RAW Versus JPEG – Which one is right for you and why?

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Most cameras today can shoot pictures in one of two main formats: RAW versus JPEG. The debate about which format to use is as old as digital photography itself and the internet is rife with articles, blogs, videos, and seminars illustrating the differences between the formats as well as opinions regarding which one to use.

Ultimately the question of which is the correct choice becomes steeped in subjectivity. There is no single objective correct answer, which is a lesson I learned over the course of many years. Instead of asking which option is right, the real question should be which option is right for you.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one to use and why?

Straight-out-of-camera JPEG file.

Differentiating between the formats

Understanding the difference between RAW and JPEG file formats is a bit tricky since both appear somewhat similar at first glance. Afterall, when you load either file type into Lightroom or another photo editor you see pretty much the same thing.

However, when you take a picture in RAW you are saving as much data as your camera sensor can possibly collect. Whereas a JPEG file discards some of the data in favor of creating an image that takes up less space on your memory card and is easy to share. With RAW files you gain a huge amount of flexibility in terms of editing the file, and a lot of photographers prefer this as a way to get the most out of their images.

RAW is somewhat comparable to analog film in that RAW files can be manipulated, massaged, and modified to bring to life details from dark areas, recover crystal-clear clouds from what you thought was an overexposed skyline, and improve images dramatically in almost every way.

JPEG files don’t offer nearly as much flexibility, but they do have some significant advantages in their own right. The most notable of which is a much smaller file size and ease of sharing, since JPEG files don’t need to be converted in a program like Lightroom, Photoshop, Luminar, etc.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one to use and why?

It wasn’t RAW or JEPG that helped me get this photo. It was an understanding, developed from years of practice, of how light, aperture, focal length, and other parameters can be manipulated to create a compelling image.

The important thing to note is that neither format is inherently better than the other and each has its uses. To illustrate what I mean I’m going to share a bit from my own experience.

Starting from scratch

My own journey through the RAW versus JPEG continuum started shortly after I got serious about digital photography many years ago, in a manner not dissimilar from many photographers. When I got my first DSLR I didn’t know anything about RAW and instead fiddled with different JPEG settings in order to find a balance of quality and quantity.

I eventually settled on the Medium size and Medium compression so as to make sure I could take well over 4000 images before running out of space on my memory card. I had heard about the RAW setting but ignored it since it would only let me fit a couple hundred shots on my memory card which seemed silly compared to several thousand.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one to use and why?

As months went by, I became intrigued with the flexibility offered by the RAW format despite the larger size of each image file. I learned to edit my pictures in Lightroom by changing White Balance, boosting the shadows, editing color filters in the black and white mode, and even applying Radial and Gradient filters.

I soon realized that the trade-off in file size was worth it because I could do so much more with my images in post-production. “Who wouldn’t want to shoot in RAW?” I asked myself. I also often engaged other aspiring photographers in the discussion of shooting RAW versus JPEG while believing that RAW was clearly the superior format.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

Original picture, shot in RAW format.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

Finished version after some editing in Lightroom. If the original was shot in JPG I never would have been able to get a final result like this.

It didn’t take much longer until I was shooting everything in RAW. My kids eating breakfast, my family vacations, formal portrait sessions, random nature shots of animals and leaves…you name it, I shot it in RAW. Shooting in JPEG, I told myself, was for suckers who didn’t know any better!

Each time I loaded yet another round of my RAW files into Lightroom (while getting something to drink and finding a place to put my feet up while the initial previews loaded) I knew that no matter what the pictures looked like I had the absolute best photo quality money could buy.

I was enamored with the RAW workflow and editing flexibility. Shadows too dark? No problem, just lighten them with a few sliders. White Balance a little off? Sky looking a bit too gray? Spots from dust on the lens? Too much noise from shooting at ISO 12,800? All these worries could be erased with a few clicks and sliders, and my images would be instantly slowly transformed from adequate to awesome.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

Cracks in the facade

As the years went on I found myself learning, growing, and changing as a photographer, but ironically enjoying the editing process less and less. I recall the distinct and overwhelming feeling of photographic oppression settling in as I returned home from family trips only to load my RAW files into Lightroom and be faced with hundreds of minor edits to make on each one before I was satisfied with the results.

