RAW vs. JPEG: Which To Choose

Should you be using one, the other or both?
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The differences between a RAW versus a JPEG file are immediately apparent when you open the images in the computer. Here, we’ve taken the same image in each format. At first blush, the JPEG is much more appealing. It has more contrast, richer color and more overall snap. Look at the insets, though. You can see that the RAW file preserves more fine detail in highlighted areas. Also, look carefully along the transition between the mountain ridge and the sky. The JPEG shows some slight artifacting compared to the RAW file. While it’s clear that the RAW file preserves more detail, it’s also a much duller image in its current state. You’ll need to put in some time and effort in the computer to make the image look good. Read below for more photo printing tips.



Is there still a reason to discuss RAW versus JPEG? In the earlier days of digital there was a raging debate, but today memory cards are big enough so that you can shoot plenty of RAW files without feeling limited by your card’s capacity, and computer processing power is so inexpensive that RAW file processing is no big deal. The advantages of JPEG—namely, you could shoot fast, file sizes were manageable, and the files didn’t tax your computer and processing software—have been mitigated. So is there still a reason to discuss it? Absolutely!

Advocates of shooting JPEG fall into two camps. The first simply doesn’t have any reason to shoot RAW. These photographers are happy to let the camera and its processing algorithms handle the image, and they like the results they get. They have no motivation to shoot RAW. The second camp doesn’t buy into the advantages of RAW. These photographers feel like they get the exposure right when they push the shutter button. For these photographers, RAW is a crutch for sloppy camera work, and they don’t need it because they aren’t sloppy.

On the RAW side, advocates also fall into two camps. One wants the exposure, color and white-balance control that RAW files give. These photographers shudder at the thought of in-camera processors applying algorithms and compressing their precious image data. The second group is fundamentally concerned with the notion of having as much image data as possible. No one knows what the future will bring in terms of technology, and the RAW files offer the most potential to be ready for anything that can come, so images can have a longer life and they can be reworked to maximum benefit down the road.



RAW ISO 1600

In these four images, you can see what happens to bright colors in RAW vs. JPEG files. The red and orange hues, in particular, are difficult for any image sensor, and applying JPEG algorithms exacerbates the problems. Also, you can see the effect of a higher ISO combined with JPEG processing on bright colors. The petals in the ISO 1600 JPEG have lost most of their subtle texture.

Who’s right? Well, all of these points of view have validity, and by now many readers will be asking a fundamental question: Since you can shoot RAW + JPEG without losing camera performance, why not just have the best of all worlds and forget the debate?

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As you probably know, when you’re shooting a lot of fine detail, higher ISOs can lead to a significant loss of that detail. When you add JPEG compression and processing into the mix, the problems are compounded. Notice the fine needles at the top and on the right side of this image. At ISO 1600, many of the individual needles are lost and the areas look more like clumps. RAW files shot at higher ISOs reduce the loss of detail.

In fact, that’s a good plan that leaves you the most options down the road, but it’s not necessarily the best course of action for most nature photographers. Before you just go and set up the camera to record two versions of every image, it’s a good idea to fully understand what you’re getting and the best ways to use each file so you can use your storage capacity and your computer time most efficiently.

We’ve mentioned some of the key benefits of RAW files. Overall, you get a finer degree of control over the image than you can with JPEGs. You can adjust exposure to some degree, although it’s a common misconception to think that you can make large adjustments to the exposure without losing detail. RAW files don’t magically give you more latitude. RAW files, however, give you much more control over the color balance and contrast in the image. So what’s the catch? The downside is that every RAW file needs to be processed, which can be time-consuming. In this regard, shooting RAW vs. JPEG is analogous to shooting black-and-while vs. color transparency film. A color transparency, once the exposure is made, is essentially done. It gets processed in a prescribed blend of chemicals, and it’s done. Black-and-white film, on the other hand, barely begins its journey to a final print when the original exposure is made. And just like black-and-white film, you can exercise a lot of control or a minimal amount, but you have to do some work to get from a latent image to a useable one. That’s the same as RAW files.

So a clear advantage of JPEG files, even today, is that you spend less time processing at the computer, which frees you up to spend more time shooting. JPEG files are shot and processed in an instant and once you import them into the computer, they can be easily emailed to friends or posted to online galleries. In short, the format lends itself to efficiency, if not control.

Earlier in this article, we wrote that the RAW + JPEG is probably the best way to cover all of your bets. It gives you the best of all worlds, although there are still some pitfalls (see the sidebar “Why Not Just Shoot RAW + JPEG All The Time?”). If you have both a RAW and a JPEG of the same image, you can use each file for its particular strengths.

