These days, most cameras will give you a choice between the file formats it will use to save photos. In the camera’s settings menu, you’ll find it located under the file format option. Typically, there will be three options here: To save photos as RAW, JPEG, or RAW and JPEG, which gives you two saved files for each photograph.
What’s the difference between the two file types? Is there a preferable option? We’ll explore the JPEG vs RAW discussion and provide the answers below so you can choose the right file format for your needs.
RAW Files: What are They?
All images captured by digital cameras begin as RAW files. When you set your camera to JPEG, the camera processes the captured RAW data and compresses it to save it as a JPEG.
Essentially, this means that when your camera is set to produce RAW files, the camera does no processing to the file itself. The result is that you have a lot more data to work with when post processing rolls around. RAW files feature more tonal and color information, which gives you more flexibility while you’re editing.
What are JPEGs?
JPEG images that come straight from the camera have already been processed to an extent by the camera. Not only are these image files compressed, but things like brightness, color saturation, and contrast may be applied as the camera does its own processing.
The end result when you capture photos as JPEGs are image files that are much smaller than RAW files—largely because much of the initial data has been discarded during the camera’s post processing.
JPEG vs RAW: Advantages and Disadvantages
The choice between JPEG vs RAW really boils down to two things: Storage space and ease of use. If storage space is at a premium, JPEGs take up a lot less room on memory cards than RAW files do. JPEGs are also easier to use immediately. Because the JPEG format is universally recognized, you can import them from your camera and upload or share immediately without needing to worry about converting those images to JPEGs or another compatible file format first.
When storage space and ease of use aren’t major concerns, RAW is easily the better way to go. That’s because RAW files preserve all captured data, which means when you get home and start post processing your images, you’ll be able to do a lot more to RAW images in terms of color correction, exposure correction, and so on. Noise reduction is typically much easier with RAW files than JPEGs, too.
In other words, with JPEG files, you’re allowing the camera to choose how the finished image will look. It is possible to tweak JPEG images later on, but so much data is gone that you won’t be able to make major changes to color or exposure. With RAW files, editing is a necessity—most of them will actually look rather flat and gray when you import them from your camera. You can then post process the colors and exposure to your liking. However, because the RAW file preserves so much data, you’ll have a much greater range of colors to work with as well as a much greater dynamic range, which is the range of shades between the darkest darks and brightest whites.
Which to Choose?
As noted above, JPEG is helpful when storage space is at a premium—but these days, with digital storage as inexpensive as it is, this situation will be a rarity. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still use cases for JPEGs, however. In general, RAW files will always be the best choice if you plan to post process the images yourself. But if you need something that can go from camera to share-ready quickly, then JPEG might be the best option.
Another consideration is file size and how that affects speed with regards to burst mode shooting. Some photographers, particularly those who shoot sports where the action is quick, will use JPEGs because the buffering time for RAW files can be substantially longer. Shooting in JPEG while using burst mode allows you to take more photos before the camera’s buffer fills up. Which could mean the difference between catching the perfect action shot or missing it while the camera processes hefty RAW files.
Lastly, there is also the JPEG plus RAW mode, which is the best of both worlds if you need to share proofs quickly, but still want a RAW file for more time-intensive editing later on. I love shooting this way with my Fujifilm cameras because of the way the camera creates JPEG files. You’re able to treat the JPEG files like an old school film camera then still have the RAW image as backup in case you want to edit the file more in post-processing.
As you can see, there are uses for both file types. When you need to share images quickly, or you’re worried about burst mode firing too slowly, JPEG is the way to go.
While RAW files are ideal for those occasions such as weddings or landscape photography. When you want as much flexibility as possible while editing the image yourself.
Play around with both and see which you like better, based on your shooting style. Now get out there, practice and shoot!