Shooting RAW vs JPEG - the image quality debate

Shooting RAW vs JPEG – image quality pros and cons

Image quality of shooting RAW vs JPEG

If you’ve been photographing for a while, you’ll have come across the shooting RAW vs JPEG debate. You’ll also have heard that for good image quality, the best file format to shoot in is RAW rather than JPEG. But, do you know why that is the case?

If you’re new to photography and don’t know about shooting in RAW, here are some points to consider changing from JPEG.

So, without getting massively technical, let’s take a look at the shooting RAW vs JPEG image quality debate.

What is a RAW image format?

A RAW file is often referred to as a digital negative, and for very good reason. Just like with negatives from the days of film, a RAW file needs to be processed before the image is complete.

What you see on the back of the camera is actually a processed preview JPEG. The RAW file always needs a bit of work.

When importing your files into Lightroom for example, some of that work is done for you as part of the process. You then process the file further to suit your style – adding contrast, sharpening, noise reduction etc.

What is a JPEG image format?

JPEG is the most common file format for finished images and can be printed and viewed without conversion.

If you shoot in RAW, you need to export an image as a JPEG (or TIFF) before printing or loading to your phone, website or social media.

Should I shoot in RAW or JPEG image format?

Most of the time, the answer to this question is shoot in RAW. There are, however, a few times when it’s better to shoot in JPEG. They are if you:

  • Don’t have any editing software to convert your images from RAW to JPEG
  • Need to take a lot of images and don’t have large, or several, memory cards
  • Have to shoot a lot in burst mode and can’t risk missing the action 

The rest of the time, definitely shoot in RAW.

Here’s why…

Pros of shooting JPEG vs RAW

  • No fancy software required
  • Photos come out of camera looking sharp
  • Can shoot rapidly in burst mode
  • Files don’t take up a huge amount of room on your computer

Further reading: 3 creative photography tricks using continuous shooting mode

Pros of shooting RAW vs JPEG

  • Wider range of colors recorded, so you can get creative when editing
  • 2 stop exposure allowance for recovering detail in highlights and shadows
  • More detail recorded, because files are larger
  • Images can be printed far larger without losing quality
  • Greater dynamic range is recorded
  • Noise reduction in post processing is more effective

Further reading: 

Overexposure and underexposure tips

How to avoid and reduce image noise in photography

Cons are listed below, where you’ll also find our handy cheat sheet of RAW vs JPEG to download. (I like to see pros and cons in table format.)

Overexposed image of the beach

The above over exposed image, shot in RAW, is straight from camera and the image below has been adjusted in Lightroom. I took the exposure down 1 stop, added contrast, sharpening, noise reduction. I also took the blacks down, the whites up and decreased the highlights. On export from Lightroom I applied standard sharpening for screen to the below image and nothing to the above.

Raw image exposure adjusted by 1 stop

Here’s another example of why shooting RAW vs JPEG image format is better. This time I overexposed by 2 stops.

overexposed beach image shot in RAW vs JPEG

The adjustment in Lightroom would not have been possible if shot in JPEG.

RAW image adjusted by 2 stops

Cons of shooting JPEG vs RAW

  • Details discarded when the camera processes the shot
  • Can’t remove sharpening in editing
  • Noise reduction is not very good and cannot be altered in post production, so detail is lost
  • Under or over exposed images cannot be recovered well
  • Limited dynamic range

Cons of shooting RAW vs JPEG

  • Images require processing for sharpness and contrast so can’t be used immediately
  • Need software to process images – Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture etc
  • Files are large, so your storage fills up more quickly
  • Can’t shoot as much as quickly, because the camera buffers in burst mode, so you could miss the action while images are recorded to the memory card

 

You could shoot RAW and JPEG together

On many cameras you can shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time.

Wedding photographers are big fans of shooting both. They like to have the JPEG files as a backup on a second memory card just in case something goes wrong with the main memory card. It’s not like you can arrange a “do over” of a wedding. In this instance it would be better to have JPEGs than nothing at all.

