Tips for Choosing Between RAW Versus JPEG File Format

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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.

sunset image - RAW Versus JPEG File Format

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.
  • White Balance corrections are easier to make.
  • 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.
RAW Versus JPEG File Format - before and after with a raw file

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.

RAW Versus JPEG File Format - underexposed image

An image that was not properly exposed but photographed in RAW.

RAW Versus JPEG File Format - corrected version of the dark file

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).
  • Not all programs can read RAW files. This used to be an issue, but now there are lots of great programs that can work directly with Raw files such as Adobe Lightroom, Canon’s Camera RAW, Luminar, On1 Raw, ACDSee Photo Studio Ultimate, and other such programs.

Advantages of shooting JPEGs

  • 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.
RAW Versus JPEG File Format - jpg edited 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. 

RAW Versus JPEG File Format - overexposed sun or sky

I accidentally overexposed the setting sun and lost some of that golden warmth hitting the tree.

Karthika Gupta Photography - Memorable Jaunts DPS Article-Raw verses JPEG file formats -07

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:

  1. The cost of memory to store or backup these RAW files is getting cheaper and cheaper by the day.
  2. 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.

RAW Versus JPEG File Format - photo of a stream and moving water

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.

Conclusion

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?!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Karthika Gupta is a lifestyle, wedding, and travel photographer based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images. She also has a Free Travel Photography Demystified E-Course a 5-Day video series to help you improve your travel photography.

  • Marinus Beers

    RAW, for the same reason I have saved the negatives of my photos of the analog age.

  • Albin

    I tend to use RAW for the opposite reason, more often shooting to the left (underexposing) in order to reduce ISO noise and/or increase shutter speed for active subjects. Clearly a lot depends on how much practical time and effort one wants to expend on the photo output, i.e. on how it will be used / shared. One caution is that shooting RAW + JPEG simultaneous output disables the in-camera customized JPEG settings that can produce pretty good or good enough Straight Out of Camera results – instead creating unfiltered JPEGs that need post-processing as much as the RAWs do,

  • Richard Doktor

    Seriously, there is _no_ question if to use RAW or JPG. It is _always_ RAW.
    RAW is an develop format, used to work with it. JPG is an export or end format, used to produced a finished work. Even amateurs should work the right way and this starts with an RAW file.
    RAW and JPG are like WAV and MP3. No serious producer would do his work in or with MP3.

    Above all, all the written disadvantages of RAW (that been shown as advantages of JPG) are pointless.
    Disc storage is getting cheaper and cheaper, so size isn’t really an issue. The same with the writing speed of hard disks and micro cards. And yes, _all_ programs _that are made to process images_ can handle RAW files, at least if converted as DNG. That Word or Paint or or the like can’t handle RAW files should be obvious.
    So instead of asking the really (from my point of view) stupid question “RAW or JPG”, go on and encourage newcomers to use RAW right from the beginning to be on the right way right from the start. Don’t put an rock on their back, they should learn light footed.

  • I’ve just headed over to the raw camp! Given that I actually love editing my images, it’s strange that I’ve taken this long to wean myself off jpeg, but it has finally happened. I’m looking forward to having some fun with raw files and seeing what I can do.

  • Pappy

    I shoot both but looking at Karthikas shot of San Francisco does little show the benefits of shooting RAW, it is rather a poor shot which is heavily over exposed.

  • Toby Brownson

    I shoot both Jpg and raw, personally howerver I think your post is rather biased against Jpg. I downloaded both the handing object underexposed shot and the over exposed sanfransisco shot and had them back to how they should look within seconds just using the software on my phone. This is with a jog that has been further compressed for web use. The original Jpg would carry significantly more information making recovery of the images even easier. I do quiet strongly feel that the photography community in general us RAW shooting almost as smoke an mirrors to beguile the observer. In some cases selling just the notion of expertise, in some cases to sell cameras, lenses or software that the end user does not want, need or will ever actually use.
    Ultimately what people should be aiming to do is get it right in camera.

  • Toby Brownson

    Do JPGs self district then?

