RAW vs JPEG – Which Should I Use?

by Apr 16, 2024Photography Blog

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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RAW vs JPEG – Which Should I Use?

RAW vs. JPEG. Which is best, and which should I use? This question has seen a long-running debate among photographers since the digital camera first entered the consumer arena. In this article, I discuss the advantages and disadvantages in detail, allowing you to decide for yourself which to use and when.

Let’s start by answering a few basic questions.

What is a RAW File?

A RAW file holds the data captured by the digital camera sensor. The data is stored in a format specific to the manufacturer and possibly that camera model. In theory, the data should be unprocessed, but some processing may happen before it is stored. An example might be cleaning and amplifying the signal from the digital sensor to improve the ultimate image quality.

Now, compare that to a JPEG file.

What is a JPEG File?

To produce a JPEG file, a digital camera still first captures data on its sensor, just like with a RAW file. That data then needs to be converted by the camera software and processors to a JPEG image.

How this processing and conversion happens is, to some degree, under your control. For example, you can choose to apply a film emulation that affects the colours and tones of the image. Another example is choosing the sharpening and noise reduction levels applied to the JPEG.

When photographing in the JPEG format, most cameras also have the option of recording the RAW file as well. That’s because the RAW data must be captured first to produce the JPEG.

Now let’s discuss whether I prefer to shoot RAW or JPEG, after which we’ll look at some considerations to help you make your own informed decision.

Which do I prefer, RAW or JPEG?

In November 2020, I visited the Roaches area in the Peak District. This is a beautiful area, and I was there for sunrise. On this particular morning, the conditions were exceptional. There was a cloud inversion stretching as far as the eye could see. As the mist began to clear and the sun came over the horizon, the trees below me turned orange. That’s when I captured this image.

I accidentally captured this image in JPEG rather than RAW

I took this using my Panasonic G9 Micro Four Thirds camera, together with a Panasonic 45 to 150 lens.

Because this was such a beautiful scene, I wanted the flexibility to crop in on some areas, so I put the Panasonic into the high-resolution 80-megapixel mode. What I failed to realise was that the high-resolution mode has a separate image quality setting from the regular mode.

My personal preference when shooting landscape photography is to capture images using the RAW format. That’s because I believe I can achieve better results when editing a RAW file than when editing a JPEG captured by the camera. On this particular occasion, I didn’t realise my high-resolution mode was set to record only a JPEG image.

When I got my images onto the computer at home and realised my mistake, I was quite distraught. Because of this preconception, I dismissed this and the other images for a long time. But now that my initial disappointment has subsided, I realise these images are excellent and still entirely usable.

The JPEG images produced by my camera in high-resolution mode are approximately 10,000 pixels by 6,500 pixels. That’s way more than the 7000 pixels (long edge) it would take to make an A2 photo-quality print at 300 DPI. These images are more than sufficient to produce excellent large-format prints.

But has this changed my thinking about the question of RAW vs. JPEG?

Yes and no. I still prefer to capture my landscape photos using RAW format, but I’m no longer critical of the JPEG format.

Now let’s look at some of the points you need to consider in order to come to your own decision.

Size Considerations of RAW and JPEG Images

Size is important when it comes to photography because the size of your image files has implications.

JPEG image files are typically two to six times smaller than the equivalent RAW file. Because they are smaller, you can fit more images on your memory card and your computer’s hard drive. But before you dismiss this as not being important, let’s consider it in a little more detail.

Image size used to be important because memory cards were small and expensive. Today, this is much less of an issue as memory cards are relatively cheap and large, but digital sensor resolution is increasing.

But digital sensor resolution doesn’t only affect image storage on the memory card. It has implications for how you store your images on your computer. The higher the resolution of your camera, the bigger the RAW and JPEG files will be, which takes up valuable storage on your computer’s hard drive.

Most photographers, myself included, store their photos on external storage. But with a high-resolution camera, external drives can quickly become a problem. In those situations, you may need to invest additional money in a high-volume storage solution like a NAS drive.

I recently invested in a Synology 4-bay drive and three 12-terabyte hard discs. This wasn’t cheap, but I needed this storage because of the number of image files I now have in my photo library.

Quality Considerations of RAW and JPEG Images

Typically, we can extract more detail from a RAW file then the JPEG image captured by the camera at the same time. This does, however, require more processing and sometimes a fair degree of skill.

Today’s cameras often capture jpegs with excellent image quality and detail. Even though we may be able to see a difference when examining the image at 100% magnification, that difference vanishes when printed or downsized. Some photographers still like to print their photos, but many don’t.

Think about your own situation.

Are most of your images shared only on social media? If you’re a member of a camera club, do you only participate in the projected image category? Typically, these sorts of activities only require images less than 2400 pixels on the long edge. Given your camera probably captures more than 5000 pixels on the long edge, you will be throwing away most of the detail you’ve recorded when it’s downsizing.

