RAW vs JPEG – Which Image File Format is Better?

RAW vs JPEG image comparison

RAW and JPEG Files

RAW format and jpg (or jpeg) format are two distinctly different files types produced by your digital camera. When you set up your camera you can choose to save your photos are either of these formats or save them as both simultaneously. The main differences between RAW files and jpeg files are the file size and quality.

A RAW image is a large, uncompressed flat file. They contain all of the image raw data captured by the sensor when you take a photo. RAW images are very large because of this. But, choosing to use the RAW format means you get the best image quality possible.

Jpeg files are altered and compressed by the camera during the process of taking them. When you choose to save your images in the jpeg format the file sizes are smaller because some of the image data is discarded by the camera. This means that you are not getting the best quality image possible.

There are pros and cons to RAW vs JPEG files. Keep reading and you’ll discover what you need to know about which file format best fits your photography style.

RAW files need a 2-step process to generate an image file that can be shared or printed. RAW files are also larger in size than JPEGs because they contain all the image information from the sensor. On the other hand, JPEG is a compressed file processed in your camera immediately after taking the photo. When you select JPEG, your camera’s internal software compresses the image and creates a ready-to-use image.

raw image of an egg.

A Bit More Information About the RAW Format of Image Files

Like raw food, a RAW file needs some ‘cooking’ to make it more interesting to consume. 

RAW images are often preferred by photographers who like to edit images. A RAW image contains all the data your camera captures every time you take a photo. Because of this, you have more to work with when you are post-processing your digital photographs. RAW files are not processed at all by the camera. What the sensor captures when you press the shutter release button is recorded and stored as a RAW file.

Each camera company has its own proprietary RAW image format. They each have different names they use as file naming extensions. Nikon use NEF and NRW. Canon raw files are CR2 and CRW. Sony names their RAW image files as SRF or SR2. You can find a good list of these RAW image files extension names here.

Looking at the image of an unprocessed RAW file they look rather flat and dull compared to jpeg files. This is because when your camera saves an image as a jpeg file it adds some enhancements to it. These are things like sharpening, contrast, and color saturation. With a RAW file, the camera leaves it as it is and you need to make any image edits with post-processing software like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The most noticeable time when RAW vs JPEG makes an impact is when you come to post-process your digital photography. Because a RAW file contains all the data your camera records when you take a photograph you have more to work with when you are editing. The dynamic range and depth of information stored in a RAW file makes them more flexible to work with. 

difference in raw and jpg.

About Digital Images Saved in the JPEG Format

Jpeg files are always smaller in size than RAW format files. This is because when your camera saves jpeg files it throws out some of the information your camera’s image sensor captures. This happens in-camera before the jpeg image is saved to your memory card. How much information is discarded depends on the settings you have chosen in your camera. 

In the camera’s menu system you can set the size and the amount of compression you want the camera to apply when it saves jpeg images. This controls the file size. It also has a noticeable impact on image quality. The smaller the jpeg file size, the lower the image quality will be.

When your camera saves a jpeg image it processes the raw data to make the photo look nicer. You can also control what type of edits and how much they are applied. This is done through the camera’s menu system. To learn about how to do this you need to read your camera manual or do an online search about it that is specific to your camera. This is probably easier than trying to read your camera manual.

Once these alterations are made to a jpeg file the jpeg image will look better than a RAW image file does. After the camera applies the edits it will then discard image data that are not needed and this will result in a smaller file size. It also means you have immediately lost image quality.

JPEG images cannot be post-processed using software or image editing apps the same way RAW files can be. This is because data is thrown out as they are being saved. This is one of the key factors in the discussion about RAW vs JPEG files.

avocado in a white plate.

Advantages and Disadvantages of RAW vs JPEG Images

When you edit RAW files you have so much more flexibility to work and get your photos looking just the way you want them to look. When you edit jpeg files you’ll soon start to notice that the image quality is not the same as when you edit a RAW file.

Editing RAW files is so much more satisfying than jpeg processing. Once you start processing RAW files you will rarely be tempted to only save your photos in the jpeg format. This is because compressed files are not so robust. A JPEG image tends to start degrading more quickly in post-production. You will see pixelation starting to happen, especially as you apply any heavy or extreme editing.

Processing RAW files is much different because you have all the data digital cameras save. Any of the RAW formats stand up better when you spend time post-processing them. You can think of a RAW file as a digital negative that must be processed. Even though a RAW file contains all the data and takes up more storage space, they are preferable. This is because you can do so much more with them in an editing program.

