Almost all Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) or newer Mirror-less cameras generate pictures in either a JPEG (also abbreviated as JPG) or RAW file format. In many cases, the camera will allow the same picture to be recorded in both formats at the same time (two photos). To the left is a picture of what the image quality selection screen looks like on a Canon camera. In this particular case, the camera is set to only shoot RAW.
There are some significant and fundamental differences between the two formats, but one isn’t necessarily better than the other. It comes down to what you want to do with the photo after you download it from the camera. How much creative oversight you want to have? Or would you rather the camera to do all the processing for you?
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, and 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, temperature, white-balance, etc are not applied. When trying to open and look at a RAW file on a computer, you usually need special third party software like Lightroom or Photoshop. Ironically, even though the file is larger and there’s more data in a RAW file, they often look bland and unexciting. Not to worry, though. There is a reason for this, which I will explain further down in this article.
The JPEG file is a modified and compressed alteration of the RAW data from the photo-sensor. The applies its own post-processing to the RAW data by adding sharpness, contrast, color, vibrance, white-balance, and many other things. Most cameras have various settings that can apply different types of post-processing automatically, such as standard, portrait, faithful, vivid, black and white, etc.
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).
Almost all point-and-shoot cameras, including smartphones, save pictures in the JPEG format. Just keep in mind, 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?
So, which is better? Well, it depends on what you the photographer want to do with the photo and how much time you want to spend doing it. 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.
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 to work with as compared to a JPEG file. You just can’t see it.
As an 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, rather than smooth transitions.
Although it’s possible to post-process JPEG files, less data means you won’t have anywhere near the same post-processing capabilities and range. For example, with a RAW file, one can easily lift or decrease the shadows +/- 3 or even +/- 4 stops without any significant loss in quality or introducing noise. Same with exposure, highlights, shadows, white, blacks and much more. An example of this is the photo above and to the left. The shadows and certain parts of the image were lifted about +3 stops.
When To Shoot RAW or JPEG?
Most people are perfectly satisfied with their camera doing the post-processing for them. And most of the time, the JPEG it produces will look absolutely fantastic to a vast majority of the people who took the photo. If you’re on vacation taking hundreds of pictures, it could take months to manually apply your own post-processing to every RAW photo. So, there is a clear advantage to JPEG in this situation. It’s just way easier to let the camera do it for you. Moreover, if you are big into social media and want to post your pictures immediately, you’ll want to shoot JPEG because 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.
Shooting in RAW is great for the avid and artistic photographer who wants to greatly customize their own pictures. For example, portrait photographers do a lot of post-processing as do landscape photographers. Shooting in RAW gives them a lot more flexibility to dodge and burn, add sharpness, reduce highlights, lift shadows, and much more. The final result (provided you are good at post-processing) will almost certainly be better than a JPEG straight from the camera. But there is a steep learning curve on how to use a program like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to post-process RAW photos, and many people just don’t want to learn.