Image Formats - RAW or JPEG?
Talking about which image format is better is a bit like discussing on which lens is better between a 14mm and a 500mm, or on what cameras are better between mirrorless and reflex; you got it, it’s one of those arguments that will never leave the table of passionate photographers and will keep to make people arguing about it, over and over again. Each one of us, once he got seriously into photography, learned in the hard way (when I say “the hard way”, I mean by failing many times) which image format works better for himself; for some of us will be JPEG, for others will be RAW. And there’s not an absolute winner, neither there is an absolute loser: each of the two formats has its own pros and cons.
This article is for all those photographers that are still groping in the darkness and don’t know yet which image format will suit best their needs: let me help you to “find the light” and to save you a lot of miserable failures by understanding which are the pros and cons of the two main image formats (RAW and JPEG).
1. What is a JPEG File?
By definition, JPEG files are one of the most popular and commonly used lossy formats for digital images.
Now, I’d like to focus your attention for a moment on the word “lossy”. What does that mean? Technically speaking, lossy is a file compression method where the camera processor (or computer processor) inaccurately approximates through complex algorithms some data lacking in the original image, in order to reduce the size of it.
To give you a better idea of what I’m talking about, check out the photo above: on the right side you can see the JPEG file as it got out of my camera, while on the left you’ll see it saved with 0% quality through an editing software at the computer. As you’ll clearly notice, the file that came out of my camera is way more refined and sharper than the file saved at the computer: the camera file was almost 9 megabytes though, while the computer one was weighing just 41 kilobytes! That’s quite a huge difference if you ask me. Now you may wonder how’s that even possible, that there’s such a big gap in terms of file size even if they both are JPEGs. Answer is easy: it’s the compression level that changes between the two pictures: on the JPEG that came out from the camera it was applied a very low compression to maintain as many details (and quality) as possible, while on the computer-compressed file I decided to apply a really high compression in order to save as many megabytes as possible and sacrificing the quality.
Now that you know what a JPEG file is, let’s talk a bit about its pros and cons!
1.1 JPEG Advantages
One of the main things that makes JPEGs preferable when compared to RAW files is the fact that you don’t have to do any post production on them, since they’ll come out from the camera ready to be shared/published. Don’t think that there’s no editing on those pictures, they are just edited by the camera processor instead of you. And by the way, if you go in the settings of your camera, you might be able to change some very basics parameters like saturation, contrast, etc.
Anyway, as I was saying, you won’t have to apply any correction to them: they make a perfect fit for those photographer who can’t afford to spend time on editing their pictures but rather need to send them right away to their publishers or share them instantly online. Press photography, sports photography and documentary photography are just the first examples that comes into my mind.
Another pros of JPEG is its dimension: the full size JPEGs that came out from my camera (referring to the pictures above) were weighting just 8 megabytes, while a RAW file from the same session (and similar amount if details) is almost 50 megabytes. And as I showed you earlier, you can reduce even more the size of the JPEG.
JPEG it’s a way lighter format, so it’s easier and faster for photographers to share and transmit it.
1.2 JPEG Disadvantages
For some of them the advantages that I’ve listed above might sound like a pros, for others (like me) a cons.
The fact that you can’t post process JPEG files for many photographers will result in a huge limitation, since many photography genres naturally require a good amount of post production in order to get the photos ready to be printed or published. Portrait photography, landscape photography and wedding photography are some of the genres that generally require more editing work.
JPEG’s most important advantage is also the format’s biggest flaw.
A part from the editing limitation, JPEG files will also be slightly worse in terms of quality: since it’s a lossy format, which means it is compressed with some quality loss, you won’t achieve the same level of details that is present in a RAW file. I used “slightly” because this loss, unless you are really checking the image pixel by pixel, will be barely visible; that is also why I consider this flaw a relatively small one.
Interested in comparisons?
We wrote another comparison between mirrorless and DSLR cameras. You can find it here!
2. What is a RAW File?
A RAW image is a file that hasn’t been subject to any data editing, of any kind. RAW files needs to be post processed in order to be publishable, printable or even just usable: there are many RAW-developing softwares (free and paid) downloadable online to work on your camera files. Many photographers, given the similarities between the two, are actually calling RAW files the “negatives” of digital photography.
Contrary to the JPEG format, RAW files are not a lossy format: you can choose either to save your RAWs with no compression at all or with lossless compression. If you’ll select the “no compression” option, you’ll get the full size RAW file, which will probably weigh a huge amount of megabytes and you’ll get your memory cards full in no time; instead, if you’ll go for the “lossless” compression option, the camera will reduce the weight of your RAW files considerably by packing all the image details in less space. Don’t get it wrong: all the data, till the very last bit of them, will still be there when you’ll open your RAW file again with some specific software. The main difference between the two different types of compression is just the file size, nothing else: that’s why I truly recommend you to go for the lossless compression, since you’ll be able to save a ton of space on your hard drives/memory cards and still get all the juicy details in your pictures!
2.1 RAW Advantages
Let’s start with the RAW’s biggest advantage: the fact that you can work on your pictures with post production softwares. Whether you like it or not, post production is a crucial part of photography, specially if you aim to improve the look of your pictures. Unless you are on a really tight schedule and you can’t spend time on post-production, you should spend a good amount of time working on your pictures at the computer after you take them on the field. And while JPEG files are great for the former case, RAW files were specifically created for the latter.
Another important pros of shooting in RAW is the image quality: I’m not talking about the sharpness of the image, but about the amount of details preserved in the shadows (or the highlights). Since JPEGs are compressed files, some of these details will be lost during the compression process; when shooting RAW this can’t happen, since you are not compressing the file (or compressing it without any loss). Starting your processing from a RAW file will give you the chance to recover way more details in some parts of the frame when compared to a JPEG file.
2.2 RAW Disadvantages
The fact that you can’t use your RAW files unless you apply some kind of editing to them is a double edged weapon. If for some photographers it means that you can get full control over your pictures, for some others will mean that you’ll have to spend a lot of time behind the computer. Some photographers need to be able to use their photos right away after they took them on the field, and post production becomes irrelevant; there would be no point then in shooting RAW.
Also, let’s not forget the fact that even if you use the lossless compression on RAW files, they will still be quite heavy in terms of megabytes; at least, they’ll be much heavier than any identical JPEG file. If you decide to shoot in RAW, you should also adapt all your storage (memory cards, hard drives, etc) to work and load big amount of data in a relatively small amount of time, if you don’t want to spend hour loading files.
3. When to Use RAW and JPEG
Try to ask to a press photographer to use RAW files, and create an argument about how the RAW file format keep better details in the shadows; he’ll probably laugh at you in the face. There wouldn’t be no point for him to waste time in post production, since his public just wants to see pictures related to the news, with no artistic editing.
Now, try to ask a portrait photographer to use JPEG files, and tell him about the advantages of handling small files and not having to deal with post production; again, he’ll probably laugh at you, since (most of the times, at least) he needs all the possible details from the RAW files of his shootings and post production is fundamental to fix skin imperfections and other possible flaws of the images. He might want to add a personal touch of his style to the pictures too, and editing will give him the artistic freedom he needs.
If I had to choose two main variables that come to play when you have to select RAW or JPEG, I’d say the time that you can spend on your images and the purpose of those images are the most important ones. With little time and no artistic purpose involved, I’d go for JPEG; with a lot of time and some kind of artistic purpose, I’d much prefer to work with RAW files.
Still have a couple of minutes?
Here you’ll find another interesting article about how to handle lens flares in photography.