When the average person thinks of photographs, the only format they are well aware of is JPEG. JPEG is used so commonly for everything, from sharing pictures on the internet to storing them on our computers. 

But for photographers, another format exists: RAW. RAW is often a major selling point for cameras, the ability to capture in RAW is quite sought after! However, if you’re new to the craft you may be wondering what RAW is and how it compares to our beloved JPEG. 

Here is our guide to help you navigate between RAW and JPEG!

What is JPEG Format? 

Let’s start with the basics. JPEG is a computer format for storing and displaying images. JPEG is the most common format associated with photographs and visual imagery, JPEG is universal across all computer brands, types, software, websites, and media. 

JPEG is also the default format in which images from a digital camera are written in because it is the image file that is most compatible with everything. JPEG is also considered economic for memory card space.  

What is RAW Format? 

RAW is a file format that is famous for recording completely uncompressed images. 

You see, when a photograph gets recorded as a file format, it becomes compressed to fit within that format and you may lose some quality or some forms of editing capability. Basically, RAW contains the direct image data from the camera sensors with no loss of quality and alteration. This stores the fullest details of an image. 

This sounds great in writing. However, in actuality, you don’t really need RAW for very much. 

RAW is intended for those that edit and manipulate photographs, as the fullest details and the lack of file alteration allows significantly more control over large editing adjustments such as overblown highlights or an underexposed image. This is because you’re able to, in most situations, recover information in the image that would otherwise be lost if it is compressed. 

Pros and Cons of JPEG Format

There is a reason that JPEG is industry standard as an image file format. For one, it’s very compact in size! JPEG images are extremely portable because they are not nearly as heavy in size as other formats. You can store them easily on a cloud, on hard drives, even just on your computer. For most camera models, it takes thousands and thousands of images to fill up a computer hard drive. 

The small size of JPEGs also allows digital cameras to make full use of their Frames-Per-Second and high speed shooting modes. Frames-Per-Second are rated for continuous JPEG images, not RAW images. This is because JPEG is so quick and easy to write that even cheap memory cards can write the images quickly. 

Because of JPEG’s industry-standard sitting, JPEG is compatible with pretty much everything. Every editing program, website where you can upload images, even hardware such as printers! 

JPEG can also very easily have its size adjusted, you can save in lower quality by reducing percentages from the high quality option.  A JPEG image can be compressed down to 5% of its original size.

As perfect as this format sounds, it has its downsides that need to be considered. 

Unfortunately, the same reasons that the JPEG is a positive is also its downfall. In order to retain its small size and write files so quickly, JPEG has to compress the image. This means that the image is ‘flattened’ so to speak, so editing the photograph can bring out a lot of weird problems if you push the file too far (such as bizarre colors or blurriness). JPEGs lose the actual content of the images on a pixel level. 

JPEGs are also known as ‘destructive’ files, because every time you edit it, the edit is permanent. It overwrites the original information. As well as this, the more you save over the same JPEG file, the more times that file becomes compressed, eventually resulting in noticeable quality loss. 

However, all of the aforementioned are problems that only come about if you’re doing significant retouching and editing work. 

Pros and Cons of RAW Format

Don’t get me wrong, RAW has a lot of positives to it. The biggest being the fact that because RAW records completely uncompressed and original data, there is so much more you can do with the photograph in post processing. You’re able to recover overexposed highlights and underexposed shadows. 

RAW is also excellent for color grading, you have a lot more control on the colors and their intensity as well. 

Because RAW records such a high quality, one can argue that this is the highest quality your camera can offer you. So high, in fact, that you can reduce noise and still maintain sharp and clear details in your low light photographs. 

You can correct a lens problem called Chromatic Aberration much more effectively in RAW format. Chromatic aberration is a common optical problem that causes a purple or green outline to appear around your subject. This can be remedied in programs such as Adobe Lightroom by removing the fringe color and turning it gray. 

RAW file format is known as ‘nondestructive’. This means that you can keep editing over and over again and the file still leaves the original data intact, so you can always go back without any quality loss. You never have to worry about ruining a file or not being able to redo your steps! 

This is because instead of writing over the information and replacing it, RAW simply writes a set of instructions on what editing is done. Then when the file is exported into whatever format you select, those instructions are implemented and the edits are recorded without damaging the original file. 

As for the cons…

For anyone who tried to jump into RAW file formats without knowing what it was, you may have noticed that you need a specialized program in order to open RAW files. You do need a program to open it such as Adobe Photoshop or AfterShot, your run of the mill software will not be able to open the RAW file extension. 

On the topic of file extensions, RAW has different extensions depending on camera brand- so you actually may need to download extensions to your editing software in order to process such files. Extensions can range from CR2 to DNG and many more. 

RAW is also a very large file format that tends to reach gigabyte levels if you shoot with a high megapixel camera. RAW takes up a lot of space on a computer, hard drive, and memory card. Because the information being written is so complete, many cameras tend to have a lag when shooting RAW while the information is writing. 

So if you’re trying to use Burst Mode or High Speed Continuous Shooting, your Frames-Per-Second will be significantly slowed unless you use a very fast writing speed (and expensive) memory card. Even then, some camera models may slow down significantly anyways. 

Which One is Better?

File type will always be a contentious topic in the photography world. From JPEG to PNG, TIFF and PSD, all the way over to RAW- what file type you should be using is an argument that won’t really ever have a victor. 

From a visual and printing standpoint, there is no noticeable difference in quality between a high quality JPG output or a CR2 output from an image. You will only see the difference with significant editings of difficult types (such as overexposure, underexposure, severe color replacement or adjustment, and such processes). 

Neither is better or worse- it depends on your process. 

In Conclusion, Which Should You Use? 

Generally, which you use depends upon what you are going to do with the photograph(s) after the camera is done with them.  If significant editing in one the horizon for you, RAW may be a better way to go. If it isn’t, save yourself the headache and shoot JPEG! 

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