RAW vs. JPEG - Which Format Should You Use

The RAW vs. JPEG debate has sparked ongoing discussions among photographers. In this article, we will explore the differences between these formats, debunk misconceptions, and delve into the potential game-changer: compressed RAW format.

Understanding RAW and JPEG

RAW Format

When you shoot in RAW, your camera's sensor captures the unprocessed and uncompressed data. It preserves all the original information without making any modifications. Think of it as the digital negative, where no changes have been made to the photo. This results in large file sizes since all the initially captured data is preserved.

To work with RAW files on your computer, you need to decode or convert them into a format that your computer can easily display. Software like Adobe Lightroom can perform this conversion, allowing you to make adjustments as needed.

JPEG Format

JPEG files, on the other hand, are compressed and processed versions of the images captured by your camera. They undergo various adjustments to enhance their appearance, such as contrast, saturation, sharpening, and noise reduction. These modifications give JPEGs a polished and visually appealing look straight out of the camera.

The settings that determine the changes made to a RAW file when converted to JPEG are controlled in your camera's menu. Canon refers to them as Picture Styles, Nikon calls them Picture Control, Fuji uses Film Simulation, and Sony uses Picture Profile. These settings allow you to customize the look of the JPEG according to your preferred style of photography.

It's important to note that these settings only affect the JPEG file, not the original RAW file. Interestingly, even when you shoot in RAW, the photo displayed on the LCD screen of your camera is a JPEG representation. This means that the chosen picture profile also influences the appearance of the image on the camera's screen.

JPEG Compression

JPEG compression is another aspect to consider. Compression is applied to the file to reduce its size. However, this compression is not merely a simple shrinking of the file or counting duplicate colors twice. It is a sophisticated mathematical algorithm that takes into account visual and psychological studies and models.

The compression algorithm considers factors such as our eyes' perception of colors and brightness, the reduced noticeability of changes in out-of-focus areas, and our sensitivity to changes in brightness compared to changes in colors. This smart compression technique reduces file size while maintaining visual quality.

RAW vs JPEG: Main Differences

Now, let's explore the differences between these formats and how they impact image quality, color depth, and post-processing capabilities.

Color Depth

Color depth refers to the number of colors that a file can represent. RAW files typically have a higher bit depth, allowing them to describe a vast range of colors. For instance, a 14-bit RAW file can represent around 4 trillion colors, offering exceptional color fidelity.

On the other hand, JPEG files are typically 8-bit, capable of representing approximately 16 million colors. This significant difference in color depth becomes noticeable in areas with smooth color gradients.

Image Processing and Detail Recovery

One of the notable advantages of shooting in RAW is the ability to recover details from highlights and shadows during post-processing. When comparing a RAW file and its corresponding JPEG, you may notice that the JPEG appears visually appealing right out of the camera, thanks to the applied processing, such as noise reduction and saturation. However, when you make adjustments to lower the highlights, the RAW file often reveals hidden details that the JPEG fails to preserve.

Similarly, in darker images, the JPEG may look fine initially. But when you attempt to boost the dark areas, it may suffer from a loss of detail and acquire a greenish cast. In contrast, the RAW file allows for more flexibility in recovering details from the shadows and maintaining color accuracy.

Advancements in JPEG Image Quality

While RAW files offer greater latitude for image manipulation, it's worth noting that modern sensors and improved dynamic range have made JPEG files better than ever. JPEG processing algorithms have evolved to produce more tones, reducing the chances of blown-out highlights or crushed blacks. This improvement in JPEG quality makes them highly usable in various applications, particularly when moderate adjustments to exposure or shadows are required.

It's essential to recognize that the quality of JPEG output depends on factors such as camera settings, picture profiles, and the capability of the sensor. With advancements in technology, the gap in image quality between RAW and JPEG has significantly narrowed.

White Balance Adjustment

Another important element that sets RAW apart from JPEG is the flexibility it offers in adjusting white balance. When shooting in RAW, you can fine-tune the white balance during post-processing without any penalty. If the image appears too warm, cool, or if the tint is off, you can easily rectify these issues using software like Lightroom.

Adjusting the white balance in JPEG files can be more challenging. Any modifications made to the white balance often affect the entire image, sometimes in ways that may not be very helpful. This limited adjustability can be a drawback, especially when precise control over white balance is crucial for achieving accurate color representation.

File Sizes

One practical consideration when deciding between RAW and JPEG is the difference in file sizes. RAW files are significantly larger than their JPEG counterparts. If you frequently capture a large number of photos and need to store them, the storage requirements of RAW files should be taken into account.

Photographers tend to store up to several terabytes of RAW photos as part of their work. To ensure data integrity, they usually maintain three copies, two locally and one in the cloud. Storing such a substantial volume of RAW files necessitates ample storage space. Consequently, redundant hard drives and a subscription-based cloud storage service are needed to securely store any files off-site.

In comparison, when shooting and storing JPEG files, the storage cost is considerably lower. JPEG files are significantly smaller than RAW files, resulting in a substantial reduction in storage requirements. This cost-saving aspect can amount to significant savings depending on the volume of photos captured and stored.