  • NO they don’t and you really have to open and edit them hundreds of times to make that happen.

  • Marinus Beers

    I consider the RAW files as negatives, and the JPG files as prints. RAW files can always be edited differently later when there are new possibilities or when your knowledge of editing grows. JPGs don’t offer that advantage.

  • Toby Brownson

    I don’t understand, why can’t you treat a jpeg as a negative. JPGs “can always be edited differently when there are new possibilities or when your knowledge of editing grows”. Jpeg editing does not have to be destructive. Some jpg editors leave the original jpg intact in the same way RAW editors leave the original RAW intact.

  • Toby Brownson

    But then a good photographer gets it right in camera so editing is irrelivant

  • Marinus Beers

    True, but RAW files contain ALL the information captured by the sensor, whereas JPGs are compressed, meaning that part of the information has been thrown away. And what is gone is gone, and can not be restored.

  • Marinus Beers

    Nonsense. Even even you ‘get it right’ in camera you may make different choices in editing (just like people did in the analog age when developing and printing) so editing is absolutely not irrelevant.

  • Toby Brownson

    I understand that, which is why in my original comment about the article I referred to printing at larger than approximately 12×10 inches. In those circumstances RAW is required. However, the vast majority of photographs in this world are not going ever going to be printed that large so it’s an irrelivence as on a smaller scale the human eye Can not percieve the difference. The shots that are printed that large, are commercial or studio shots. In a studio a professional has control over lighting so there should be no underexposed loss in shadows or blown details in highlights. Which leave commercial photographers…again they often have optimal lighting and all the filters in front of the lens. So they probably don’t need to do vast amounts of editing…or shouldn’t if they’re any good. So therefore RAW is largely a athemer of the photography industry to prise the majority of camera users from their money….(yes I mean you Abode + Canon)

  • Toby Brownson

    Nothing that cannot be done to a Jpg.

  • Marinus Beers

    Except that with a JPG, you have discarded part of the information, so you have less to work with .

  • Marinus Beers

    My whole point is that, considering how cheap storage space is nowadays, I don’t see the point in NOT using a file-format that retains ALL the information captured by the sensor, and instead use a file format where part of that info is discarded. And if you think converting a RAW file to JPG takes to much time and effort, you can set many cameras to RAW + JPG.
    But I suppose we can agree to disagree 🙂
    And don’t get me going on Adobe, I gave them the boot as soon as they started milking people for money with their subscription-model.

  • Toby Brownson

    But unless you’re printing large 12x10inches you can’t see it. Most photos are view on screens theses days. MOST of the time what’s missing doesn’t matter cos at the resolution it’s being viewed at it can’t be seen. It’s like selling scanners that do 9000dpi…no point the human eye only resolves about 700dpi.
    I am not saying that RAW doesn’t contain more information, I know it does. What I am saying is that unless pixel peeping you can’t see the difference in everyday applications between a RAW file that’s been processed and edited in RAW editor and a jpg put through a top line jpg software. The mistake people make is they expect jpg to look as good when processed by software that is aimed at raw optimisation not jpg optimisation. Instead of comparing an jpg processed in jpg optimised software. Then compare both optimised images side by side at normal viewing resolution…not pixel peeping.
    Cos you’ll only see the difference when pixel peeping. Therefore most of the time to most people RAW is irrelevant.

    Sure if composition is garbage and I want to crop say 50% of the frame then yeah RAW is better. But I rarely do that because if a photos garbage then it’s garbage. No point trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!

  • Toby Brownson

    Cheap is a matter of perspective too don’t forget. I know converting doesn’t take that long, I did it for years. For me moving away from Adobe was what did it. I found other good software that produced great results from jpg editing, working with JPGs in a very similar way to lightroom does with RAW, even non destructive!

