Perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions in digital photography is around which file type to use when shooting – JPEG or RAW file format. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about these two formats or whether your camera supports them. My goal, by the end of this article, is to help you understand what these two types are and help you pick the one that is right for you.
RAW Versus JPEG File Format
At the very basic level, both JPEG and RAW are types of files that the camera produces as its output. Most of the newer cameras today have both these options along with a few others like M-RAW, S-RAW, Large format JPEG, Small format JPEG, etc. – all of which determines the size of the final output file.
The easiest way to see which file formats are supported by your camera is to review your camera user manual – look for a section on file formats. Or you can go through the menu options of your camera and select Quality (for Nikon) or Image Quality (Canon) to select the file format.
Each file format has its advantages and disadvantages so choose the right option that works best for you. JPEGs are, in reality, RAW files that are processed in camera and compressed into that format. Some of the decisions the camera makes in processing the image may be difficult to change later, but the JPEG file sizes tend to be much smaller.
Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of both these file formats in greater detail.
Advantages of shooting RAW files
It is easier to correct exposure mistakes with RAW files than with JPEGs and overexposed highlights can sometimes be rescued. For people like me who tend to always photograph at least 1/2 stop to 1 stop overexposed (based on my style of photography), this is really beneficial in saving many great images in post-production.
The higher dynamic range means better ability to preserve both highlights and shadow details in a high contrast scene when the image is being recorded.
Decisions about sharpening, contrast, and saturation can be deferred until the image is processed on the computer.
All the original image data is preserved. In fact, when RAW files are opened in post-production software like Lightroom, a virtual copy is made and used. Edits are made in a non-destructive format so the original RAW file is always available for changes at a later stage. This is very useful when you want to edit images in different ways at different times in your photographic career.
Left is the RAW file straight out of the camera. On the right is the finished edited image from the same file.
The image on the left (above) was completely blown out because I was in the car and did not have any of my settings correct. But because I photographed in RAW I was able to salvage so much detail in the image. This would not have been possible with a JPG file.
An image that was not properly exposed but photographed in RAW.
The edited image that was corrected in post-processing for exposure issues.
Disadvantages of RAW files
RAW files tend to be much larger in size compared to JPEGs thereby requiring more storage, not just in camera but also on external storage devices or your computer hard drives.
RAW images take longer to write to your memory card which means shorter bursts of continuous shooting. For example, my Canon 5D MIII can write about 12 RAW files continuously and about 30+ JPEG files in the continuous (burst) shooting mode. Check your camera manual for specifics around your own camera’s burst mode (a.k.a continuous photography mode).
JPEG files are much smaller in size compared to RAW files and hence need less storage space – both in camera memory and on your computer hard drives.
JPEG images write to disk more quickly which means longer bursts of continuous shooting opportunities especially during wildlife photography, fast action sports, or even dealing with little kids that are always on the move.
These JPEG files can be instantly viewed with many programs including common web browsers, powerpoint, and other such common applications.
Disadvantages of JPEG files
It is harder to fix exposure mistakes in post-production with JPEG files.
JPEG files tend to have a smaller dynamic range of information that is stored and this often means less ability to preserve both highlights and shadow details in the image.
White Balance corrections are more difficult with JPEG files.
Decisions about sharpness, contrast, and saturation are set in the camera itself and in most cases, these are difficult to change later in post-production without destroying the image quality.
Since a JPEG image is essentially a RAW image compressed in-camera, the camera’s computer makes decisions on what data to retain and which to toss out when compressing the file.
The same image when edited as a JPEG for exposure issues becomes a lot grainier than an underexposed RAW image. You cannot pull them as far as a RAW file.
Another old-school way to think about these two file types is as slides and negatives. JPEGs are like slides or transparencies and RAW files are like negatives. With JPEGs, most of the decisions about how the image will look are made before the shutter is pressed and there are fewer options for changes later. But RAW files almost always require further processing and adjustments – just like negatives.
Which format to choose?
Now that you understand the difference between RAW and JPEG images, deciding which one to use is dependent on a few different factors.
Do you want to spend time in post-processing your images to your taste and photography style?
Are there any issues with limited space on your camera’s memory card and/or computer hard drives?
Do you have software and/or editing programs that will read RAW files easily?
Do you intend to print your images or even share images online in a professional capacity?
Some photographers are intimidated by RAW images. I was as well when I had just gotten started in photography because I did not know the true power of a RAW image. However, once I started photographing in RAW there was no going back.
Even everyday snapshots are shot in RAW now because of the great flexibility I have in correcting any mistakes that I make. One of the most common mistakes that many photographers make is around image exposure and that is relatively easy to fix with RAW files.
I accidentally overexposed the setting sun and lost some of that golden warmth hitting the tree.
One of my favorite San Francisco cityscapes at sunset. I accidentally overexposed and lost the sun flare but was able to edit it and bring back that sunset warmth in post-production because it is a RAW file.
It’s getting easier to use RAW files
Traditionally the two main issues with RAW files seem to be fading every day:
The cost of memory to store or backup these RAW files is getting cheaper and cheaper by the day.
Software that can read RAW files is more readily available. In fact, there is even inexpensive and free software that can read these RAW files now.
There is still the issue of write speed for your camera. If you focus on fast-moving subjects like wildlife or sports photography then perhaps write speed is a key factor in deciding whether to photograph in RAW versus JPEG. So for fast moving objects and/or wildlife and birding photos, JPEG may be a better choice.
Another thing to note is that most of the newer cameras have the ability to capture both JPEG and RAW images at the same time. But this takes up even more storage space and might not be the best use of memory. You are better off just picking one option and sticking with that.
Waterfall images using a slow shutter speed tend to blow out the background but editing a RAW image in Lightroom helps bring back some of the highlights.
I hope this was helpful in not only understanding the differences between RAW versus JPEG file formats but also in helping you decide which one to choose and why. So tell me, do you belong to the RAW or the JPEG camp?!