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 RAW is better than JPEG for photography? And did you know that sometimes JPEG is better than RAW?
If you’re new to photography and don’t know about shooting in RAW file format, here are some points to consider changing from JPEG mode.
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?
RAW doesn’t stand for anything, we just write it in capitals so that it matches other file type extensions, like JPG, TIF etc. A RAW file is often referred to as a digital negative, and for very good reason. Just like with film negatives, a RAW image file needs to be processed before the image is complete and can be printed.
What you see on the back of the camera is actually a processed preview JPEG. The RAW file always needs a bit of work, because the image straight out of camera (SOOC) isn’t processed at all. So don’t be disappointed when you first see your RAW images on your computer – they always need always need a bit of work, but you can automate some of the processing.
When importing your files into Lightroom, for example, some of that work is done for you as part of the import process, depending on the Lightroom color profiles and presets you set up. You then edit the images further in post production to suit your style – adding contrast, sharpening, noise reduction etc.
You can see examples of straight from camera RAW photos vs processed images in this photo edits before and after article.
What is a JPEG image format?
JPEG is the most common file format for finished images and can be printed and viewed without conversion.
JPEG files are the most commonly used compressed file format for digital images. 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.
The file extension for JPEG images is .JPG so you’ll see JPEGs referred to as both JPG and JPEG. They’re the same thing. And if you’re wondering, JPEG stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group” after the name of the group that developed the JPEG standard.
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 raw 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 image file format.
Pros of shooting JPEG vs RAW
- No fancy software required
- Photos come out of camera looking sharp
- Can shoot rapidly in burst mode (continuous high mode)
- JPEGs are smaller files, so don’t take up a huge amount of room on your computer hard drive
Pros of shooting RAW vs JPEG
- Wider range of color data recorded, so you can get creative with color grading 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.)
The above over exposed image, shot in RAW, is straight from camera (SOOC) 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.
Here’s another example of why shooting RAW vs JPEG image format is better. This time I overexposed by 2 stops.
The adjustment in Lightroom would not have been possible if shot in JPEG.
Cons of shooting JPEG vs RAW
- A lot of image information, particularly color data, is discarded when the camera processes the shot
- Can’t remove sharpening in editing
- More difficult to avoid image noise in low light
- Noise reduction isn’t very good and cannot be altered in post production, so detail is lost
- Under or over exposed images can’t be recovered well
- Limited dynamic range for recording highlight detail and shadow detail
Cons of shooting RAW vs JPEG
- Images require processing for sharpness and contrast so can’t be used immediately
- Need RAW editing software to process images – Lightroom, Photoshop, Aperture etc
- Files are large, so your hard drive 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 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 new photographer, you can do more to fix your mistakes when editing if you shot in RAW vs JPEG.
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