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RAW vs jpeg: What format should I use?

Understanding raw vs jpeg and when to use them

If you're a photographer, you've likely heard of the digital camera shooting formats: RAW and JPEG. The famous "raw vs jpeg" situation. While each file format has its own advantages and disadvantages, it's important to know the differences between them so you can decide which is best for your photographic needs. So as usual, I’m here to give you all the information and my personal opinion on the matter. You are welcome to take it if you think you agree with me or to say “thanks but no thanks” if you think I’m crazy for my life choices. We are not here to judge, just to learn.


What is a RAW file?

Raw files are files (duh!) that contain uncompressed and unprocessed (or I guess we should say barely processed because all the files are somewhat processed by the cameras) data from your camera sensor.

This raw data captured needs to be converted to an editable format first in order to be printed or even displayed which is why we use a photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (a.k.a Lightroom), Photoshop, Luminar Neo, etc.


What are JPEG files?

Jpeg file format is the result of post-processing the data from your sensor within the camera. The exact process is different depending on the brand and model of the camera but in general terms, the camera will keep the exposure as shot (this is based on the camera settings at the moment the photo is taken) while sharpening, noise reduction, and contrast will be added and then rendered into a compressed jpeg file. As a result, these images can be printed straight from the camera.


Advantages & Disadvantages of Shooting RAW

Advantages

  • Larger color range: While 8-bit jpegs have up to 16 million colors(256 brightness level per color), raw files can either be 12-bit with up to 68 billion colors (4096 brightness level per color) or 14-bit with up to 4 trillion colors (16384 brightness level per color). Note that the colors refer to Red, Green and Blue channels.

  • Wider dynamic range and color gamut: Because all the data is kept within the file, shadows, and highlights contain a lot of information that can be recovered during post-processing. This also means that if you underexpose (or overexpose) an image, you can recover it by adjusting the exposure, highlights, and shadows. This, however, will depend on the dynamic range of your camera (For more information about this, check out my next posts).

  • White balance (WB): When adjusting the WB in a raw image, it works as if you were taking the photo at a different temperature. Nevertheless, it’s always better to set the correct WB from the beginning.

  • Just like before, the color space of a raw image can be easily adjusted during post-processing. If you are wondering what the color space is, don’t worry I got you covered. The color space is, essentially, the color range you want to display in a photo. This will depend on what you will do with your photos, if you are printing them, it’s always a better idea to shoot in Adobe RGB. If you are going to be putting them on a website or social media, your best option is to use sRGB. The reason for this is that Adobe RGB is a larger range that will give a more vibrant look. On a screen, we don’t need such a big range so it’s ok to use sRGB. If you don’t shoot in the correct one, don’t freak out. As I said before, this is easily fixed although it is always better to set it correctly at the beginning.

  • Raw files can be exported in different formats, even other types of raw files.

Disadvantages

  • You need to process them otherwise you can’t use them and that takes time (a lot of time!). Shooting in raw is like shooting in film. All the information is in the film, you just can’t do anything with it until you develop it. So think of the raw format as a digital negative. How you process them we’ll cover later on on a different post so stay tuned.

  • Bigger files = large storage space required. Because raw images are completely uncompressed, depending on your camera (brand, model, etc), the digital image can be 40MB per raw image. So imagine if you do a photoshoot and take thousands of photos…

  • Because you are dealing with bigger files, creating backups takes a loooot longer.


Advantages & Disadvantages of Shooting JPEG

Advantages

  • Jpeg files are compressed which means that the file size is a lot smaller. When you only have a couple of photos, this is not really relevant but with time and experience you end up shooting a lot more hence your storage starts becoming very limited.

  • Backups are quick and easy to do.

  • Since jpeg photos are already processed in the camera, you can share and print them straight from the camera without any issues.

  • Limited post-processing: Jpeg processing is really simple and a real-time-safer. If you are anything like me and go on trips and come back with thousands of pictures, then you might be grateful for this one.

