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Which Is Best for Photographs: JPEG or RAW?

By Julia Clarks | November 28, 2019 |

greater than 6 minutes

This article runs the rule over RAW and JPEG photography extensions. Some prefer the image-processing power of RAW files, while others plump for JPEG's quicker image rendering.

You’ve finally kicked off your brave new world of professional photography by buying a digital DSLR or mirrorless camera. You have even secured the contract to capture your first high-profile event from behind the lens of your new shooter. There is just one more decision to make before you take the actual plunge: RAW or JPEG?

This article runs the rule over RAW and JPEG photography extensions. Some prefer the image-processing power of RAW files, while others plump for JPEG’s quicker image rendering.

Before you make your decision, you should learn the ins and outs of RAW and JPEG files. Both formats have their advantages and disadvantages; ultimately, the choice depends on what you want, how much time you have, the tools at your disposal, and the kind of image you’re capturing.

What Are RAW Files?

Remember the old days when photographers had to develop images in a darkroom? Us neither. Those days are best forgotten unless you practice peculiar film photography.

RAW files are the digital version of the images a photographer of that time took into the darkroom, the negative that would be developed and printed after undergoing chemical processing. Like negatives, RAW files contain all the data captured by your camera. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained either.

Because of their special nature, RAW files can’t be opened by just any random image program. You need to use specialized software like Adobe’s twin graphics editors, Lightroom and Photoshop. There are free alternative programs out there for those who don’t wish to maintain a subscription to edit RAW files.

RAW files are called so because the image they save is “raw”. That is, it has been untouched by the camera’s processing function. It is as “true to life” as possible, and the data is left for the photographer to tweak as best they deem fit.

For this reason, the domain of RAW files is a bit of a free-for-all. There is no universal file format for these files. Although some cameras shoot in a format known as RAW, which is mostly for convenience, most do not. The most common format is Adobe’s DNG, used by RAW-capable niche cameras and smartphones. Camera manufacturers like Sony, Nikon, and Canon use other formats to render RAW files.

What Are JPEG Files?

Unlike RAW, which is just a convenient description to express the fact that the images captured have all their data preserved, JPEG is an actual file extension. It stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group. This group launched the JPEG standard in 1992.

JPEG is the most popular method for capturing images. Smartphones and recreational cameras save images in JPEG by default. The format is capable of rendering images in sixteen million different colors and can reduce an image to one-tenth its original size with no obvious quality loss.

What Are the Differences Between RAW and JPEG Extensions?

Data Retention: The main difference between RAW and JPEG files is what happens to the captured data. RAW files are lossless. That is, all the data captured by the camera is preserved for later editing. JPEG files, on the other hand, are lossy. Some data is generally lost in the course of processing and compression.

Image Usability: Although you can work directly with RAW files, you can’t use them as the finished product. After making the necessary edits to RAW files in a graphics editor, you then have to convert your work into another format, usually JPEG. You then upload the converted image to the web, send it to a printer, or attach it in an email to your client or loved one. JPEG files, on the other hand, come ready-made. Although you’re free to do extra editing on them, you can as well send or upload them as they are. Your camera has already done the processing.

Work Speed: With RAW files, you need to import the image data, work on it, and convert it to an end-user format before they leave your computer. JPEG files, on the other hand, can be instantaneously transferred to social media, uploaded or printed.

In an industry where time is often money and the client sometimes wants instant gratification, this is something to consider. Imagine you’re shooting several photographs in rapid succession. The time taken to process even one RAW image might make your camera grind to a halt. But if you change your settings to capture in JPEG, you can happily snap away.

Viewability: We mentioned earlier how only specialized image processing programs can open and edit RAW files. For ordinary consumers, this reality is even starker. JPEG files can be viewed anywhere, on any platform, using basically any kind of program. Every browser on earth supports JPEG, and so does every graphics editor, image viewer, camera, and operating system. The same simply cannot be said for RAW files.

Most average cameras can’t capture in lossless format either. You might need to fork out for an expensive photography rig to enjoy a higher image quality.

File Size: RAW files are lossless and unprocessed, so saving images in that format means using more storage space than when saving JPEGs. A 48-Megapixel camera may deliver roughly a 48MB RAW file. The same camera might give you, perhaps, a 2MB JPEG file. If you quantify that scenario with real-world photography taken in the highest possible quality by a DSLR or prosumer camera, you can easily end up with RAW files that are hundreds of megabytes to a few gigabytes large.

Why Do Professional Photographers Prefer RAW to JPEG?

With all those things in mind, most professional photographers still prefer to work with RAW files. In fact, many of them set their cameras to RAW by default and aren’t interested in shooting any other way. It is worth examining the reasons for the trend towards RAW shooting.

Lossless Nature: Imagine if you were a police officer investigating a crime. You’d naturally want to have as much evidence as possible. The more clues there are for you to pore over, the closer you get to solving the case. In the same vein, photographers are able to deliver better output if they have all of the original data to work with. The RAW format gives them this luxury. No wonder many regard it as a gift from the photography gods.

Easier to Manipulate: Although a graphics editor allows you to edit pictures and apply filters, you don’t have the same degree of freedom you would with RAW files. Simply put, lossless RAW is the ultimate in image editing. You can easily tweak exposure and change things like white balance and dynamic range.

When you work with RAW files, you aren’t telling the editor to modify pictures already processed by your camera. Instead, you create that picture yourself from the raw, unprocessed image data. The result is a finished product that is all your work.

You Can Create Multiple Images from One RAW File: This is because a non-destructive image editor, which is a program, such as Adobe Photoshop, that can work with RAW files, doesn’t change your original file but rather saves the changes you make as a separate file, which is then converted to another format, such as JPEG. This way, you can use one file to create different images by adjusting different image aspects and achieve the desired effect each time.

Is RAW Better Than JPEG?

So, which wins the contest: RAW or JPEG? Don’t let the giddy praise of some professional photographers for the RAW format fool you: each method of snapping images has its advantages. Which one you go for depends on the time, place and conditions.

For example, if you’re in a hurry or need to take a series of fast shots, you’re better off with JPEG as the RAW format doesn’t lend itself well to quick, continuous bursts of shooting. High-quality JPEG pictures are also usually sufficient to capture images on a bright, clear day; there is generally less to tweak in those kinds of images.

On the other hand, if you must wring every last drop of detail from a shot, the RAW format is tailor-made for that occasion. It helps you recover any lost details from bright or dark areas of photos.

Also, if you’re running low on space, you’re better off sticking with JPEG until you’re able to clear your storage or buy a bigger memory card. Generally, if you have to take a ton of shots on a photography run, empty your storage first in case you need to take RAW images.

Which brings us to an important point many novice professionals tend to overlook: whether RAW or JPEG, you still need to save your photos. Apart from mobile storage, you can use a cloud service like Google Drive or OneDrive to securely save your images.

These services don’t offer unlimited storage, though, which is why some photographers just go with JPEG files in order to reduce the size of images they take and save. However, with a service like FileWhopper, you can save RAW files in any size and easily share them with a client or colleague for collaborative purposes. Your data is stored for 14 days, which you can extend to 3 months, and a link and password are generated for the other person to download your files. 

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