Last Updated: November 26, 2013
There are many digital file formats for photographic images, but there are two types that tend to dominate, JPEG and Raw. In this JPEG vs Raw article we will look a the pros and cons for each, to help you decide which format is the best choice for you.
If you’re looking for the quickest and easiest format for getting a usable image from your camera then JPEG is a great option. The processing for JPEG images is done ‘in camera’, so everything is done for you.
How well the in-camera processing is executed depends of the quality of your camera, but most digital cameras do a pretty good job. More advanced camera will also let you choose the style of JPEG that you want, this may be defined by how much colour saturation or sharpening is applied, or the quality and size of the JPEG.
The end result of an in-camera JPEG is an image that has had colour saturation, contrast, and sharpening applied, so as soon as it’s transferred from your camera, you are free to do what you wish with it.
JPEG files are almost universally recognised by all operating systems and software packages, so you can view them straightway, and also immediately share with friends or clients via email, or post directly to your favourite social media channels.
To keep file size to a minimum, JPEGs are are compressed or ‘lossy’ file format, the flip-side to this is that some tonal range and detail is lost in the compression. Due to their smaller size, JPEGs also write faster to your memory card, so that could be an important advantage for certain types of photography, hi-speed action or sports photography, for example.
As the name suggests, Raw files are digital negatives in their raw element, meaning that no in-camera processing takes place, so they can look a little flat in comparison with a JPEG when you first opened them on your computer. You should think of them as a ‘pre-processed’ starting point for your images.
Raw files are also a lossless file format, meaning they retain more tonal detail than ‘lossy’ compressed JPEGs. The downside to this is file size, Raw files take up a lot more space in your in-camera memory card, and of course the hard drive you store them on once transferred to your computer.
Unlike JPGs, Raw files cannot be viewed by most software packages, and you can’t immediately share them via social media sites either. They need to be processed in a dedicated Raw software package, and then converted into a more accepted file format (like JPEG or TIFF) before you can share them with a wider audience.
The main Raw image-editing software packages are Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Lightroom, and Aperture from Apple. I should point out that you can edit JPGs from within these packages too, but you can get much better results with Raw files, particularly when it comes to adjusting key elements like white balance and exposure.
Of course, if you have no experience of using Raw image editing software, whilst it isn’t too difficult, some people may find it too much of a learning curve and not get best results from doing so. In which case you may be better off sticking with JPEG. Raw files are for professionals and enthusiasts that are happy to invest a little more time and effort in image-editing and getting the best from their photos.
Personally, I nearly always shoot Raw, as I enjoy processing images and working with Lightroom, Photoshop etc, and I want the best in image quality and maximum control when it comes to editing my images.
Ultimately it come down to personal preference as to which format is right for you. If you want speed and convenience, and don’t want to spend time processing your photos yourself, then JPEG is clearly the best option for you.
If you’re looking for the ultimate in tonal detail, and are happy to spend time processing the images to the exact style you want, then Raw is surely the best best for you.
I should also point out that most DSLRs offer the option of capturing both a Raw and JPEG image of each shot, so it’s possible to have the best of both worlds, although I wouldn’t recommend this is you’re shooting a lot of images.