To combat this I made a develop custom preset that contained basic adjustments such as highlight/shadows, sharpening, and clarity and applied that to every single one of my pictures upon import.

Weeks would often go by before I would be ready to share my pictures because I was stuck in the rut of meticulous editing. Even a simple birthday party for my son’s friend turned into a month-long wait because I didn’t want to share any pictures unless they were adjusted to perfection. With a family and a full-time job, the act of tweaking my images became more of a burden than an enjoyment.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

I did not like the idea of tweaking hundreds of RAW files just to enjoy pictures of my family.

What I came to realize after years of doing this was that I simply wasn’t interested in reaping the benefits of shooting RAW for my own personal photography. For client work, I continued to shoot RAW in order to make sure the end results were as good as they could possibly be.

But for nearly all of my own personal pictures, I got to a mental state where I simply didn’t care about editing each and every single picture. Occasionally I would make some cropping adjustments, but I realized I was pretty happy with the results I was getting straight out of my camera.

I didn’t dare shoot in JPEG though because Real Photographers Shoot RAW…or so I thought. I didn’t want to admit that RAW wasn’t really doing much for me, and I thought shooting JPEG was tantamount to admitting I didn’t know what I was doing. That I couldn’t handle the ropes of what it meant to be a true photographer, a true artist.

A revelation occurs

This state of confusion and self-doubt continued until late 2017 when I came across this video from Tony Northup.

Watching that was somewhat of a revelation and helped me realize that I wasn’t any less of a photographer if I shot in anything but the RAW format. While there’s certainly something to be said for capturing images in the highest possible quality, there is also something to be said for speed and convenience – both areas in which JPEG excels.

What I have realized as I looked back over my images from the past several years is that I’ve gotten significantly better at the aspects of photography that shooting in RAW can’t fix at all. I’ve learned about composition, lighting, capturing emotions, when to shoot, how to ask for permission from strangers, and even how to share images online in a more effective manner.

I have learned to put my camera down and enjoy the moment, and I’ve learned that not everything in life needs to be photographed ad infinitum. RAW can’t help if my kids are out of focus or if my angles are bad, and I’ve learned to pay better attention to my light meter and exposure settings so I don’t need to recover highlights and shadows in post-production like I did when I started out.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

Straight-out-of-camera JPEG.

Permission to be imperfect

More importantly, I have come to a place as a photographer where I don’t need each and every one of my pictures to be perfect. When I look through photo albums from when I was a kid almost none of the images are ideal. Many are a little under or over-exposed, the framing isn’t always right, and there’s plenty of red-eye issues that could use fixing thanks to my dad’s copious use of his external flash. But it’s the emotions, the feelings, the memories, and the people in those images that really matter the most to me.

When I scroll through images from 15 years ago when all my wife and I had was a cheesy little pocket camera, I don’t care that most of them are low-res JPEG files. It’s what’s in the pictures that matter, and nowadays I’d rather spend my time capturing good photos than editing my RAW files.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

A photo of my friends and I on a high school trip to Disney World in 1997. It may not be perfect but I don’t need it to be. It’s the people and the memories I care about, not whether it was shot in RAW or JPEG. (Spoiler: it was shot on film!)

Enabling the JPEG option on my camera has felt like a breath of fresh air, and I’m back to enjoying photography in a way I haven’t done in years. I’m experimenting with my Fuji camera’s built-in ACROS and Classic Chrome film simulations, and I’ve even created what basically amounts to a Lightroom preset in my camera by adding some highlight/shadow/sharpening adjustments using the various menu options. It’s great fun, requires no extra Lightroom editing, and I’m back to enjoying photography the way I used to so many years ago.

