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RAW Vs JPEG Image Format: 5 Reasons To Choose RAW Or JPEG

RAW vs JPEG Image format: 5 Reasons to Choose RAW or JPEG

RAW vs JPEG is probably the most widely debated topic among photographers. Here are 5 top reasons to either choose RAW on JPEG format.

Raw Vs JPEG. A comparison study and 5 Reasons to choose RAW or JPEG

Are you a firm believer of RAW format? and feel pity for the JPEG shooters?

Did you know that what you view on the LCD is always a JPEG file? You decide whether to keep a file or not by viewing a JPEG file! There is no reason to blame the JPEG shooters.

Are you a firm believer of JPEG format? and laugh at the RAW shooters?

Did you know that JPEG file is derived from RAW file? The difference is that the manufacturer has done the processing for you! There is no reason to blame the RAW shooters.

No matter which group you belong to, you will be using both RAW and JPEG formats.

There is nothing wrong to shoot RAW or JPEG. It is just a matter of choice. Most important reason for you to choose RAW may not be that important for me and vice versa!

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Let us look at 5 important reasons to choose RAW or JPEG format and also few reasons why not to choose RAW or JPEG format.

Choose the one which suits your purpose…or both if you really want best of both worlds!

Note: This is a very lengthy post, don’t forget to bookmark it.

RAW format

Data is minimally processed with 12-bit or 14-bit per channel (Red, Green, and Blue). It will have 4096 (12-bit) to  16384 (14-bit) levels per channel.

It is called RAW image because it contains almost every detail the sensor captures. However there may be slight loss of data because of analog to digital conversion, as well as some slight corrections manufacturer may apply in the process of conversion.

RAW file + Your processing for exposure, color, contrast, saturation, temperature, white balance, noise reduction and sharpness = JPEG file (processed by you)

Raw Vs JPEG. A comparison study and 5 Reasons to choose RAW or JPEG

Reason #1: You will Get More Dynamic Range

RAW files have greater dynamic range than the JPEG files. RAW file uses 12-bits or 14-bits per channel which allows a dynamic range of 4096 (2^12) or 16384 (2^14) levels/tones per channel. Whereas JPEG uses 8-bit per channel with dynamic range of 256 (2^8) levels/tones per channel.

Higher dynamic range helps in post processing stage to bring out all the details in the scene.

This is the most important reason to go for RAW format.

Reason #2: You can Recover Overexposed Highlights

In case if the highlights are overexposed, you can recover them using lightroom or photoshop.

You might be wondering how is it possible to get back the overexposed highlight, isn’t it?

Since the image that you see on your LCD is a JPEG image and it uses only 8 bits per channel (256 levels), it will show some highlights as overexposed or clipped. However, the highlights might not be clipped in reality because the RAW file uses 12-bits or 14-bits per channel.

However, remember that you can only recover what is recorded by RAW file. If the dynamic range was beyond what a RAW file can handle, then it is not possible to recover the overexposed part.

There are definitely ways to know for sure (in the field) whether you can recover or not, but that is a different topic.

Reason #3: You can set Proper White Balance in Post processing

Another obvious advantage of RAW files is the ability to set virtually setting in the post processing stage.

White balance is quite tough to nail down in the field, atleast for the bird/wildlife photographers, because the subject moves in and out of various lighting conditions.

If you set a wrong white balance like incandescent for daylight conditions, your photographs will have heavy blue cast while you watch on LCD monitor. But you can set it back to daylight without losing any data, in the post.

This is one of the most important factor for many photographers to use RAW format.

Check out 5 Easy Methods to get Perfect White Balance

Reason #4: You can manipulate any setting you want

RAW image usually looks very flat with lack of contrast and color while watched in RAW viewers.

You have to adjust color temperature, brightness, global and local contrast, color information, noise reduction, and Sharpness to make it closer to what you captured.

However, it is not necessary to just process a scene to make it look exactly what you captured. You may want to do some sort of enhancements to give your photograph a POP.

Color information is in fact one of the major reason to use RAW format. Color loss is usually heavy in JPEG format due to the fact that compression is based on Human Visual System (HVS). As per HVS, our eyes are less sensitive to color than light.

