If you do a quick search online, you’ll no doubt come across the never-ending argument about using RAW file format vs JPEG when shooting. It seems that everyone has strong opinions about why you should use one and not the other.

There are a lot of discussions and articles out there that delve deep into the technical aspect of both formats, such as color bits per channel, DCT processing and all the other tech-related information. If that is what turns you on, then Google away to your heart’s content. This article is going to give you an overview of both file formats, so you can apply the knowledge to your real-life photography.

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JPEG file format may well have been what you started off using when you first picked up your camera. JPEG’s are everywhere, they are used on the internet, on social media, and you can upload them straight to your computer and view them at once without the need for image processing programs to open them. JPEG images are the everyday workhorse of the internet age.

One of the reasons they are popular is that they are processed in your camera, and come out the other side fully ready to upload. How they are processed depends on your camera brand and model, but basically the camera adds blacks, contrast, noise reduction, saturation and sharpening according to a pre-set formula, and then renders the file to a compressed JPEG, which can be used or printed straight away.

Because JPEG files are compressed into much smaller file sizes than RAW, they are considered a ‘lossy’ file format. This means that much of the detail and information in the image is removed, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t get it back.

You may have heard photographers discussing the ‘dynamic range’ in RAW vs JPEG. Simply put, dynamic range is the amount of tonal detail in the darkest shadow to the brightest highlight. Because JPEG’s are compressed, much of that detail is irretrievably lost, whereas in RAW files, it is all kept.

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A RAW file of an image is not an actual photograph, as a JPEG is. The image you see as a preview on the back of your camera is simply a preview of the information held in the RAW file. The RAW file itself is all the information captured by the camera’s sensor, and it is not processed and compressed by the camera like a JPEG is.

Because of this, RAW files come out looking somewhat dark and flat, so they need to be processed using your camera’s RAW conversion software, or an image processing app like Adobe Camera RAW, and/or Lightroom. I like to use Lightroom for my RAW processing, because it’s quick and powerful, but others prefer to use different programs.

The beauty of RAW files is this ability to process them how you want them to look, not how the pre-set JPEG process on your camera decides how they will look. You have many more pixels and much more detail to play with. You get to apply the amount of sharpening, contrast, colour etc that you like, and you can adjust the shadows and highlights with RAW files because of the uncompressed information contained in the file. You can’t do this with JPEG’s, because all that tonal range detail has been cut out and discarded.

So Surely RAW Format is Best?

So far, you’ve discovered that JPEG’s lose lots of important tonal details when they’re compressed, and RAW files keep them all. You’re probably thinking that it’s a no-brainer – RAW is clearly superior for image quality, so why would you shoot in JPEG at all?

A lot of people will try to tell you that modern JPEG’s are the same quality as RAW files, and that the argument that RAW is superior only applied back in the early days of digital cameras. I don’t think that’s the case from my own experience. I nearly always shoot in RAW, with a few notable exceptions. The image quality is simply not comparable, even with modern large JPEG’s, and if you need to keep a lot of tonal detail in your work, you should always shoot RAW.

However, remember that I said there were a few notable exceptions when I shoot JPEG, or a mixture of RAW and JPEG? It all depends on what you are shooting, and what you want to use the images for. I’ve included a few scenarios below where I would use RAW, JPEG or a mixture, so you can see that there’s room for both formats.

understanding shutter speed

Quick Continuous Burst Shooting

I’m not a sports photographer, but if I need to capture live action sports or fast-moving subjects with heavy use of continuous burst shooting, I’ll use large JPEG. The reason for this is because if you shoot continuous bursts using RAW format, your camera will struggle to buffer and keep up.

This means your camera will stop shooting to enable it to catch up with the buffered images and transfer them to your memory card. In this scenario, the camera usually stops just when you can see shot after brilliant shot that you’re missing!

If you shoot JPEG, you’ll also get a lot more shots in before your camera stops to buffer, because they are much smaller files than RAW. They also take up much less space on your memory card, so you won’t have to stop shooting to change cards so often.

what is a micro four thirds camera

Shooting for Internet Use

If I need images solely for using on the internet (such as advertising something for sale, social media etc) or for location scouting, I will use JPEG. Because it’s not necessary to have massively detailed images for such uses, there’s no point in shooting RAW and spending the extra time processing the images, when I can simply shoot and upload.

Shooting for Quick Display

If I need to have images ready quickly for display, such as if I need to send samples of a shoot to a client, I’ll set my camera to shoot in both RAW and JPEG at the same time. That way I have the flexibility of the RAW files for post-processing, and the ability to immediately send the shoot images through to the client.

Fashion or Portrait Shoots

These are RAW format every time, as I need the extra tonal details, and the ability to manipulate them in post processing. I may set my camera to shoot small JPEGs at the same time, so I can send them immediately to the client, but the actual shoot will always be in RAW.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this should have given you an idea about the pros and cons of each file format. JPEG has speed and immediate accessibility, while RAW may be a slower process, but the tonal detail and the ability to change it to suit are far superior to JPEG’s.

Now you can use this information to help you decide when to use each format for your different photography needs, rather than saying one format is better than the other.

In the next article, we leave the tech side of photography for a while to delve into something a bit more creative: leading lines – what they are and how to use them in your photography.

Continue to lesson 39: Understanding your camera’s sensor

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