Why Not Just Shoot RAW + JPEG All The Time?
Sure, RAW + JPEG keeps all of your options open, but it also takes up your memory card faster than shooting one or the other, and it can make things challenging down the road when you’re organizing and working on images in the computer. Having multiple copies of the same file leads to all sorts of confusion if you’re not careful and meticulous in your workflow and especially in your backup plans. For example, you might work on a JPEG, then save it as a TIFF so as not to overly compress the file. Later, you might work on the RAW file of the same image because you want to take advantage of the exposure latitude and you’ll save that as a TIFF. If you don’t keep track of all the files very well, you’ll quickly become pretty lost between the multitudes of files. This isn’t a problem unique to RAW + JPEG shooting, but it’s easier to get confused when you’re shooting RAW + JPEG.



    My feeling is RAW is a something profesionals use to brag. Oh look at me I am a profesional and I only shoot RAW. Well if you where really pro and worth your salt you would know which exposure settings to use and not need the extra flexability and extra work that comes with shooting a RAW image. If you don’t know your exposure setting take a couple of pictures with the different exposures settings and see which one comes out the best. I believe this is the best way to learn anything, by doing it over and over again. I prefer jpg because I would rather not do the extra work associated with shooting RAW images. I want to keep this art of photography as enjoyable and fun, not make it as much work as humanly possible. That being said there are some times when shooting in RAW will give me a better picture and knowing the art and when those situations arise is what makes someone a true profesional.

    i was given a minolta 35mm film camera several years ago that my uncle had for years. it has three lenses 28mm,50mm,135mm with no zoom lens. i have since bought a kodak 7.1 megapix w/a 12x optical zoom (36-432mm). i learned from my uncle, several books he had from way back when plus i get some photo mags. i am no pro but do best i can. i learned on a film camera and try to keep in mind what i leaned about how the camera works. if i look at the preveiw and think the subject will be exposed wrong. i move my camera to a area thats closer to what i want then press and hold my shutter button half way down. then move back to my subject and press all the way down or i’ll use flash on camera w/a corded remote flash to highlight the scene. i found for my needs that high quality jpeg works just fine. as many megapics as some cameras have now raw is not a real big deal for me. i have done several wedings & often print 8×10 that look terrific (can go up to 20×30 before it pixilates).

    I’ve wondered why camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon don’t make their extended lens cameras with RAW–they seem to have just JPEG. For that matter, considering all of the advantages of RAW, I wonder why more cameras–and cameras on smartphones/cell phones–don’t offer RAW? Price, perhaps? Maybe one of these days there will be software which can make it easy for anyone to use RAW files and RAW files to be available at a small size. RAW has its advantages but the ones mentioned here such as file size, along with camera price, make it impractical for many photographers.

    Excellent analogies and comparisons. It will for a time remain a complicated issue especially if in the mix we were to introduce the question of the intended use of each photo…what is the intended final product?

    Have enjoyed your ‘Staff’fine writing skills.

    I shoot JPEGs and do minor (and sometimes not so minor) adjustments to them in Elements. The idea that JPEGs are like slides and can’t be altered is just plain wrong. You can’t do as much as you can with RAW, but they are not like slides.

    Why manufacturers don’t allow raw as an output options is a mystery to me. EVERY digital camera shoots raw, but it is converted to JPEG. How much could it cost to accept the speed penalty just allow the user to have the raw if they want their pictures that way? Raw processing algorithms are owned by all of them.

    To Joel Bader – you said “considering all of the advantages of RAW”. But there are only like 1 and a half advantages to mention. Color balance is a big one. Exposure latitude isn’t as big as people like to think. To the author, why oh why would you shoot high ISO in still life landscape photography? This is “Outdoor Photography” keep the ISO low.

    I’ve pondered this decision for some time. In a John Shaw workshop he said that shooting both formats is not a good option, as when shooting in RAW you should expose for the highlights without clipping which is not what you do when shooting in JPEG. JPEG is more traditional where you expose for the shadows as in B&W film. It’s confusing at times and it seems everyone has a different opinion on it.

    Hi there,
    my choice for several years is only shooting RAW format.
    I edit in Aperture with Adobe Photoshop as external editor and have additional options ‘fine RAW Tuning’ that offer me few extra skills to control edge, sharpness, etc.
    The control in light or shadow area is significant powerful, also the Exposure.
    After I finish to edit, I export in different format, with or without watermark (I make some custom export format).
    It is also important that every export or resize to use only RAW format as master!