  • High compatibility: Nowadays, most devices can open jpegs so you shouldn’t have any compatibility issues. Also, you don’t need any special software to open them.

Disadvantages

  • Small color range: 8-bit jpegs only contain up to 16 million colors (256 brightness level per color). It is important to mention that our eyes can only see 10 million colors so although raw files can provide a wider range which makes the images richer, jpegs are still plenty for us.

  • Very limited flexibility for editing: Because they are processed and compressed files, a lot of data is lost in the process so when we take these files to an editing software, there is not a lot left to work with.

  • Again because data gets lost after the camera processing, any settings in the camera at the time of shooting are permanent. If you underexpose a picture, you won’t be able to retrieve any data from the shadows because there is no data left in there.

  • Adjusting the white balance can cause color casting. Color casting is a tint that may affect partially or completely a digital image.


Comparing raw and jpeg files

Whichever format you choose, it's important to understand the differences between them so you can make the best decision for your needs. I know all of that was a lot of information but do not worry, I am about to show you the difference between raw and jpeg files. I set my camera to save the data in both formats simultaneously. To do so, you’ll need to go into your camera menu - photo shooting menu - image quality - select NEF (RAW) + JPEG. You will see a lot of different options (depending on your camera) but I always go for the highest image quality possible.

Photo of the Nikon Z7II photo shooting menu
Photo of the Nikon Z7II photo shooting menu
Photo of Nikon Z7II Image Quality menu
Photo of Nikon Z7II Image Quality menu

Note that “NEF” is Nikon’s raw file format. This will change depending on your camera brand. Some editing software also have their own raw format such as Photoshop (DNG file).

I’ve tried to take common things around my house because if I go and camp for 3 nights to get the perfect shot in the middle of nowhere, it won’t be too realistic for anybody who is just starting. So the simpler, the better. However, I've used a couple of shots of Lake Tekapo because the example required it (you'll see why).

First, we have the straight-out-of-camera photos. I only used Lightroom to convert the raw file into a usable format but I didn't adjust any settings for either image. On the left, we have the original raw file and on the right, we have the original jpeg file. I will always keep it in that order to make it easy for everybody so if I don’t mention which one is which, you already know.

Image of Lake Tekapo in Winter. Photo taken in RAW format
Image of Lake Tekapo in Winter. Photo taken in RAW format
Image of Lake Tekapo in Winter. Photo taken in JPEG format
Image of Lake Tekapo in Winter. Photo taken in JPEG format

When you look at these pictures, the jpeg format file looks definitely better. The raw file looks dull and lifeless. But hold on a second, don’t make any decisions yet. Although this option sounds (or should I say look) fantastic, there is a catch. As we said before, jpeg files are processed and compressed files while raw files are not. When you compare a RAW image with a JPEG is like comparing a diamond on a ring and a diamond in a mine. Both are still beautiful but you will always go for the clean, polished and treated diamond. But if you are going to be editing your pictures, you’ll soon realize that the extra information is worth saving.

Now, there are situations where they both look great like when I was photographing my lemonade (a hybrid between lemons and mandarins) tree (see photos below). So you won't be able to see this difference in every single image.


Photo of lemonade tree by belenradaphotography.com. Photo taken in raw format
Photo of lemonade tree by belenradaphotography.com. Photo taken in raw format
Photo of lemonade tree by belenradaphotography.com. Photo taken in jpeg format
Photo of lemonade tree by belenradaphotography.com. Photo taken in jpeg format

File Size

In terms of file size, there is a very clear difference. Raw files are more than 50% larger than jpeg files.

Screenshot of two files showing the difference in image format size.
Screenshot of two files showing the difference in image format size.

White balance (WB)

As I mentioned before, it's always better to shoot in the right WB but if by accident you take a picture in the wrong setting you can adjust it during post-processing.

Raw image of a lemonade tree with a white balance adjustment during post-processing.
Raw image of a lemonade tree with a white balance adjustment during post-processing.
Jpeg image of a lemonade tree with a white balance adjustment.
Jpeg image of a lemonade tree with a white balance adjustment.