Further reading: Lightroom export settings for web and print

One last thing on image quality

If you shoot in RAW and use an Adobe software program for processing, import the images as DNG files. This is Adobe’s file format for RAW images and stands for Digital Negative.

As DNG is the universal format used, your files should be “future proofed” if manufacturers make changes to their RAW file formats in future. It converts the manufacturers RAW files into DNG files without destroying the original data.

Just one thing to be aware of – DNG files do take up more space. However, storage space has become less of an issue with so many cloud based storage options available. External hard drives also offer greater capacity than they did.

I’d sum up the shooting RAW vs JPEG image format decision this way:

  • There’s more work involved with shooting in RAW,
  • but the image quality and versatility is far superior to JPEG.
  • As a beginner, you can do more to fix your mistakes when editing if you shot in RAW vs JPEG.

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

Leave us a comment

If you have any questions about shooting RAW vs JPEG image format, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our image quality tips have helped you to understand the RAW vs JPEG difference, share that too.

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Image quality of shooting RAW vs JPEG

9 thoughts on “Shooting RAW vs JPEG – image quality pros and cons”

    1. Thanks Jane. HUGE help, I was always a bit unsure- RAW Vs jpeg, even having watched tons of youtube on the subject.! You explain things so simply and clearly!(With all your stuff). I shall change my settings now! Except my “sport” setting.
      Quick question: when I’ve downloaded my RAW images, why do they go “dark” on my screen after a few moments.? Sorry, I’m technology challenged! Thanks Again.

      1. Hi Adam
        Thanks for asking – this is a common question when it comes to shooting in RAW.

        The short answer might be that when you first download for a short time you see the JPEG preview of the raw file, instead of the actual raw file, which you then see. The solution is to change your settings.

        What editing software are you using?

        I’m sure this sounds really confusing if technology is a challenge. If you hang on for a week or so I’ll write an (easy to understand) blog post about it with a solution. Keep an eye on your inbox for my weekly tips.

  1. Hi there- I have traditionally shot in JPEG as I frequently shoot sports and that is just how I got started. I am shooting a wrestling match t his weekend which will obviously be in a gym and a friend that shoots a lot of wrestling advised me to shoot in RAW so I would have more post control over white balance which can be tricky to get right under these lights. So I did a soccer game in RAW to practice the processing. Heres the thing- my images looked pretty much like my JPEG images when I put them in light room. I didnt have any presets on them- is it possible for RAW images to look like JPEG images SOOC or do you think something else is up?

    1. Hi Lisa.
      I agree with your friend about shooting the wrestling match in RAW. It’ll also help if the light is a bit low for your camera – if you need to increase the exposure in post production, you’ll have a better result with RAW.
      To answer your questions, RAW files don’t necessarily look bad and it’s perfectly possible to get a good looking RAW file (that looks like a JPEG) without processing. It all depends on the light conditions, your exposure, contrast and the subject matter etc.
      If you’re using your camera’s brand’s software to process photos, the color profile set in camera will be imported with your RAW file, so it will be partially processed already. Lightroom will also apply the Adobe Color profile as standard on import.
      Check out this tutorial for more information on color profiles… https://thelenslounge.com/photo-color-settings/
      Good luck this weekend and have fun! Jane

  2. Hi Jane, I have been experimenting with Manual and Raw. When I have shot I have taken raw and JPEG together. Like the comment above the raw came out darker than the JPEG. Also the 2 images appear to have 2 focal points, the raw had greater depth, is this usual? I use Affinity Photo and in the Raw program there is 3 buttons that highlight clipped shadows, highlights and tones. To avoid the clipped area can make the picture darker. Should I take notice of these warnings or is it down to preference. Once the raw file is processed the image looks slightly different prior to processing is this normal? Would a faster reading SD card help with buffering using raw and what would you recommend.

  3. I have had a Nikon D7100 since they came out. I always wanted to find out the Dynamic Range but assumed to be 6/7 stops. I would appreciate your comment. Many thanks.
    Not from the sunny south of England.

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