Reason #5: You can Process a RAW file any number of times with No Loss of Data

You can process a RAW file without losing even a bit of data using softwares like Adobe Lightroom. They give you ability to process an image multiple times without actually manipulating original pixels.

All the processing steps are stored for that file no matter how many times you open and close the software.

It is the most important factor in choosing RAW format. These RAW processing softwares are non-destructive in nature.

Reasons-Not-To-Choose-RAW

Reason #1: You need more Memory (in Camera + in Hard disk)

Every RAW file needs atleast 3 to 6 times more memory than the JPEG file. Memory requirement increases exponentially if you shoot lot of photographs in burst mode.

Reason #2: You need to Process every Photograph

No matter what, you have to process the photograph to make it viewable. It means you need to spend atleast few minutes to process each photograph by correcting contrast, color, saturation, noise reduction, sharpening and convert it to JPEG format.

Reason #3: You need Expensive Software to Process RAW files

The cost for multiple software needed to process RAW files efficiently could be overwhelming. A software for RAW processing (like Adobe Lightroom) and a software for TIFF (or JPEG) processing (like Adobe Photoshop), may be a make or break situation.

You can definitely do some amount of processing using Canon Digital Photo Professional or Nikon View NX2. You could also use open source software like GIMP.

But if you really want to get the best out of RAW files, you may have to go with Adobe Lightroom and/or Adobe Photoshop.

Reason #3: You need to Learn atleast few Basic Post Processing Techniques

You need to learn basic post processing techniques like brightness/contrast adjustment, color correction and saturation, noise reduction, sharpening. Though it is quite simple now-a-days with Lightroom, it does require some basic knowledge.

Reason #4: You may end up giving an Artificial Look

Several times you may end up cooking up too much in post processing. If you do not do it right, your photograph will look ugly or unrealistic.

Since there is usually a gap of hours to days between taking a photograph and processing it, there is a high chances of forgetting how the actual scene looked like.

JPEG format

JPEG  (Joint Photographic Experts Group) format is an Image Compression standard that is used to compress the RAW files.

JPEG file = RAW file + (Manufacturer’s settings for color, contrast, saturation, noise reduction and sharpness)

JPEG is a standard image compression format which is lossy in nature. Because, image compression is basically a technique to compress a large size of data into a smaller one by throwing information that might not be noticeable by human eye.

It is basically compressing a 12-bit or 14-bit data (RAW file) into an 8-bit data (JPEG file). Which means, the process of compression will lose certain data in order to reduce the file size.

How much data is lost depends on the scene and the quality parameter set. Fine JPEG setting  will give the best JPEG quality image than the Normal or Low setting.

Raw Vs JPEG. A comparison study and 5 Reasons to choose RAW or JPEG

Reason #1: You can Share it Right Away

Snapshots or record shots or documentary shots intend to capture the moment as it happens. In these scenarios, generally the moment overweighs the artistic need for a photograph.

You will be able to share the moment as it happens with your family and friends.

In case of photo-journalism, it is probably very important to capture and share the moment as it happens which naturally asks for JPEG format.

Though it is not mandatory to use, JPEG is probably an easy choice which serves the purpose.

Reason #2: You know Exactly what You Get

JPEG is WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) format. You do not have to assume anything. The photograph you see on the LCD monitor is exactly what you see if you view on your Tablet, Laptop or PC.

If your see clipped highlights in the LCD monitor, then that portion of the image is overexposed. You either have to live with it or make some adjustments, in the field, like recomposing the scene or using exposure compensation to fix it.

Reason #3: You can save 3 to 6 times memory

Since JPEG is a compressed version of RAW format, you can save quite a lot memory. You can save 3 to 6 JPEG files in place of 1 RAW file.

You will save on LOT of memory in the long run.

Reason #4: You do not have to Process any Photographs

Probably the most important reason why you do not want to switch to RAW. If you are not interested in processing or do not want to spend too much time in front of the laptop or PC, JPEG is the most suitable format.

Also, it is not always necessary to shoot every scene in RAW and post process it. Several scenes could be captured brilliantly just with JPEG format.

