Raw vs. JPEG…

January 14, 2009

A good friend of mine sent me a Facebook message asking about the differences between shooting raw files and shooting JPEG.  She just made the jump to digital (it’s about time!) when she received a Nikon D90 for Christmas from her (awesome) husband.  Talk about a great gift!  Most new digital photographers, including those with digital SLRs, start shooting JPEG because it’s easy to use and allows for more shots per memory card.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

JPEG files are one of the many file formats used to represent images on a computer.  The JPEG standard was developed in the early 90s and was made a true “standard” in 1994.  One of the main features of a JPEG file is that it’s compressible and that the compression amount can be determined by the user.  Compression allows JPEGs to take up less space than other file formats.  This is why you’re often asked the quality of the JPEG when you save a file to your computer or in your camera.  Of course, once a JPEG is written at a quality less than 100%, that information is gone and you’re not able to recover.  JPEGs take up less space than other formats depending on the amount of quality/compression  you select.  JPEGs are common across most computer systems, in web browsers, picture frames, etc. and probably the most common image format today.

Raw files, on the other hand, are specific to each camera manufacturer.  Actually, there is at least one company, Adobe, makers of Photoshop and other applications, that created a standard raw file (the DNG file), but this is somewhat beyond the scope of this discussion.  The camera manufacturers create the file format and provide portions or all of the format to the software developers that create the processing software.  Raw files contain the raw data coming straight from the camera sensor (among other tidbits of information).  With raw files, you need more specialized software to read and “develop” these images into a standard format.

So, why would you shoot raw if it uses more space and is more difficult to use after downloading from the camera?  It all depends on the type of shooting you do.  Simply, raw files contain much more data than JPEG files.  Since raw files contain the actual information from the sensor, the images can be developed on the computer using different techniques and different settings.  JPEGs are developed in the camera.  They are created using the settings on the camera.  Settings like white balance, saturation, sharpening, etc. are used when the JPEG is created (developed) in the camera.  While some of the impact the setting has on the image can be adjusted after the file is created, you can never recreate the file from scratch using a JPEG.  The information simply isn’t there.  With a raw file, you can reprocess with different settings until you get the desired image.

Also, raw files contain a significant amount of extra information.  This gets a little more technical, but a JPEG file by definition contains 256 brightness levels.  A typical raw file at 12-bits of data will contain 4,096 brightness levels while a 14-bit raw file (more prevalent in higher-end cameras) will contain 16,384 brightness levels.  There’s a lot more information that can be used to create your image with a raw file.

So, what does that all mean?  Even with the settings “baked in” and “only” 256 levels of brightness, JPEG images can look amazing.  The difference is in the development process.  Here is an example:

You’re shooting a wedding.  It’s a bright sunny day and you’re shooting the bride and groom, along with the wedding party, outside.  These are your “bread-and-butter” shots from the wedding.  Later, when you pull the images from the camera you notice all the outside photos have a yellow cast to them.  It’s then you realize you never changed the white balance after shooting indoors with a flash.  Now, if you’re using JPEG files, you have a long day in front of you as changing the color cast is not a trivial task.  If you have raw files, you simply change the setting for white balance to the correct setting and the image is reprocessed on your computer and the color cast is removed.

There are downsides to shooting raw files.  For the most part, you’re going to need special software to develop a raw file.  So instead of popping out your memory card and sending the files  to Facebook or Flickr like you can with a JPEG, you need to develop the images.  This will take time and computing power.  Some folks simply don’t want to be bothered or don’t have the time.  Imagine shooting the NCF Championship game this weekend between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals.  You’re taking picture after picture of Donovan McNabb scrambling and completing pass after pass to Westbrook, Jackson and Smith (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!).  Your publisher needs images fast.  There’s no time to sit down and process images.  You need to send them off ASAP so they can be ready for publication.

To wrap this up, I shoot raw.  Why?  It fits my work flow.  I know I’m going to spend time and energy making my photos look the best they can be.  I know I’m not going to get everything right in the camera, so I like having the flexibility of shooting raw.  The choice is really up to you.  There is no right or wrong.  I’d suggest, though, that unless you have a specific reason to shoot JPEG (don’t have the software to develop raws, don’t want to spend the time, etc.), shoot raw.  You’ll get a lot more flexibility after you download the images.

Let me know your thoughts!



  1. Thank you for the clarification on this subject. After having so much technology placed in my hands over the past several weeks I find myself scratching my head more than I had expected. This will be an amazing journey as I reacquaint myself with the rules of composition while learning all about the digital age. I was toying with the idea of shooting in JPEG if I wasn’t trying to capture a serious shoot; however after I thought about is some of the best pictures are taken “unexpectedly.” I will continue to shoot in RAW even when I’m not “staging” a picture.

  2. A nicely written article on a subject that leaves so many newbies scratching their heads. I’ve been toying with the idea of writing an article like this on my Blog when I get it up and running again… but you’ve done all the grunt work for me so I’ll just show a lot of link love instead!

    Cheers Robert 😉

  3. Great explanation Rob! Since I have started playing around more and more, I have completely switched to shooting RAW and I will never go back. I have found that it allows me (especially as a newbie) to concentrate more on my subject and composition and not worry so much about all of my settings. I can make mistakes and still come out with a decent photo. Now, if only there was support for my Vista 64-bit so that it would view the RAW files and make my life easier…

  4. Thanks folks! This is one area that still leaves many perplexed.

    Shannon, you’ve got a lot of technology, but it still comes back to the basics. You’ll pick this up quickly. I agree with sticking to raw for everything (snapshots included) simply because it gives you a lot of latitude to your pictures. Storage space is cheap and if you have the workflow for raw, use it.

    Thanks, Masey! I welcome the “viewers”!

    Tony! Ahhh, so now I understand the problem with NEFs (Nikon’s raw file) for you – Vista 64! I don’t know why it’s so difficult to publish the viewer for the 64 bit system. I’m loving the Mac! 😉

  5. we both have those traditional picture frames and digital picture frames at home. both are great for displaying family pictures “‘.

  6. ,.’ that seems to be a great topic, i really love it “”‘

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