Photography 101: JPG or RAW

Digital photography provides many choices when it comes to enhancing your unique vision. Everything from cameras, lenses, and post production software play a unique role in producing wonderful images. There is another piece to this puzzle that you need to consider as well. The question of RAW vs. JPG file formats is one that has no right or wrong answer, only what works best for you. Let’s take a look at these two formats and why you may want to use one over the other.

RAW is the native form in which your camera writes files to the memory card. This means Nikon’s RAW files differ from Cannon, Sony, Pentax, and so on. Each camera even puts its own unique file extensions on each photo. However, the differences in RAW files are more complicated than just file extensions and camera brands.

RAW files contain a large amount of information about a photo. This info ranges from the make of camera all the way down to if you fired a flash or not. That information is stored differently in every manufacturer’s RAW file. For example, Nikon may write the info in this order: camera type, iso, shutter, aperture, lens, date, time, and white balance. However, Pentax may write their info as: lens, date, camera, iso, shutter, time, white balance, and aperture. There is no standard for writing info into RAW files.

All of this info brings on a disadvantage when it comes to the ability for the file to be opened by photo viewing/manipulation software. You may have noticed how patches are released for software like Photoshop, Aperture, or Lightroom when new cameras are released. These patches are necessary to read the native files from these new cameras. As you might imagine, this complexity in RAW files can make it a bit difficult to move photos from one piece of software to another at times. This difficulty is often resolved by converting the original photo into another file format such as a DNG, JPG, or TIFF.

The disadvantages of native file formats are met with a pretty big advantage though. That advantage is all the information that is stored in the file. This makes it easier to correct issues during post processing. If a photo’s white balance is off, something like Lightroom will have an easier time correcting it, as it is able to read the white balance info off of the file and adjust accordingly. This alone can make post processing much easier.

Yet, there is another common format that cameras capture images in. This format is JPG. JPG (also known as jpeg) files are a standard format that is used around the world. This makes it much easier to bring photos from the camera directly into the software of your choice. You can even email JPG files to other people, and they can open them with whatever default photo viewer they may have on their computers.

Quite possibly the biggest advantage to JPG files is the size of the photo file. These files are smaller than RAW files. The reason for this is due to the information stored in them. Where a native RAW file may contain every piece of information under the sun, JPG files are stripped down of this info. The most pertinent info is retained, but some obscure setting like the camera using a vivid color scheme vs. a monochrome may not be stored in the file.

The camera also does a bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to jpegs. White balance, sharpness, and even color ranges are processed right on the camera. When you click the shutter button, the camera applies the dialed in settings, processes the image, and then compresses the final result. This all happens in milliseconds. Photographers who do not have a lot of time to post process images can benefit greatly from allowing the camera to do this heavy lifting.

Now that you have a basic understanding of these two file types, why would you choose one over the other? While people will debate this to their graves, it ultimately comes down to what works best for you. Here are a few comparisons on JPG vs. RAW files:

  • JPG files are primarily processed by your camera; RAW files use the core settings like ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
  • Due to the amount of information in RAW files, they take longer to write to the memory card. Jpeg files on the other hand, write to your memory card much faster. This makes jpeg files great for action photography such as sporting events.
  • RAW files, arguably, offer more control of the final image in post processing due to the information stored in them.
  • Due to the proprietary nature of RAW files, a photo captured today in RAW format is more likely to become obsolete, if not incompatible, as the years tick away. JPG has been around for decades and shows no sign of going away. Keep in mind, technology is always changing so both formats could become prehistoric tomorrow.
  • Due to the info in RAW files, new photographers can get a deeper understanding of their photos and how the settings of their cameras play into a photograph results.

So what format is best for you? Use them both and decide for yourself. Just like the ongoing camera debate, the file format wars spark a lot of conversation. If you like shooting jpeg, know its limitations and advantages, then by all means use that. If you like what RAW files provide you in post processing, then shoot with that. The end result is what is important, how you get there is up to you. If there truly was only one best way, why would there be all these choices?

One last tidbit on file formats. You might have heard of the DNG, or digital negative, file format. DNG files are a standardized equivalent of the RAW file. This is a format you convert to, like converting from JPG to TIFF. This makes it easier for darn near any software to easily open the file and display all the camera related information. Using this format contains its own unique nuances that we will address at a later time (this is already a lot of rambling).

Happy shooting!

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  1. JPEG files aren’t smaller because less EXIF information is captured. JPEG files are smaller because these files are compressed. This compression is ‘lossy’. That means actual image data is tossed out, not EXIF data. The EXIF makes up an insignificant portion of the size of the file.

    There’s no argument, or at least shouldn’t be, about RAW files offering more flexibility than JPEG files in editing. The reason isn’t because the files are larger. The reason is because RAW files aren’t processed at all. The image data hasn’t been ‘locked in’ like it is with JPEG and none of the image data has been tossed away through lossy compression. All of the information in the image is still ‘adjustable’. That’s why RAW files (and DNG) offer more flexibility in editing.

    In terms of speed, with today’s cameras and card write speeds shooting JPEG for speed reasons only shouldn’t be a concern. Shooting JPEG because, for example, the quality of RAW might not be needed for the intended end purpose would be a realistic consideration; but image transfer speed shouldn’t be.

    I’ve made this comment elsewhere and I know may not be agreed with but for those who have cameras that can shoot both RAW & JPEG (cameras that shoot only JPEG don’t offer the choice), the only people who should be shooting JPEG are professionals and advanced non-pros. The reason is, for the most part, those are the folks who know what they’re getting with JPEG and can set the camera up to get the right result out of the camera without the need for much (if any) additional editing. That crowd will still make mistakes but likely fewer of them and the size of the mistake will typically be smaller which means rescuing from the mistake is more possible. Folks who are earlier in the learning phase should be shooting RAW to give a greater margin of error and to allow them to see what that additional flexibility gives them in editing images. Or shoot RAW + JPEG so a direct comparison can be made between the two and how much more leeway RAW gives over JPEG for editing later and a comparison can be made between the ‘proper’ or desired camera settings vs. what was used to act as a learning tool. I know when I was starting out, I’d have liked to be able to ‘fix’ the mistakes I made on slide film or have an ability to compare a proper result with my mistake.

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