Many beginning photographers are confused on the difference between JPEG and RAW. Is one better than the other, and if so, how and why? It all boils down to who, or what, post-processes the photosensor data.
Post-processing is the process of manipulating saturation, sharpness, white-balance, lens-correction, noise reduction, highlights, shadows, and a whole bunch of other variables. You can have the camera do it for you, in which case it’s going to create a JPEG file. Of, if you want to do the post-processing yourself, you’ll want to record the image as a RAW file.
Which is better? It depends. If you think you can modify the RAW data from the photo-sensor better than the camera, then you want to shoot in RAW. If you think the camera will do a better job modifying the data from the photosensor, then shoot in JPEG.
It really comes down to, how much creative oversight you want to have over your photographs? If you want to modify the photos are they are downloaded off the camera, then you really should be shooting in RAW. More on this below.
The RAW file is an uncompressed and unaltered recording of exactly what the camera’s photo-sensor detected. All the bits of data are stored within the RAW file. Because of this, the file size is much larger than a JPEG.
The camera applies no post-processing to the RAW image. All the internal camera settings that control lens correction, color, sharpness, contrast, white-balance, noise reduction, etc are not applied. Ironically, even though the file is larger and there’s more data in a RAW file, they initially look bland and unexciting.
When trying to open and look at a RAW file on a computer, you usually need special software like Lightroom or Photoshop. You also cannot upload a RAW file to any of the social media platforms.
The JPEG file is a modified and compressed alteration of the RAW data from the photo-sensor.
The camera applies its own post-processing to the RAW data by adding sharpness, contrast, saturation, vibrancy, white-balance, lens-correction, and many other things. Most cameras have settings that can apply different types of post-processing automatically, such as standard, vivid, or black and white.
After the camera applies the post-processing, it saves the picture as a JPEG. When 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).
The camera applies the same post-processing to every picture you take, unless you change it before taking the next photo.
Which Is Better for Photographers?
As previously mentioned, the RAW file is uncompressed and contains all the unaltered data straight from the sensor, which means there is a ton more information hidden in the image as compared to a JPEG file. If you prefer having more artistic control over your photos rather than letting the camera do the post-processing for you, then you want to shoot RAW. You can then post-process in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
If someone were to try and post-process a JPEG in the same way they would with a RAW file, they are going to be very limited in the changes they can make. There just isn’t enough data in a JPEG.
For example, if I were to lift the shadows of a RAW file by +3 stops, save it as a JPEG, then try to modify the JPEG to reduce the shadows back down -3 stops, it won’t look like the original. That’s because when I saved the image as a JPEG, the unneeded data was permanently removed from the file. This leads to sudden color variations called banding, and clipping, rather than smooth transitions.
When To Shoot RAW or JPEG?
Most people are perfectly satisfied with their camera doing the post-processing for them. The JPEG image it produces looks just fine to the person who took the shot. 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 apply the post-processing.
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.
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. Shooting in RAW gives them a lot more flexibility to selectively dodge and burn, add sharpness, reduce highlights, lift shadows, and much more. They might spend hours or even days post-processing one photograph.
The final result (provided you are good at post-processing) will almost certainly be better than the camera.
But there is a steep learning curve on how to use a photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to post-process RAW photos. It’s 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, and so in that case, JPEG would be the best choice.