RAW vs JPEG. What's the Difference?

One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make regarding your images is choosing which file type for the camera to record. All DSLR/Mirrorless cameras will come with the option of recording the file as a RAW file or a JPEG. I’m not going to hit you with all of the technical details about what each file type is and how many bits and all that. I’m just going to explain it in layman’s terms and help you understand the difference and when it may be suitable to shoot in each type. There are advantages and disadvantages to each and we’ll cover those below.

Let me start with this little disclaimer before we get started though. Absolutely, positively learn how to make a good exposure in the camera first, before worrying about post processing and shooting in RAW. No amount of post processing can fix a technically bad photograph, or one that is out of focus. Learn how to work the camera, how to focus correctly, and what a good exposure should look like before worrying about the post processing side. Try to get your images as good as you can in the camera first and foremost.

The short version is this. A JPEG file is essentially a finished product straight out of the camera. You set the contrast, saturation, white balance and everything else in your camera, and when you take the photo the camera then applies those settings to the image, spits out a JPEG file and you’re done. It’s ready to share, print, upload or whatever else your end result would be. The files size is small and doesn’t take up much room on your memory card.

RAW files are much, much larger files. They require additional software to open (usually supplied with your camera), and once you open them in the software of your choice, they usually look pretty darn bad. The images will have very little contrast and look “flat”. They will show all the noise that your sensor produces. And, after sitting down to post process each image you end up turning it into a JPEG anyway (in most cases anyway)!

So why on earth would you ever want to shoot in RAW? One word: Control. When you shoot in JPEG, you are essentially letting the camera make the decisions about what the final product looks like. Sure, you get to choose the “picture mode” that you like (vivid, landscape, portrait, natural, etc…) and the camera will apply these preset setting to the image. You can tweak a couple of the settings like contrast and saturation but that’s really the extent of it. Whatever the white balance is set to on your camera at the time you press the shutter button is what gets applied to the final image. The problem with this is that if you want to edit that image later, a lot of the detail gets thrown out when the settings are applied and the file is compressed. If you spend the day shooting and then later realize that you bumped your exposure compensation wheel down a couple of stops, meaning all of your images are underexposed, the quality is going to be degraded considerably if you try to correct the exposure in post processing. If there was any part of the image that was completely black or completely white, well, there is no getting the detail back in those spots.

When you shoot in RAW it is like giving you the freedom to point and shoot and work out the details later. That doesn’t mean that you simply put the camera in Manual and just start shooting. You still need to get as close as you can to a good exposure in the camera before you take the file to the computer. Once you open that RAW file in your software it will still contain all of the detail in the scene. This is why learning to use your camera’s built in histogram is essential. I won’t go into detail on that here (but will on a later post), but in short the histogram shows you the overall brightness of your image. The darkest tones are on the left and the brightest on the right. As long as your image keeps the peaks of the histogram from touching either edge you’ve got an image with no loss of detail. The only exception will be the parts of the histogram that DO touch the edge. We call that “clipping” because no matter how much you brighten/darken your image in post production the parts of the image that reached the edge are lost, or clipped.  You can then adjust the entire exposure as if you had shot it that way in the camera with no loss of quality at all. You can literally take an image that you accidentally shot two stops underexposed and bring up the exposure to a good level as if you’d shot it that way in the first place. But what is even better is that you can control the shadows and the highlights independently without effecting the entire image.

And that is just one single benefit of shooting in RAW. You also get full control of things like white balance, sharpening, noise reduction, contrast and saturation. There are literally dozens more settings that you can tweak and adjust to get the image to look exactly the way you want it to. You can intensify the shadows to create more drama, or overexpose highlights for a washed out look. I highly recommend subscribing to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photographer’s package for $9.99 a month that gives you full access to Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom will become an essential part of your workflow once you really start taking control over your images when shooting in RAW.

Here’s the thing. Most every “pro” photographer or anyone who has been shooting for a decent amount of time will tell you that you 100%, absolutely, positively MUST shoot in RAW. Typically the only exception people will accept is if you are shooting sports, because you typically need a larger buffer for high frame rate continuous shooting. Your camera may be able to shoot something like 20 RAW images in a row before having to slow down to think and process because the file sizes are so large. That same camera may be able to shoot 130 JPEG images in a row without missing a beat though. If your camera shoots at 10 frames per second, that’s only 2 seconds of shooting in RAW before it will start slowing down or stopping completely to process. But other than that, most everyone will tell you you HAVE to shoot RAW if you are a “real” photographer. I tend to differ on that though.

Let me first start by saying this. If you are being paid to shoot something, shoot in RAW. 100%. Even if you are doing some family photos for a friend for free, still, shoot in RAW. With that out of the way, there are many times where you just don’t need to shoot in RAW and spend the time editing just to share to Facebook or something like that. If my daughter is at the park and i just want to snap some pics of her coming down the slide to share with friends and family, you better believe I’m shooting in JPEG. Typically if I’m on vacation and just walking around taking snapshots I will shoot in JPEG as well. Those kind of photos are not photos that I’m going to enter into contests, or large format print. They are mostly being made for my memories and to share with family and friends. They don’t care if the clouds are not perfectly exposed, or the shadows are a little too dark in that one spot. They just want to relive the moment like they were there again. Also, most cameras now produce extremely good JPEG files. I know several people that shoot Fuji cameras and also Olympus that have almost completely stopped shooting in RAW altogether because the file that those brands produce are just that good. Now, I would not recommend giving up RAW completely. You still do want and need that control over your image in certain scenarios.

If I’m getting my camera out with the intent of making a picture, meaning I’m specifically trying to make a great image, then I’m shooting in RAW. No question. If I know that I may want to make a high quality print of the image that I’m setting out to capture, I’m shooting in RAW. If I’m shooting anything at all that I will be giving to someone else, meaning portraits, family sessions, weddings, you guessed it. RAW. Landscape photo? RAW. My cousin’s toddler running around the living room….. JPEG. See the difference there? I don’t need to spend the time to edit and color correct a snapshot of my cousin’s toddler in a living room. No amount of post processing is likely going to make that an interesting image. Sure it may be cute and all, but realistically you probably aren’t planning on printing that shot. The way I kind of see it is that if I’m taking the time to set up an image, create a good composition and make sure the lighting is correct, I’m likely shooting in RAW. If I’m putting the time into an image, I want it to be the best it can be. On the flip side, if I’m just taking shots as I see them on the fly and not really focusing on overall composition or making sure the lighting is right, I’ll just shoot in JPEG and take what the scene gives me and go about my day.

I will say though, with smartphones being as good as they are now, there are rarely times that I have my pro gear in my hands when I’m not setting out to get a great image. I will usually just snap any basic pics with my iPhone and share them right away. The cameras in those devices make very good images, and there is not really a need to carry my gear bag with me if I’m not setting out to make a photo. But that is just me, and i know there are probably several people that would disagree with that. The snapshots that we talked about earlier where I’d normally shoot in JPEG are pretty much handled by my iPhone now. So that means that realistically my camera stays in RAW about 99% of the time.

After all is said and done, shooting RAW really is the better way to go, especially if you are setting out with the intention of taking great photographs. Learning to use presets in Lightroom will cut your post processing time in half or even much more in some cases. Start out in JPEG until you have mastered your camera and how it works. Once you understand how to correctly get a good exposure, you should start experimenting with RAW to get even more out of your photos! Once you see just how much control over the final outcome you can have, your creative juices will never stop flowing!