Choose both

Above all else, it’s important to understand that shooting in RAW versus JPEG does not have to be a strict dichotomy. It’s taken many years, but I now feel comfortable knowing when to use RAW, when to use JPEG, and understanding the benefits and drawbacks of each. Even though I mostly shoot JPEG for casual snapshots I’ll occasionally switch over to RAW if I think the situation demands it.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

I chose to use RAW instead of JPEG for this snapshot because I knew I would have to deal with some bright highlights and dark shadows, and I’d be able to finesse the image in Lightroom to get it how I wanted if I shot RAW.

Finding a solution that works for you

The reason there is no answer to the question of whether to use RAW or JPEG is that every photographer must figure out his or her own approach. For me, shooting JPG is just fine in most situations. One could argue that I’m not getting as much out of my images as I could be, and perhaps that is indeed true.

But if using RAW causes me to dread the process of editing and abate my photography altogether then I would say shooting RAW actually results in me getting less out of my photos than I could be if I were using JPEG.

RAW Versus JPEG - Which one is right for you and why?

When doing formal sessions for clients I always use RAW even if I think I might not need it. It’s a safety net that has come in handy far too often.

Conclusion

I should also note that many cameras can offer the best of both worlds by letting you shoot in RAW+JPEG mode. If you like the JPEG file, great! And if not, you have the RAW file which you can edit to your heart’s content. If you’re on the fence this might be an option to consider, but beware that it will fill up your memory cards much faster than you might realize.

As I close I want to offer one final piece of advice, or rather, reiterate a point I hinted at earlier. Don’t let anyone tell you that your method, approach or viewpoint is not valid. If you like RAW, great! Go ahead and use it. If you prefer JPEG, you are no less of a photographer than someone who swears by RAW.

I would recommend learning as much as you can and experimenting with available options so you can make an informed decision. But at the end of the day, if you like the results you’re getting from your approach then, by all means, go ahead and do it. Now stop reading, get off the internet, pick up your camera, and go out to take some photos!

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Riccardo Pareschi

    Great article !

  • Austin Eads

    Exactly the information i needed to know. Thanks!

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  • ShotbyJake

    Your point is well taken about this choice being completely subjective. And I think that historically, all of your reasons to shoot JPG made total sense. But, the relatively inexpensive price of fast memory these days, coupled with extremely fast processing speeds, it is hard to find a legitimate reason not to shoot RAW if one is going to go through the trouble of lugging around a real camera.

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  • Nick Harman

    If you have two card slots then shoot both. We all have lots of HD space to store the massive RAW files so why not have the convenience of JPG and the option to use the RAW file for that picture you really like? I think nowadays any debate is over. Shoot both, you can always throw the RAW away after all. That’s what I do, after picking the RAWs I want to archive.

  • JulioM41

    The Nikon camera I have con shoot both formats at the same time, and with the large capacity of the cards these days, that’s what I do. If the JPG does not satisfy me, I use the RAW to make adjustments. Files not used can be deleted or stored in an external hard drive.

  • Ed Langmaid

    Thank you Simon! Your article helped to visualize the differences and more importantly enabled me to continue to shoot in JPG most of the time. You are right, it is a balance.

  • R Baker

    Great information. What made me stop shooting in Raw only was the slowdown and changes that have been made to Lightroom. I still love editing photos but I no longer enjoy using Lightroom except for the truly spectacular shots that I want to just add a few finishing touches to.
    Shooting in Raw and Jpeg allows me to get previews to my clients quickly and I can still go back and adjust things that I catch later on.

  • jhsvdm

    I shoot both. I have the same feelings about editing as Simon does. Sometimes however the best picture of your favorite dog running around the house is a bit dark or has a color cast. Then it is handy to be able to go back to the raw file and fix it

  • I love how Lightroom CC stores RAWs in the cloud. I used to export to jpg before storing photos in OneDrive

  • Ron

    I hardly ever shoot Raw any more, it takes up too much of my time having to check and edit every shot. As you mentioned, shooting JPEG is far less time consuming and having learned my photography years ago with film, it was imperative to be as accurate as possible with each shot, and therefore through training and habit the majority of my shots are more or less OK, and I find that there is enough leeway in my JPEGS to enable me to edit them if needs be.