Note that, you could process JPEG files in softwares like Adobe Photoshop. Since it is having less tones/levels in the photograph, you may not have much room for processing.

Reason #5: You do not have to Buy Expensive Software

JPEG need not have to be processed at all. Even if you have to, you may use the software which comes with your camera like Canon Digital Photo Professional or Nikon View NX2.

You will save big bucks here.

Raw Vs JPEG. A comparison study and 5 Reasons to choose RAW or JPEG

Everything Else 🙂

Conclusion

It is not fair to say one format suits all. It depends on what your final goal is.

If you shoot RAW because you think JPEG is inferior Or if you shoot JPEG because you think RAW is not superior, then you are wrong.

If the situation has a dynamic range that is possible to represent with just 8-bits per channel, then you may not get any difference between RAW and JPEG files. Given the same level of processing, you could get the same output from JPEG and RAW considering the fact that Exposure, White balance, Noise Reduction and Sharpening are set properly.

If the situation demands a greater dynamic range than 8-bits can represent, JPEG has to throw out details. Whereas, RAW file will hold greater dynamic range.

It is quite possible that JPEG image with manufacturer’s default settings may be serving most of your needs. It may give you much better results than, if you were to process on your own (if you are not that good at processing).

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All said, one thing that NEVER changes is:

You can make the EXACT copy of JPEG from a RAW file but NOT vice versa

I shoot RAW always because I love to take control over my photographs. But I envy JPEG shooters because they will post their pictures in social media sites instantly while I am still browsing through my photographs 🙂

If you have never tried RAW format, then I recommend you to shoot RAW + JPEG format for a while. Check if RAW files make your life any better or worse.

With this approach, you have a solid reason why you want to go with one or the other format.

Now it is your turn…

Which format do you use? Do you think RAW is better or JPEG is better? What is your opinion on this?

Prathap

Prathap is a professional nature photographer and founder of Nature Photography Simplified blog. He aims to simplify every photography concept to help beginners and amateur photographers.

Download his highly recommended FREE eBook "Bird Photography – 10 Mistakes and Solutions" which has been instrumental in helping thousands of bird photographers.

Download it right now to jumpstart your bird photography.

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. Dear Prathap,

    This is an important post and I think you covered all the bases except possibly one. I use RAW for every photo (except in one case in Belize when I was quickly running out of CF space). Another reason that I don’t see that you covered is color space. Only with RAW and not with JPEG can we use sRGB for the Internet and Adobe RGB 1998 for printing copies. Some if not all monitors do not render Adobe RGB 1998 properly while that color space gets the most colors out of a print.

    Namaste,

    David

    1. Dear David…thanks a lot for such a nice comment. You are absolutely right. Color space is an important differentiating factor. I did not include it because, not many people might be using it very often. But, I think I was wrong 🙂 Thanks for bringing it up here.

  2. Hi Prathap!
    I’m taking photography classes and half the instructors shoot RAW and the other half use JPEG. Currently I’m using JPEG because I don’t want to spend much time in post processing. Guess I’ll try RAW for awhile like you suggested and will let you know how it goes. I like what you said about there is no one format for all situations – it really is the photographer’s preference. Great topic!

    Thanks,
    Sylvia

    1. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts Sylvia. I appreciate that you would like to try RAW format. It is always good to understand what you can and cannot do with JPEG and RAW formats, so that you are always in a good position to choose between the two for a reason. It applies to every concept, to be honest.
      I look forward to know your experience with RAW format. Good Luck!

  3. Prathap, for me the main reason to choose jpeg is to alow more frames in burst mode to shoot birds in flight. Using RAW you don’t reach 8 fps with Canon 7D for example. Your site and tips are so good. Congratulations.

    1. Thanks a lot João Henrique Hollerbach. You are right! I think it is an important consideration too. It does make sense to use JPEG in order to gain on burst speed. Sometimes capturing that peak action is more important than having more information in a file.

  4. Thank you, Sir. I have been shooting all RAW but I’ll take your advice and switch to RAW and JPEG and compare the JPEG with the RAW after processing.

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