JPEG and RAW are the two file formats we use the most often as photographers. While I often hear that “real photographers only shoot RAW” the simple fact is that both formats have their place. But what are JPEG and RAW and what considerations should I be making when choosing one or the other?
When Do I Shoot in JPEG format?
JPEG is the format most people are familiar with seeing. JPEG is used on anything with a display in order to show media files and everything from computers to smart TVs and smartphones can display it.
But despite being entirely common it does have a few downsides. The main one is that it’s a lossy compressed file format. This means that it’s a space-saving way of storing information. The file compression is intentional and meant to strip as much data as possible without degrading the image quality too much. If you aren’t looking side by side at the RAW versions of an image usually the JPEG file will look just fine.
Photographers with an eye for the utmost quality will always want to shoot in RAW and convert later to JPEG. But in-camera JPEG still has an important place. Quickening your workflow for those times when you don’t need the best quality images possible is one reason. If I want a picture that’s better than my smartphone camera for, say, an eBay listing, I’ll simply shoot in JPEG for ease of use.
If storage is an issue JPEG is also useful for preserving space on your SD card or external hard drive. Of course, memory isn’t all that expensive but if you happen to have an extremely high-resolution camera (24+ megapixels) then the highest quality JPEG images can eat into smaller storage cards fast. You can store 3-6 times as many JPEGs compared to RAW images, depending on the sensor resolution and the settings you choose (low/medium/ high-quality JPEG, etc). JPEG also fills the in-camera buffer slower than RAW does, making it ideal for burst mode photography.
When Do I Want to Use RAW instead?
RAW is the file format that many point and shoots and most if not all DSLR and mirrorless cameras are capable of shooting in. RAW files are the unedited original files that are entirely uncompressed. This means that the files tend to be much larger than the JPEG compressions; RAW files can be anywhere from 8-60 MB apiece, depending on the resolution of my camera sensor and effects like composite imagery.
I use RAW when I need the very best image quality. Even though my final export product will undoubtedly be a JPEG file the software engines provided by processing software often provide superior JPEG conversions compared to the in-camera JPEG engines. My computer’s processing power is greater than that of my camera’s, making the editing software’s capacity that much greater.
The dynamic range, or the range of tones displayed, is also much better in a RAW image as information is lost in the JPEG conversion. I can more intelligently edit a RAW file as the software has all of the original information to make edits with. When editing a JPEG, you’ll notice it’s very easy to make the image appear unnatural because the software’s best guesses on the original image information quickly become limited.
Adjusting exposure will give much better results in RAW compared to JPEG because too much information is lost to give accurate reconstructions. Underexposed images can look perfect or nearly so when altered in RAW.
Another thing with RAW is that you’ll never accidentally ruin your original image file while editing. Rather than altering the original file RAW editing software creates an instructional overlay that explains how to create a JPEG with the characteristics I want. With JPEG, on the other hand, it’s all too easy for me to accidentally permanently alter and save an image when I may want to preserve my original.
Why Not Use Both Formats?
If you want ultimate flexibility, why not shoot both at once? Modern cameras have an option for JPEG (in varying quality) + RAW, sacrificing loads of storage space for both the original file plus a compressed version.
JPEG+RAW is great if I’m uncertain which I’ll need. Sometimes while casually shooting on vacation that magic moment comes out of nowhere and I know I want to spend time editing that particular image. Shooting JPEG+RAW means I can quickly upload straight to the Internet or social media images I enjoy but don’t want to fuss with while having fun with the very best ones later in Lightroom.
When discussing JPEG versus RAW it’s sometimes tempting to debate which is better. But the simple truth is that they both serve different purposes. If you only shoot one or the other then it’ time to diversify.
JPEG has a place as a lossy yet compressed format that’s meant for easy uploading of high-quality images. If I don’t expect my audience to be peeping at every pixel and mulling over the possible sharpness then JPEG is usually more than enough. If I intend to upload to social media like Facebook it’s important to remember than many social media uploaders downgrade the image anyway to preserve space. So even if I shoot in RAW and convert to JPEG later the image on social media won’t look nearly as good as it does on my end.
I use RAW for my clients. Sometimes the client may want to RAW files to edit themselves but more often than not I do the editing and then convert to JPEG for the final product. RAW puts all of the original file information at my fingertips. It is meant to be edited and provides maximum flexibility for doing so.
So take time and get acquainted with both. As photographers, we want to be using all of the tools at our disposal and both JPEG and RAW deserve a place on my hard drive!