  • OldPom

    I shoot in RAW because I have plenty of time as a retired oldie to enjoy editing . I also try to ‘edit’ before pushing the button and I treat each shot ( well MOST shots) as worth the thinking. Brought up on film I never adapted to today’s ‘spray and pray’ approach. So card capacity is less of an issue. Editing takes the place of the old darkroom which was also a fun time, if messy. Converting to jpeg after all else and only sending files to people after thinking whether they are worthy of sending.
    A dinosaur amongst photographers. But for me it is all about ‘enjoying doing it’ as it is not a business with clients to service. Thank God.

  • Ernie Goulding

    Ron I agree – Great video above which confirms my recent decision. I have been shooting both RAW & JPEG FINE for the past 3 years (That’s when I took up Digital – previously film SLR where you had to get it right first time). Now I always bracket my shots by +/-3 & shoot only manual. I still consider myself an amature. I recently purchased the NIKON D850 & decided that I would shoot JPEG only but RAW if on some rare occasions as required. I chose to shoot JPEG only because I found that I only needed a small amount of post processing of any pics (I use Paintshop Pro X9 – so much simpler than PS). I belong to a Camera club & 2 years ago I took out 8 of 23 awards for the year (35 members) mostly 3rd places but was quite pleased with myself. The club has grown to some 60 members now & is a lot more competitive but I still seem to score OK by just using JPEG & slight tweeking in post. Now that I have decided on only JPEG I will have more card & PC space.

  • Abdul Hameed

    Ofcourse more details will get if photois taken in raw format. But not to loose any details after editing in which format we have to save the file. Please enlight.

  • CJ Glynn

    Simon: Big props for writing an article. Please choose a topic that has not been previously beaten to death. By the time of publication of your article, there are three types of people: (1) People who want the utmost quality in their images and already shoot RAW; People who shoot for the web and for whom image quality is a non-issue; and (3) People who have lived under a rock for the last 7+ years who don’t care and who wouldn’t be reading your article anyway (because they don’t care), You shoot RAW; I shoot RAW; everyone else who cares already shoots RAW. Hence no need for your treatise on why RAW is better. I am sure that with your copious knowledge, you could write a more interesting article.
    Good shooting.

  • Jschneir

    You should have shown the squirrel in both JPEG and RAW to give people a better understanding your article was generally good but it suffered in that respect

  • Richard Bauman

    Excellent article. You know you can edit a jpeg file in the Photoshop raw editor, (actually, I use Photoshop Elements) and improve its appearance. And in terms of the squirrel picture, I’m pretty sure a jpeg file wouldn’t have come out looking as drab as the unedited raw file. Even if it had, you can certainly clean it up significantly in Photoshop. I’ve taken pictures in both RAW and JPEG simultaneously, processed them in the raw editor (I don’t use Lightroom) and asked a photographer friend to tell me which picture he thought was from the RAW file and which was from the JPEG file. Three out of four times, literally, he picked the JPEG over the RAW. Lastly, I’ve had numerous pictures shot in jpeg (no raw at all) published with articles I’ve written and the have looked just fine in print.

  • Good article and a topic that continues to divide opinion! I am a self confessed RAW convert, mainly because of the massive amount of improvement that can be made to images. I shoot (well, not as much nowadays) military aviation and found my Damascus moment when I upgraded to my current 70D and found I could take many more rapid shots in RAW without the buffering that my previous camera had. Now I’m older and slower (and less inclined to climb steep hill and wait all day for possible aircraft) I’m more attracted to landscapes where RAW benefits again in terms of post-production opportunities. For family portraits often involving fast moving children, again I use RAW as it is simply a much better option for post-processing. But, I agree that I can (and do) spend far too mmuch time sat in front of my laptop and not being “out there”. Although in the miserable damp weather we’ve had over winter here in the UK, that’s now a bad thing….

  • TByte

    So you let your camera apply presets to create jpgs?
    You could still shoot in RAW and apply a default preset of your own on import. No difference in effort….except then you’d still have the option of further editing if you wanted to.
    Always shoot RAW.

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