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If you’ve been photographing for a while, you’ll 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 RAW vs JPEG image quality debate.

What is a RAW file 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 like 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 file format?

JPEG is the most common file format for 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?

Most of the time, the answer to this question is shoot in RAW. There are, however, a few times when it is 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 is why…

Pros of shooting JPEG

  • 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

Pros of shooting RAW

  • 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

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 image 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 is another example. This time I overexposed by 2 stops.
overexposed beach image shot in RAW
The adjustment in Lightroom would not have been possible if shot in JPEG.

RAW image adjusted by 2 stops

Cons of shooting JPEG

  • 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

  • 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.

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 RAW vs JPEG decision this way: there is 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.

Leave us a comment

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

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

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