    RAW vs. JPEG. RAW delivers 4 times the digital information of JPEG and if you want to do something with the image like enlarge it, RAW delivers a more constructive result. JPEG is valuable for recording a moment and increasing the amount of in camera storage, again by 4 times. But, once RAW has been processed using a tool like Photoshop Elements, you will think twice about ever shooting JPEG again, except to record an unimportant moment.

    Camera of choice is Nikon D3; backup is Nikon D2sx. My wife wants prints to show the grandkids and JPEG lets her get them printed quickly. While I consider myself a good photographer, I am far from professional. The ability to adjust in Lightroom is fantastic but time consuming. I just returned from three weeks in Africa. The processed RAW shots blow JPEG away.

    Look, if you want to treat your DSLR like a glorified P&S and are satisfied with mediocrity, then by all means shoot JPEG. However, if you want to be serious about your photos then shoot RAW.

    You should want full control and not leave it to algorithms to decide how your photo should look. Otherwise, just click your wheel to the Auto setting and press the button.

    I personally prefer to shoot more and Photoshop less. Since I have a day job, shooting 1000 RAW images on a trip, then coming home and post-processing all of them takes a lot more time than I have. I think that Canon’s in-camera setting make it possible to get very high quality jpegs right out of the camera, and combining that with a Hoodloupe to immediately reshoot to get a proper exposure, if necessary, I feel I get excellent results. RAW may offer the ability to salvage poor exposures, capture better shadow detail, etc., but frankly that is not of great practical value.

    One advantage to RAW I have not seen mentioned is the potential for future improvements in the conversion algorithm. The fact that a computer has more processing power allows it to run far more complex software than what can be run in a camera. As new RAW processing software is developed, even old RAW images may yield better results.

    I think that RAW always allows you to get all the information that you can, sometimes you will need it, some times not, but in the end with the low cost of storage mediums and the appropiate software to process images (mainly Aperture and Lightroom) I think that it is a better choice to always use RAW (JPEG only if rapid action is needed) and keep those extra bits with you, i normally dont perform too much changes to the images, but when needed those extra bits, can become invaluable.

    When I got my first digital with the ability to shoot both RAW and JPEG, I followed advice and shot both. On my pictures, the RAW is far better even before processing. The amount of difference varies from one shot to the next, but the RAW is always better. Having just made the jump from slides to digital may affect my judgement a bit, as I really prefer the slide qualities.

    RAW files are so much more versatile, but their size still makes them a pain in the ass. I might shoot 5 or 600 images a day, and that puts a load on any desktop when you do it day after day.

    You have to cull RAW photos mercilessly if you don’t want them to overwhelm you (used to think 1 terabyte was HUGE) with sheer volume.

    But you can’t match the detail of the image, with all its data intact and uncompressed, it will always be the
    most fun to play with before running jpgs.

    Well this debate may never end. However this is certainly a great article to remind us to reconsider long held attitudes in light of changing technology.

    I would like to add a few thoughts:

    There is an advantage of shooting raw and JPEG that was not mentioned… with the Apple iPad you can load you photos (raw and jpeg) and actually see them on a bigger screen which is nice in itself but if you are connected to the iCloud the jpeg version is automatically uploaded to the cloud so you have a backup and you can see the photos on any connected device. Even when you delete the photos from the iPad they remain in the cloud. This happens when I transfer the photos to the computer and delete the source which is the only reasonable way to the remove large numbers of photos from the iPad.

    I use both RAW and JPEG settings simultaneously on my Canon 5D MKII, and can process them separately with the Canon program. Able to choose between RAW and JPEGS.
    More card space but more choices also.

    My file type depends on purpose.
    I shoot hundreds of photos at work as progress record and these are save as an 8×12 jpg, shot as a jpg.
    However, when i go out on my weekend floral shoot or go for a stunning architectural shot, i shoot raw. End product may be a fine art print or a computer desktop wallpaper, but i have the raw file with which all my options are open from editing to prining.
    No debate, no problem. Neat solution, for me, that works nicley…

    Almost everything is already said, but just want to add one thing. Some people think that when shooting RAW you can almost forget about right exposure since you can always correct it afterwards, and that is not true. Better a well-exposed jpeg file that an over or subexposed RAW file.
    I think that photography is much more than recovering underexposed areas in a picture. Light, framing, subject, exposure, sensitivity are much more important issues to worry about in order to get good pictures and sometimes people forget it.

    James your assumption that a “professional” is someone that knows more or is better at something is wrong. A “professional” is someone that makes a living at what they are doing. Also your innuendo that people that shoot RAW do not know how to set proper exposure is just not true. The fact that you do not like shooting RAW does not make it a valid choice for others. I wish people would stop denigrating others for their choice of tools and processes. Learn the tools and processes and use the ones that work for you.

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