On the jpeg image, you can clearly see the color casting that occurs due to the adjustment. Note that only the WB was changed on these pictures so you can clearly see how the effects on both file formats.


Underexposed images

We’ve all been here. You take an amazing photo just to realize is heavily underexposed. So you take into Lightroom to see what you can do…

Photo of the before and after editing an overexposed raw image.
Photo of the before and after editing an underexposed raw image.
Photo of the before and after editing an overexposed jpeg image.
Photo of the before and after editing an underexposed jpeg image.

In this case, both file formats obtained a pretty good result. The colors in the jpeg image look a little bit unrealistic and is lacking a little bit of contrast in my opinion. Nevertheless, I would say is not a bad picture. This will depend on each situation. Colors, details, etc can have a big impact in shadow recovery.


Overexposed images

Let's take it to the other extreme. You have overexposed your image and you try to recover it during post-processing...

Photo of the before and after editing an underexposed raw image.
Photo of the before and after editing an overexposed raw image.
Photo of the before and after editing an underexposed jpeg image.
Photo of the before and after editing an overexposed jpeg image.

In this situation, unlike when we underexposed, the results are not so good. Because we pushed it too far, parts of the image were burned (meaning that the gamut is considerably exceeded resulting in image clipping - which also means that the camera is not able to record any data in that area). But overall, the raw file seems alright except for that little bit of yellow missing on the fruit. On the jpeg file, it just doesn't look right. It has a green-blue-ish color cast on it that just doesn't suit the image.

This is why is so important to know your camera's dynamic range. Your dynamic range is the one that will tell you how much you can push your camera in both directions. So if I'm shooting at a wedding, and the room is quite dark and I'm already at ISO 1600 and I don't want additional unnecessary noise in my image, I know that my camera will be able to keep details that I can recover later during post-processing. But if you are not familiar with your dynamic range, then you won't know if you should take the shot as it is or raise your ISO and deal with the noise later (there are noise reduction tools nowadays that can help you with this but for dramatic purposes, let's assume that there is nothing else we can do).

I will be posting an exercise you can do to familiarize yourself with your camera's dynamic range. You might want to subscribe to my newsletter so you don't miss out on the upcoming posts :)




Choosing a format

The are 4 things I would mainly consider when choosing raw vs jpeg:

  1. Purpose: What are you going to be using the photos for? Are you taking them for more of a personal use at your sister's birthday party or at a friend's dinner? Or are you planning to take pictures at a wedding and use them for commercial purposes? If it's more of a personal use type of situation, you might not need a crazy color gamut and a jpeg file will do. But if you are thinking of selling them, then you definitely need a wider color range.

  2. Time: Post-processing = time! This process is time-consuming so if you want to take photos, then go home and have them ready to share with the world, then your best choice is to shoot jpeg. But if you don't mind spending the time, then shooting raw might be the way to go.

  3. Editing skills: even if you had all the time in the world, your editing skills matter. It can be very frustrating to spend hours trying to get your picture to look a certain way and not achieve it.

  4. Storage space: shooting raw will definitely require more storage space. So if you don't want to invest in bigger memory cards, or external hard drives, then you might want to stick shooting jpegs.

Recommendations

In the battle of raw vs jpeg, it is clear that raw files are clearly superior as they hold a lot more information within them and as a photographer, you'll appreciate that. Does that mean you always have to shoot raw? Of course not! You now have enough information to judge each situation accordingly and be happy with your decisions.

My sincere recommendation is that if you are still unsure about the file format then shoot in both. Keep your jpegs to show off your amazing work and use the raw files to train yourself to edit. That will take the pressure off of you because you know whatever happens, you have your photos safe and sound. You don't need to choose the highest image quality and save some storage space. With the right knowledge and a bit of practice, you'll be able to take stunning photos regardless of whether you're shooting in raw or jpeg. So have fun out there and don't be afraid to experiment! Who knows, you may just find your favorite format by doing so.

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