Even if you’re one of the photographers who print your photography, printing seldom reproduces the sorts of detail we see when viewing an image at 100% magnification on a display.

JPEG vs. RAW Quality Comparison

I now want to show you a quality comparison between the JPEG and RAW images captured on my Fuji XT5 camera. This 40-megapixel camera produces images that are approximately 7,700 pixels on the long edge.

RAW vs JPEG image quality example 1

Here, we see the entire image displayed. Image 1 is the JPEG from the camera, and image 2 is the RAW file, which uses the same B&W rendering. There are some differences between the two due to other camera settings applied to the JPEG, but overall, the two are remarkably similar.

Now, let’s compare a small section of the image at 100% magnification.

RAW vs JPEG image quality example 2

Image 1 is again the JPEG, and image 2 is the RAW file. Both images have received limited sharpening and the JPEG has some grain applied.

I’ve studied both images at 100% magnification, and there is almost no difference between them in terms of image quality. If I were to print both the JPEG and RAW files at A2, placed side by side, I wouldn’t know which was which. This suggests that the old argument that the RAW file is better quality is an “old argument” that probably doesn’t apply to modern cameras.

Now let’s examine the benefits of photographing in either the RAW or JPEG formats.

Benefits of the RAW Format

  • The first benefit of shooting in RAW vs JPEG is the number of possible colours that can be supported. JPEG files are always 8-bit files. This limits the number of possible colours they can support to 256 per colour channel. This means an RGB image can produce approximately 3.67 million different colours. Compare this to a RAW file, which could record 12 or even 14-bits of colour data. This could represent a substantially larger number of colours. But whether this would translate into a significant visual improvement, I don’t know.
  • RAW files have a wider dynamic range than JPEG files. This means you have greater scope for recovering the shadows and highlights from a RAW file than from a JPEG file. In short, you will find editing a RAW file more flexible than editing a JPEG file.
  • Closely related to the last point is that the RAW file is colour space independent. The colour space is important because it determines the range of colours that can be reproduced in an image (see my colour management presentation). Photographers often say that a wider colour space which can represent more colours is preferable, but this brings other challenges. The ability to select the colour space during editing brings valuable flexibility.
  • RAW files can store data using lossless compression, which should minimise any problems caused by data loss due to compression technology. This is an advantage over the JPEG format, although the RAW will still be significantly larger than an equivalent JPEG image.
  • It may be possible to extract greater detail from a RAW file than from the equivalent JPEG. This isn’t perhaps the benefit that it once was given in the example earlier in this article. However, when we compare the detail in shadow areas or in low-light scenes, the RAW file does win out in this respect.
  • It may be easier to prove ownership of an image if you hold the original RAW file. In comparison, JPEG images are often freely distributed. Having the original RAW file from which the JPEG was created does indicate that you’re more likely to be the owner of that image.
  • Having the RAW file for an image could allow you to take advantage of future processing developments. A good example of this are the image correction technologies in products like DxO PureRAW. PureRAW attempts to optimise the quality of an image by processing the RAW file, usually into a DNG format. This isn’t possible if you only have the JPEG file. I’ve also noticed that RAW processing technology has improved significantly over the years. It’s now possible to process RAW files from the early days of digital photography to produce substantially better quality than was possible when they were taken.

Benefits of the JPEG Format

  • JPEG files produced by the camera have already been processed. This could be a significant time saver as you no longer need to process large numbers of RAW files. This could make the life of someone like a wedding photographer much easier. JPEG files can be generated in the camera and quickly passed to the couple to select the ones they want. Selected files can then be processed from the original RAW files to produce large, high-quality prints. Even then, it may be more than sufficient to print from the JPEG files.
  • JPEG images take up much less space on your computer’s hard drive than RAW files. This makes them easier to store, as we discussed earlier, but it can also make them easier to share with other people and backup.
  • Closely related to the JPEG processing mentioned above, many cameras come with special effects and film emulations that can be applied. These are applied only to the JPEG image and not to the RAW file. Being able to take advantage of these camera effects requires you to work with the JPEG image.
  • In addition to being small, the JPEG format allows you to take advantage of compression technology, where you can choose the level of compression. Applying additional compression to the image can make it substantially smaller.

Comparing RAW & JPEG summary

We’ve now looked at some of the benefits and drawbacks of RAW vs JPEG image formats. What I can’t tell you is which of these two formats is the best one for you. That’s because what you find important will differ from what I find important. Additionally, there may be overriding factors that mean one of these is more important to you than the other in a particular situation. What you need to do is be aware of the benefits and drawbacks of each, and then choose the appropriate format to use.

Of course, if you decide to shoot in JPEG, it’s important to get settings like the ISO right when you take the shot. If you want to know how read my guide to the best ISO setting and how to use it.

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