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Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG: Which File Format Should You Choose?

Photo of the digital camera menu - raw vs. jpeg file format choosing

Like many photographers, you may have asked yourself at least once: What format should I use in my photography – RAW vs. JPEG?

Today, I’ll guide you through the mystifying maze of these formats, dissecting their strengths and weaknesses. Buckle up because we’re about to settle the score.

What Is JPEG vs. RAW File Format?

First of all, we can’t understand something without adequately defining it. So let’s see the differences between raw and jpeg:

What is JPEG

JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the team that developed this file format. It’s arguably the most well-known and widely used image file format globally. When you take a picture in JPEG, the camera automatically processes the image data, resulting in a smaller, more storage-friendly file.

Imagine a JPEG as a universal translator for visual data. No matter what computer, phone, or web browser you use, this ‘translator’ can decode the picture and present it to you. Almost every software that works with images understands it.

Photo of a blue retro car in Adobe Photoshop image processing software

But it’s important to understand that JPEG is not the raw form of a photo. It’s more like a digested and refined version. Getting to this final version requires the camera to perform certain steps, such as reducing the size (compression), which sometimes implies leaving out some details (throwing away some data), sharpening the image, boosting saturation, and increasing contrast.

JPEG files have the advantage of convenience. The photos are ready to use straight out of the camera with no extra processing required. However, this also means less flexibility in post-processing, as much of the initial data has been compressed and discarded.

PRO TIP: JPEG is an excellent choice for snapshots and casual photography, where immediate sharing and space-saving are priorities.

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What is RAW?

Raw is not an acronym but a term describing a file containing all the image data your camera’s sensor captured. Unlike JPEG, RAW files are unprocessed, preserving much more information.

Think of RAW files as combining three core elements: a raw sketch, a polished picture, and a detailed diary. The sketch represents the unprocessed, “raw” data captured by the camera sensor – it’s a bit like the pure, untouched image yet to be refined.

Screenshot of a Mac folder containing photos in RAF format
Fujifilm RAW, RAF is a raw image format used by Fujifilm digital cameras

Meanwhile, the polished picture represents the camera-processed JPEG preview and thumbnail, which the camera uses to show you a quick, full-size depiction of your captured image on the device’s display or electronic viewfinder.

Lastly, the detailed diary represents the header and metadata, which has valuable information about your photo, such as exposure settings, camera and lens details, date and time, etc. Some parts of this diary help RAW conversion software understand and translate the raw sketch into a visible image. Other parts can assist you in organizing, categorizing, and filtering your photos based on the various details they carry.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom showing Metadata information of a photo

Personally, I prefer shooting in RAW. It provides a greater level of control in post-production, allowing for adjustments in exposure, white balance, and other parameters without significant quality loss. However, RAW files are much larger and require more storage space.

PRO TIP: Consider shooting in RAW for professional work or situations where you may need to fine-tune your images in post-processing.

Shooting Raw vs. JPEG: A Closer Look​

The debate about the raw or jpeg formats remains a critical topic. Both have advantages, yet choosing between them can be tricky for photographers. Let’s delve into the main differences between raw and jpeg:

Advantages of JPEGs

The debate about the raw or jpeg formats remains a critical topic. Both have advantages, yet choosing between them can be tricky for photographers. Let’s delve into the main differences between raw and jpeg:

Efficient Storage and Speed

JPEGs are an excellent choice for efficient digital storage and faster data transmission. This format uses a powerful compression mechanism to shrink the size of image files without eradicating their core visual elements – whether dealing with downloads, uploads or just looking to save disk space.

Screenshot of a folder on Mac with a photo of a kid showing "Rock On" sign with his fingers.

Device and Software Compatibility

The JPEG format is broadly supported across various devices and software. Regardless of the image viewer, web browser, or editing software you use, they’ll easily handle JPEG files. This includes popular tools like Microsoft Windows Photos, Apple Preview, Adobe Photoshop, and cloud services like Google Drive and Google Photos.

User-Controlled Compression

One striking feature of JPEGs is the ability to choose your preferred compression level. Quality settings typically range from low to high, affecting the final image quality. A higher compression ratio results in smaller file sizes and reduces image clarity and detail. You might find lower-quality settings useful in certain scenarios, like creating thumbnail images.

Screenshot of Adobe Lightroom export settings window

Direct Sharing from Cameras

Lastly, JPEGs can be used straight out of your digital camera, eliminating the need for any initial edits or format changes. This makes it a convenient choice for sharing pictures quickly and easily.

Disadvantages of Shooting in JPEG

Limited Post-Processing Control

Due to their compressed nature, JPEG images have limited latitude for adjustments. Attempting to rescue overexposed highlights, for instance, or modifying certain aspects such as the exposure or color balance, might prove significantly challenging and yield less satisfactory results than editing RAW files.