    Ok let me put it another way. If you’re writing a dissertation do you put in every amount of information on a given subject that exists or just what’s pertinent and relavant.
    I think yeah, we should agree to differ…except on Adobe’s money milking…we definitely agree on that.
    So in conclusion we have between us put both sides of an argument.
    The point of my original comment was that the article set itself up as a RAW Vs Jpg balanced article, it wasn’t, it had a preference, just as you do and I do.
    In essence that’s what I objected to….it’s bias when proporting not to be biased, that is deception! Hence why I questioned the authors motives for writing the article.
    It only showed what can be done recovering RAW files, the author made no attempt to recover a jpg it was therefore a biased article and not a fair raw Vs Jpg for its readers to make an informed decisions, it sought to tell them what’s best in the authors opinion.
    It’s always good to debate.

  • Erica Liveta

    Really well explained the difference and pros and cons of JPEG and RAW files. It was so much helpful for me. I have shoot with both formats you can check it out here studio77

  • Thank you! I am glad this was helpful 🙂

  • Toby – I agree that getting it right in camera is the ideal situation. Unfortunately a lot of circumstances prevent us from always getting it right. Additionally a lot of photography is subjective and personal preference. I know a lot of photographers who are wildly successful photographing a dark, moody and underexposed style as well as those who only photograph in JPEG. The article just showcases a both sides with pros and cons of each. At the end of the day, do what makes most sense for you and your style. And film completely rocks and makes you a photographer very aware of your surroundings (cause each frame costs a lot more than digital). I love my medium format and 35mm film and agree it a a great way to learn the skills – cheers!

  • Thanks Pappy! – yes, I loved the shot too much and was glad I could salvage it from RAW

  • I had the same feeling when I switched many years ago and haven’t looked back since 🙂

  • Richard – the best way to help someone make the decision that is right for them, is to show them both sides of the coin. At the end of the day, RAW verses JPEG is a very personal decision – whatever someone’s reasons are for choosing either 🙂

  • thanks Albin! good to know.

  • ShotbyJake

    Totally agree. In the world of fast cheap memory, there is really no reason to ever shoot anything but RAW.

  • Bill Murray

    One advantage/disadvantage not listed, but mentioned later in the article is the fact you need to do some (if minimal) processing with a RAW file.
    I tend to shoot RAW and, if nothing else I will adjust the white balance of the file to finish it. even though I can choose a white balance option on my camera, or let the camera make that decision, I tend to forget to change it, and some times the camera does not do what I want. I like shooting RAW because it keeps all of the captured image data and gives me the most flexibility.

    Of two of the advantages/disadvantages speed, file size, neither of these should be of a major concern. The difference of writing 500 RAW images on a memory card or 1,000 JPG either way it is more than I need.
    The point about speed of capture, I was under the impression that RAW was faster since it is just a read/write scenario vs. read/process/write for JPG files. Either way speed does not seem to be an issue that I would worry about.

    I have used the RAW & JPG capture at times where I want to get images to client for review fast and then later work on selected images for a final product. I use the lowest resolution for the JPG files since they are basically throw away.

  • Rob Bixby

    My personal deciding factor is if I know I am going to shoot a lot of images (500+) that I know I am not going to be interested in processing later.

  • Richard Doktor

    The best way to help someone is to show them the essential things. Once he understands them, it is his decision whether he also wants to “learn” other things.
    Why burden and confuse a “pure mind” with unnecessary things? This is neither helpful nor useful.
    And no, I claim that RAW vs JPG cannot be a “personal decision”, in the sense of processing. The fact that there is JPG in the camera is in my opinion only the case so that images can be output directly from the camera to any display device. As an “interim” view, so to speak. This is usually not possible with a RAW format, hence the general and compatible JPG format.

    As already said, a JPG is a final format and nothing with which one “works” seriously. Therefore, there should not even be the question whether JPG or RAW.

  • Debbie Allen

    I too felt very intimidated with jpeg versus RAW. However I have my camera on RAW nearly all the time now. I have a Mac comp and have really enjoyed playing around with the editing process in Affinity photo. I think some of my hesitation was because previously I didn’t have anything that could deal with RAW files and now I do.

  • Another advantage for JPEG.
    As an event photographer, sometimes I have to transfer 500 to 1,000 images to my client’s memory device. Spending half an hour looking at each other while the files transfer can be a long time. With RAW files, it could easily be an hour.

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