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Shooting in RAW vs JPEG

When I started to take photography seriously, I kept on coming across the term: “You should shoot in RAW.” I believed it, but never really understood the difference. That was because my first camera could only shoot in JPEG, so I had nothing to compare it with.

The WOW-moment came when I bought my first full-frame, mirrorless camera that shoots in RAW. As soon as I opened a photo in Lightroom and Photoshop, I was surprised how much more detail I had to work with.

We will have a look at what I mean by more detail in a minute, but let’s just clarify what JPEG and RAW exactly are and why they matter.

shooting in raw vs jpeg

 

File formats

Both JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group, which created the format in 1992) and RAW are file formats that are available in cameras and used in digital photography.

What is a JPEG file?

JPEG is a compressed version of a RAW file. Because of the compression, the file loses image quality. When you take a photo in a JPEG format, it is processed within your camera. In fact, the camera does quite a lot of adjustments for you, such as white balance, colour saturation, contrast, and sharpness. Although JPEG files look better straight off of the camera, these adjustments made by the camera are actually burnt in the file and are irreversible. This means, when you edit a JPEG file, you work on an already edited photo. The quality of the photo is just going to get worse and worse.

What is a RAW file?

A RAW file is an uncompressed and unprocessed file that contains all the image data recorded by your camera’s sensor, and it is uncompressed. The name “raw” refers to the unprocessed status of the pictures. To view or print an image, the RAW file has to be edited in a software like Adobe Lightroom, Camera RAW, Bridge or Capture One, converted and finally stored in a standard raster graphics format such as JPEG.

jpeg vs raw
JPEG on the left, RAW on the right.

Benefits of using a RAW file format

Post-processing

Because RAW files store all the data captured on the camera’s sensor, they give you more flexibility for editing than a JPEG file where all the information is already burnt in the image. The beauty of editing a RAW file is that you are not changing the original. You are actually adding instructions on top of the data that’s already stored in the RAW file.

White balance

When you take a photo in a JPEG format, your camera will apply the white balance settings. This means the white balance will be burnt in your JPEG file and you won’t be able to change it. (When you edit the white balance of a JPEG file, Lightroom will add a blue or yellow filter on top of the image.) Whereas a RAW file contains all the data recorded from the camera sensor. Because of this, you can change the white balance of the original file in post processing and not just add a filter on top.

Dynamic range

The other area where you can notice significant data loss of a JPEG file is the bright and dark areas of the photo. This means you are limited in lifting the shadows or darken the highlights without creating noise (grain) in the image.

File size

Needless to say, that more data requires more storage. Therefore, the file size of a RAW image is much bigger than a JPEG file. If you decide to shoot in RAW, you will need not only a memory card with more storage, but potentially an external drive as well to download and store your images on as well.

jpeg vs raw
JPEG on the left, RAW on the right.

Summary

Because JPEG files look so much more appealing straight off the camera, they are very popular. If you are a hobby photographer and take everyday snapshots and don’t need or have time for post processing, use JPEG.

However, if you would like to achieve high-quality photos, then RAW format gives you so much more flexibility in post-production. It does require more work and storage, but the result will be much better as well.

If you don’t feel comfortable shooting in RAW, you can shoot in both modes – many cameras allow it. Give it a whirl, you won’t regret it. Trust me, you too will have a WOW-moment when you see your first edited RAW file.

Have faith.

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