to be editing them to perfection. So kick RAW to the curb and shoot in JPEG.
7. Speedy Shutter Magic (JPEG) – A couple of years ago I was photographing wild orangutans swinging through the branches in Borneo. My camera was set up to shoot 11 frames per second, the problem was it wasn’t and I was struggling to get even 3 shots per second. My memory card was the problem. The RAW files the camera was writing were too big the my slower and older memory card simply couldn't keep up. The solution was to switch to JPEG. Voila, suddenly I’m shooting at 11 fps and sounding like a paparazzi in the jungle. result!
The Best of Both Worlds
RAW or Jpeg which to choose and why: The great news is that most modern digital camera’s will shoot and record both RAW and Jpg simultaneously. So, you don’t have to choose just one format at the expense of the other. Check through your camera fie format menu and select ‘dual-recording’ and then select RAW + JPG (fine). With this chosen your camera will record your photos as both a RAW file and a high quality jpg file. You’ve now got the best of both worlds. All the detail and quality of the Raw file and the convenience of the jpg file.
As a photographer who has traveled the world, and made my fair share of ‘dumb mistakes’ I've learned the hard way, that understanding the role of file formats in producing high-quality, editable images, should never be undervalued. If you're looking to take your photography to the next level, think seriously about shooting in RAW.
*If you would like to learn more about Post-Processing and Editing in order to create a fantastic and professional looking image then why not join us for a Post-Processing workshop either in person or online.
TIP: Remember if you choose to shoot in RAW, your images will be larger in file size. You may have to think about investing in larger memory cards to record the images and more hard drive space to store the images .
Good luck and have fun.
Please leave a comment if you've found this article helpful.
Professional photographer and motorcycle adventurer based in Wales, United Kingdom, and founder of LIVING LENS PHOTOGRAPHY and 2 Ride The World. Simon, with his wife spent 17-years travelling the world by motorcycle, exploring some of the most remote and beautiful location on earth across 6 continents. His editorial and photographic work has been featured in publications all over the world, and his commercial clients include brands such as, BMW Motorrad, Adobe and SENA.