RAW Files vs JPEG–Photography’s Format Battle

RAW file versus JPEG? Which is the best image format? Well, I have found that it really depends on a number of variables. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a look at both.

Original unprocessed RAW file

Original unprocessed RAW file of image above exposed for maximum data capture

Do you want large prints of your work to hang over the living room couch? Starting with a RAW file and creating a derivative high-res TIFF file will give you the best quality prints.

RAW files capture the maximum amount of raw data that reaches your camera’s chip. Although RAW files are slightly compressed during capture, RAW files use lossless compression so no data is lost. You can’t print directly from a RAW file or post it on the web. They are large files and must be used to create derivative files such as high-res TIFFs for printing or low-res JPEGs for the web.

RAW files provide maximum data

RAW files provide maximum data for producing large prints

Did you get some great shots of your daughter’s soccer game over the weekend and want to post them to the family Facebook page? JPEGs are the format you want for anything on the web.

JPEG files are also compressed during capture, but the process uses lossy compression. Due to a greater amount of compression, JPEG files are much smaller than RAW files, which is critical for any image posted to the internet. These small files load quickly on the web, but do not have the amount of image information that a RAW file imparts to a high-res TIFF. In addition, image data is lost each time you save a JPEG due to the compression process, so a high-res TIFF is a better choice if you plan to retouch or manipulate an image to any degree.

RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look

RAW file of fitness studio processed for edgy, desaturated look

Most cameras come set from the manufacturer for JPEG capture.

This is fine if you don’t do any processing of your image files or if you shoot strictly for your social media, website or blog. These files will also work well for prints in the 11×14 range or smaller. You can go into your camera menu and set the JPEG quality for high, which gives you a better quality file with less compression, and you can adjust the degree of saturation as well. A camera can also capture JPEG files faster than RAW files, making this a good format choice for sports or wildlife photographers working with motion and high-speed motor drives.

JPEG files of sailboat race action

JPEG files would be a better format for high-speed capture of the action in a sailboat race

If you have started processing your files in Lightroom or Photoshop, however, shooting RAW files is a much better choice.

The depth of information in a RAW file makes it possible to alter the basic image in a wide range of directions without the image breaking down. RAW files have so much information that you can push those pixels all over the place.

RAW file vs JPEG file

The RAW file on the left and the JPEG on the right, shot at the same time, are quite similar

If you are just starting to learn how to process your images for greater impact, but you still feel more comfortable with JPEGs, open your camera menu and set your camera to capture both JPEG and RAW files for each image. This gives you a finished JPEG to use immediately and a RAW file to process into an image that has your stamp on it. If you are serious about image quality and don’t need to capture multiple images quickly, set your camera to RAW format. You can then create JPEG or TIFF files on demand, depending on the planned use of each image.

Maybe you want a unique “look” to define your style.

This is quite common among portrait or food photographers. Much of their distinctive “look” is created in post-production. Some photographers even sell groups of presets for use with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop that create certain contrast and toning effects. All of this requires image files that have large amounts of data—a RAW file.

Normally processed RAW file and cooler version using a plug-in on the right

Normally processed RAW file of risotto balls on the left and cooler version using a preset on the right

In many ways, Ansel Adams started this trend with his Zone System. It was essentially a system used to manipulate black and white images. Imagine what he would think of being able to process RAW files in Lightroom or Photoshop? I’m sure he would be fascinated to see the variety of images that can be produced from a single RAW File—essentially a digital negative.

If you are interested in learning more about RAW files, processing in Adobe Ligfhtroom and a whole lot more, please join my free Santa Barbara City College Non-Credit Classes “Digital Cameras Digital Photos” starting May 22 and July 8. This is an online class using Zoom for teleconferencing. These classes are a great way to take your photography to the next level while still sheltering in place. It’s a great use of all this down time and you will have new photography skills to try out when we are done with this virus. Hope to see you online this summer.