In-Camera Processing

When capturing images in JPEG, your camera takes the sensor data and compresses the image data, discarding the so-called unimportant information. The result restricts your creative control over the final image.

White Balance Constraints

JPEG shooting requires the correct white balance setting at the time of the shooting. This setting cannot be significantly modified during post-processing.

Overediting Issues

Excessive editing of JPEG images may result in visual artifacts such as banding or pixelation. This degrades the image quality and visual appeal.

Advantages of Capturing Images in RAW

shooting in raw format

Superior Image Quality

RAW file format provides the benefit of capturing all the data from the camera sensor without any compression or discard. This data-rich image format produces higher-quality images containing all the details captured during the shot. This makes it ideal for professional photography, where image quality is paramount.

Advanced Post-Processing Flexibility

RAW files enable higher control over photo editing, and the advantages become evident during color grading. You can adjust exposure and colors with precision and fewer artifacts, yielding a more dynamic range.

You can also recover more detail from highlights and shadows, which can be especially beneficial in high-contrast scenes.

Play Video about YouTube video thumbnail on how I edit my photos in Adobe Lightroom

White Balance Adjustability

Shooting in RAW format liberates you from the need to nail the white balance setting during the shot. Unlike JPEG, you can substantially adjust the white balance during post-processing without sacrificing image quality.

Disadvantages of Shooting in RAW

Larger File Size

RAW files are considerably larger than JPEG files. This not only consumes more space on your memory card but demands more extensive storage and processing capacity from your computer or graphics tablet.

Need for Post-Processing

Images shot in RAW are unprocessed and appear flat out of the camera. This means that RAW files require post-processing before they can be appropriately used, shared, or printed. Thus, shooting in RAW requires more time and effort in post-production.

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FAQs

Why Do RAW Images Look Different?

RAW images look different because they are unprocessed data from the image sensor of a digital camera. Unlike JPEG or PNG files, which are processed and compressed within the camera, RAW images are untouched, capturing all data received by the sensor.

As a result, RAW files contain much more detail and dynamic range but often appear less vibrant and more flat when initially viewed. They require post-processing in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop software to truly showcase their potential.

Do Any Professionals Shoot in JPEG?

Yes, some professionals do shoot in JPEG. While RAW files offer greater detail and more post-processing flexibility, they also require more storage space and processing time. JPEG can be more convenient in situations with limiting factors, such as photojournalism or sports photography, where quick turnaround times are necessary.

Furthermore, today’s cameras have very sophisticated JPEG engines so that you can get excellent results with good in-camera settings.

Why Do RAW Files Look Flat?

RAW files often look flat because they represent the full dynamic range of the camera sensor without any in-camera processing to enhance contrast, saturation, or sharpness.

The ‘flatness ‘represents a wealth of data in the image, particularly in the shadows and highlights, which you can then bring out in post-processing. This gives a great deal of creative control over the final look of your images.

What Is the Best Format for Photos?

The “best” photo format can depend mainly on your needs as a photographer. The RAW format is the best choice if you’re a professional photographer who wants maximum control over post-processing or shooting in challenging light conditions.

It captures the highest amount of data and gives you the most latitude in editing. However, RAW files are larger and require specific software to view and edit.

If you need to save storage space, or if you want a format that can be easily viewed, shared, and printed with no special software, JPEG is a good choice. JPEG files are processed and compressed in-camera, making them more immediately pleasing straight out of the camera, but with less potential for high-level editing later.

There’s also the TIFF format, which is lossless like RAW but fully compatible with almost every photo editing software and much smaller. TIFF files are an excellent choice for archiving high-quality images without further editing or exchanging images between different photo editing platforms. However, they are still larger than JPEGs and not as universally compatible for sharing and viewing.

JPEG vs. Raw: When Should You Use Each?

Long exposure photography with tripod

Should I Shoot in RAW or JPEG?

Both formats have their unique purposes and uses. So, don’t sweat it; there’s no universal right or wrong choice. While many photographers prefer shooting RAW, it’s not always the best option.

Here’s my take on the matter:

If you need to save space or share photos immediately, JPEG should be your pick. It’s ideal for instances when you’re unlikely to edit much.

On the other hand, Raw should be your go-to for professional shoots or in challenging lighting conditions. It provides flexibility in post-production, allowing you to fix exposure issues or white balance inaccurately captured in the field.

RAW vs. JPEG, Which One is Better: Conclusion

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer; the best format for you depends on your specific requirements and workflow.

In Conclusion: It’s All About Choice! The Raw vs. JPEG debate may never end. But remember, it’s about what suits your needs best. Sometimes, the best way to discover your format preference is through practice. Shoot in both formats, experiment with editing, and observe the results.

If you need more guidance, check out our other articles on OhMyCamera.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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