RAW vs JPEG: Which Format is Better?

Canon RAW JPEG settings
Canon RAW/JPEG Settings

Many photographers don’t fully understand the differences between JPEG and RAW files. Many wonder if one better than the other, and if so, how and why?

Quality-wise, there is no difference between a RAW file and a JPEG. In truth, that statement doesn’t really make sense, because a JPEG is created from the RAW data on the camera.

Either your camera creates the JPEG from the RAW data, or you the photographer creates the JPEG from the RAW data using software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.

Post-processing is the process of artistically manipulating the RAW data according to the photographers liking. Things like saturation, sharpness, white-balance, lens-correction, noise reduction and other attributes get manipulated during post-processing.

To understand the differences between the two formats on your camera, we need to understand what you camera does to a JPEG and what it doesn’t do to a RAW file.

JPEG Files

The JPEG file created by your camera is a post-processed and compressed alteration of the RAW data captured by the photo-sensor.

The camera creates a JPEG by automatically post-processing the RAW data according to the camera’s settings. It will manipulate sharpness, contrast, saturation, vibrancy, white-balance, lens-correction, noise reduction and many other attributes. Most cameras have per-configured settings that can apply different types of post-processing, such as standard, portrait, vivid, or black and white.

When the imaged is saved as a JPEG, the camera compresses the photo by removing unnecessary bits of data that don’t affect the final image. This reduces the file size considerably, but not the quality (provided you don’t compress too much).

RAW Files

The RAW file on your camera is an uncompressed and unaltered recording of exactly what the camera’s photo-sensor detected. All the bits of data from the photo-sensor are transferred to the storage media in the camera and written as a RAW file. Because of this, the file size is much larger than a JPEG.

Ironically, even though the RAW file is larger and contains more bits of  data, they initially look bland and unexciting. That’s because the camera applies no post-processing to a RAW file. All the internal camera settings that control lens correction, color, sharpness, contrast, white-balance, noise reduction, etc are not applied.

Which Is Better?

Milky Way at Zion National ParkEither the camera of the photographer uses the RAW data fro create a JPEG. So, you really can’t compare the two.

It really comes down to how much creative oversight you want to have over your photographs. You should always shoot in RAW if you are going to modify the pictures yourself.

Since a RAW file is uncompressed and contains all the unaltered data straight from the sensor, there is a ton more information to work with as compared to a JPEG file. The RAW file provides far more latitude when tweaking attributes like shadows, highlights, color, and exposure in applications such as Lightroom or Photoshop.

A photographer cannot post-process a JPEG in the same way they can a RAW file. There just isn’t enough data in a JPEG.

Let’s say I raised the exposure of a RAW file by +3 stops then saved it as a JPEG. I then turn right around and modify the JPEG to reduce the exposure back down -3 stops. When I saved the image as a JPEG, there was a lot of data permanently removed from the file. The missing data is needed to accurately lower the exposure. Since the data cannot be recreated, the image will suffer from banding, artifacts, and clipping.

When To Shoot RAW or JPEG?

If you’re on vacation taking hundreds of tourist-type pictures, it could take weeks to manually apply your own post-processing to every RAW photo. In that case, there is a clear advantage to shooting in JPEG and letting your camera do the work for you. There is also a very steep learning curve when post-processing your own photos.

Moreover, if you want to share your awesome vacation photos on social media, you’ll again want to shoot JPEG. You cannot upload RAW files to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other social platform. Besides, you wouldn’t want to because a RAW file looks muted and bland without any post-processing applied.

RAW image post-processed

Shooting in RAW is great for the avid and artistic photographer who wants to greatly customize their own photos. Portrait photographers do a lot of post-processing as do landscape photographers. RAW gives the artists a lot more flexibility to selectively dodge and burn, reduce highlights, lift shadows, and much more. They might spend hours or even days post-processing a single photograph.

The final result has the potential to be a lot better than the camera. That’s because the camera doesn’t know what the photographer wants artistically.

Post-processing yourself is as much an art as the photography itself, and it takes years to learn. Most people just don’t have the time or the desire to learn. If that’s the case, letting the camera do the work for you is the best choice.