Always saving in the RAW file format does till a camera’s memory card more quickly than if you are saving in jpeg mode. But memory cards are getting to be higher capacity and less expensive per gigabyte, so the space issue with image capture should not hold you back.

Saving JPEG files means your camera buffer will not fill up so fast because the files are smaller. The camera buffer is where the camera stores the photos as you take them before they are written to the camera’s memory card.

raw image of a women holding a leaf.

Pros and Cons of RAW vs JPEG in the Editing Process

Getting a good-looking final image is more challenging with RAW photos because you must process them. Unlike jpegs, the RAW file format does not benefit from things like complex sharpening algorithms. Most cameras have a whole selection of image sharpening and other tweaks that will make your jpeg files look nice. But this does limit how you can post-process them compared to the RAW file format.

If you underexpose a JPEG file you will not be able to draw out as much of the details in the dark areas as if you had saved your original file in the RAW format. Underexposed jpeg images can also tend to display more compression artifacts at times. The camera settings you choose can also affect this.

It’s always good to make sure you don’t take underexposed images or overexposed images. But when you do, editing a RAW file you can bring back much of the visual information that will be lost when a jpeg file is compressed by the camera. Also, the more often you compress a jpeg file, the more compression artifacts will be visible in the final image.

Taking time to carefully edit a RAW file will produce far better results than when you process a jpeg photo the same way.

Some photographers usually shoot RAW and JPEG simultaneously. In RAW files, you get all the image information picked up by the camera sensor in an unfinished and unprocessed format. RAW files have more information than JPEGs. So you will be able to adjust exposure on shadows, highlights, white balance, and more depending on the software you’re using.

Working with RAW Files

RAW is not an image file that can be shared or printed until it is processed and saved in a usable format. You cannot use a RAW file for anything until they have been processed (no printing or sharing on social media). The RAW files are flat in appearance when you open them, and you need photo editing software to process the file. Manufacturers usually include software to process RAW files. Canon uses ImageBrowser EX, Nikon ViewNX, etc., Or third-party applications like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

snow landscape.

As you upgrade from one camera to another, even if it is the same brand, you may also need to upgrade your image editing software. This is because camera companies are continually tweaking their RAW file formats to improve them. So the latest cameras record a RAW photo differently than an older camera. For example, you might have been using a Canon camera that saves CR2 RAW files and upgrading your camera to another one that saves RAW files with the same filename extension. If you don’t have the latest version of the editing software you’ll need to download it as it may not be able to read the files from your new camera.

When you take a lot of photos and save them as RAW files you will need more storage space on your computer. Having additional hard drives for backup and coping with all the images you take is very common for busy photographers. The good thing is that hard drives are cheaper and have a higher storage capacity than ever.

tree in a forest.

Digital Image Editing Workflow

The RAW vs JPEG debate loses meaning for photographers who are not interested in editing their photographs. They have the camera apply some tweaks to make their photos look nice and then forget about them. However, as most photographers do like to edit their images it’s important to have a good workflow.

Developing a good digital editing workflow is important whether you are saving your photos as RAW or JPEG files. It’s not only a matter of larger file sizes taking up more space, but having to work through all the photos you took looking for the good ones. Recognizing photos you’ll never look at again for any reason and learning to delete them will help you enjoy editing a lot more.

girl showing sparklers.

Once you can clear out the low-quality photos (we all take them!) and only be seeing the ones you think are worth working on, you can begin to make the most of them. Having them well organized and labeled well helps you to manage the editing process more smoothly. 

Once you have finished editing your RAW files you will need to save them in a different format. There are many different file formats that you can save your digital images as. You are not restricted to RAW vs JPEG when you are saving them in digital image editing software.

jpg vs raw images illustration.

Conclusion

The advantages of RAW are; 

  • higher quality images with greater details
  • more flexibility in post-production. With RAW, you can change; white balance, add sharpness, add contrast, and other things. 

With JPEG, the image has already been processed, and you can only make minor changes. It’s recommended that you use JPEG for casual shots that need little to no post-processing. Use RAW for more important images where editing may enhance the image. Some photographers use RAW to capture the maximum amount of dynamic range out of the camera. For high dynamic range shots, shoot in the middle of the range and use the histogram to maximize the tonal range.

If you shoot RAW+JPEG, keep an eye on memory because your memory card will fill up very quickly. If you’re shooting action or sports photography in RAW, your FPS (frames per second) could be impaired while the camera transfers data to the memory card. In those instances where you want to shoot sport in RAW, a faster memory card may help.

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