Shooting Speed

Another crucial factor that sets RAW and JPEG apart is their impact on shooting speed. Due to the larger file sizes of RAW files, it takes longer for your camera to write them to the memory card. As a result, when shooting in RAW, your camera may experience slowdowns, stuttering, or buffering during continuous shooting.

If you frequently capture fast-paced action sequences, such as at sporting events or wildlife photography, shooting in RAW can limit the number of frames you can capture before the camera starts to bog down. This can be frustrating when you need to document a long sequence but find that your camera struggles to keep up.

In contrast, the smaller file size of JPEG allows for faster capture rates, enabling your camera to shoot continuously without significant delays. This can be advantageous for scenarios where capturing a high volume of images in quick succession is critical. Switching to JPEG can ensure that you can capture more exposures during a long sequence without experiencing the same buffering issues encountered with RAW files.

Compatibility and Accessibility

Another aspect that differentiates RAW and JPEG formats is their ease of access and universal compatibility across various devices. JPEG files come straight out of the camera looking more polished and ready to use. They can be readily opened and viewed on almost any device, including smartphones, tablets, computers, and TVs.

This universal compatibility of JPEG files makes them highly convenient, especially in situations where immediate access and usage of photos are crucial.

Similarly, if you find yourself in scenarios where live updates and instant sharing of photos are required, using JPEG files can expedite the process. JPEGs can be quickly shot, transferred, and shared with minimal processing time, ensuring the recipients receive the photos promptly.


When to Shoot in RAW and When to Shoot in JPEG

Now that we have explored the differences between RAW and JPEG formats, let's summarize the situations where shooting in each format may be more advantageous.

Shoot in RAW if:

  • You prioritize having the best dynamic range: RAW files capture the full range of tonal information, allowing for more flexibility in post-processing to recover highlights and shadows.
  • You desire greater post-processing flexibility: RAW files provide extensive control over adjustments such as exposure, white balance, and color grading, enabling precise fine-tuning during editing.
  • Ultimate image quality and color fidelity are paramount to you: RAW captures a higher bit depth, preserving a broader range of colors and minimizing potential color banding or loss of detail.
  • Memory and storage constraints are not an issue: RAW files are significantly larger, requiring ample storage space for archiving and editing. Ensure you have the necessary memory capacity and a workflow that accommodates these larger files.
  • You have access to a RAW converter or a workflow that supports RAW files: To fully leverage the benefits of shooting in RAW, you need access to software capable of processing RAW files, such as Adobe Lightroom, Capture One, or other RAW converters.

Shoot in JPEG if:

  • Speed and simplicity of workflow are important to you: JPEG files have smaller file sizes, enabling faster writing speeds, continuous shooting without buffering, and quick sharing of images.
  • Getting the photo out quickly is a priority: JPEGs come straight out of the camera with applied adjustments, making them ready for immediate use without extensive post-processing.
  • You want to simplify image processing: JPEGs undergo in-camera processing, including adjustments for contrast, saturation, sharpening, and noise reduction, reducing the need for extensive editing.
  • Ultimate image quality is not critical for the specific application: While JPEGs offer good image quality, they may have slightly reduced dynamic range and color depth compared to RAW. However, for many everyday applications, the difference may not be noticeable or critical.
  • You want to use less memory and storage: JPEG files have significantly smaller file sizes, requiring less storage space and memory capacity, making them more suitable for photographers with limited storage resources.
  • Your camera's speed is crucial for capturing fast-action shots: Shooting in JPEG allows for faster continuous shooting without experiencing slowdowns or buffering, making it advantageous for capturing high-speed action sequences.

Compressed RAW Format

In addition to the traditional RAW and JPEG formats, there is a growing trend towards a new format called compressed RAW. Compressed RAW files retain the original dimensions and unprocessed data of the image but undergo compression, resulting in smaller file sizes compared to uncompressed RAW files. While still larger than JPEGs, compressed RAW strikes a balance between file size and image quality.

Different camera manufacturers implement compressed RAW formats in various ways. Some cameras allow you to choose a lower bit depth, such as shooting in 12-bit instead of 14-bit RAW. Others offer specific compressed RAW settings or shooting modes. For instance, Nikon cameras may have the option to shoot at 12-bit, Sony cameras provide compressed RAW at 13-bit, and Canon cameras offer compressed RAW or 12-bit files when shooting in electronic shutter mode.

RAW vs Compressed RAW files

When closely examining images, even at high magnification, the distinctions between compressed RAW and uncompressed RAW are often minuscule. The brightest whites and darkest darks may exhibit slight variations, but these differences are hardly noticeable to the untrained eye. Unless you heavily crop images, require the maximum dynamic range from shadows to highlights, or engage in meticulous retouching, compressed RAW is a viable alternative to uncompressed RAW.


There are numerous valid reasons why photographers, including professionals, can confidently shoot in JPEG. If the speed of workflow, quick sharing of images, or simplifying the image processing pipeline are important factors, JPEG proves to be a reliable choice.

However, it is crucial to master exposure techniques, utilize tools like histograms, and exercise caution with under or overexposure since JPEGs are less forgiving when it comes to post-processing adjustments.

The key to improving your skills and capturing captivating images lies in practice, gaining experience, and mastering your artistry. Regardless of the format you choose, whether it be RAW, compressed RAW, or JPEG, embrace the joy of photography and create amazing images that reflect your unique vision.

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