RAW vs JPEG – Which Should I Shoot?

The RAW vs JPEG debate’s been rumbling on since the early days of digital photography. Some people claim RAW is superior and you shouldn’t even consider JPEG. Others will claim JPEG is all you need. Today I’m examining the key advantages and disadvantages by comparing RAW images with JPEG images captured in camera.

If you’ve already decided RAW is superior to JPEG, I think this is going to surprise you.

Problems with the JPEG Format

When it comes to comparing the JPEG and RAW formats, you frequently hear two criticisms of in-camera JPEG images:

  1. Images shot in JPEG don’t have the same level of detail as a RAW image.
  2. JPEG images can’t withstand editing as well as RAW images can.

Let’s examine both points in greater detail.

JPEG Images Lack Detail

Before we look at an example it’s worth understanding where this criticism came from as it’s been around for a long time.

When you capture an image in the JPEG format, your camera still captures the RAW data. It then converts this using the camera’s software to apply contrast, colour, sharpness and noise reduction and a few other things. The result is a JPEG image file, and if your camera’s not set to save a RAW file as well, it discards the RAW data.

Now think back to the early days of digital photography. At the time camera sensors were noisy and in-camera JPEG processing was poor, to say the least, compared to today’s standards. To address the noise problem, the software was often quite aggressive and did destroy fine detail, especially when shot at high ISO or where there were a lot of similar colours.

Now let’s compare a more recent example captured with a Fuji X-T2 and a Fuji 16-55 lens. The lens is another important variable in the comparison as a poor lens could cause issues for JPEG processing.

RAW Vs JPEG comparison at 100 percent magnification

This image shows a small section of a photo magnified at 100%. The image on the left is the in-camera JPEG whilst the image on the right is the RAW file without adjustment (sharpening or noise reduction). The camera was set to the base ISO of 200 and the in-camera JPEG has 0 adjustment settings which are the default.

There isn’t a great deal of difference between the two, but the JPEG is sharper than the RAW file. This is understandable as the in-camera processing has sharpened the JPEG image whilst the RAW file doesn’t have any sharpening. But look what happens when we sharpen both images.

RAW Vs JPEG comparison at 100 percent after sharpening

Both images now look great and you can hardly distinguish between the two. In case your wondering, I sharpened each image individually using Photoshop Smart Sharpen. I also optimised the settings for the image rather than use the same settings for both.

I think it’s fair to say that the detail argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny today. This has now become more of an urban myth that’s accepted as fact because it’s repeated so often.

JPEG Files Can’t Withstand Editing

JPEG files are 8-bit images where the RAW file is a 16-bit image. The theory goes that when you edit an image, part of the image data is damaged or lost. Over time this can become visible as artefacts in the image. Indeed, when you edit an image in Photoshop, you will see gaps appearing in the histogram which is an example of possible editing damage.

This problem certainly occurred in the past, but its possible technology has progressed. Today when you see gaps appear in the Photoshop histogram, you will probably see an information warning next to it. This is telling you that you’re displaying cached data. When you click the warning to refresh the data, the gaps often vanish. It’s quite probable that the internal working of today’s photo editing software is minimising any data damage when editing 8-bit images.

After editing both images by applying Curves, Saturation and Sharpening here is the side by side comparison.

RAW Vs JPEG comparison after processing

The image on the left is the JPEG whilst the image on the right is from the RAW file. Both images stood up to the processing very well. You may notice that there is some difference in colour between the two, caused by the JPEG having a Fuji colour profile embedded. The RAW file, however, is using the Adobe Colour Profile.

When we compare the histogram for the two files, we can see some banding in the JPEG histogram as well as possible white clipping. The RAW files histogram, in contrast, remains smooth.

JPEG and RAW histograms

Whilst this hasn’t caused a noticeable problem with the test image, it could cause problems in some images. Those with large areas of continuous tone could see banding develop.

But having said this, the idea behind using JPEG images is that you don’t need to process them, or any processing would be minor. In fact, looking back at the unadjusted JPEG image, it looks great and there isn’t any real need for additional processing.

Advantages of the JPEG Format

Having looked at the two big criticisms of JPEG Vs RAW, what about the JPEG advantages.

Probably the most obvious advantage is the reduced file size. Comparing the image files from the previous example, the JPEG is 16.3Mb whilst the RAW file is 50.6Mb. The JPEG image was also set to use the largest and finest options which would result in the largest file size. Whilst storage and memory cards might be cheap, you may prefer to save your money. Or, perhaps you forgot your extra memory cards, or you’ve had a card corruption. Both problems have happened to me, sometimes when I’ve been thousands of miles from home and a long way from somewhere to buy a new card.

Depending on your subject matter, you may find yourself needing to shoot a fast burst of images. This is a common technique when shooting fast moving subjects like in motorsport. By switching to JPEG, you maximise the camera burst speed and increase how long you can shoot for. With RAW, the file size is larger, so the camera memory buffer fills quickly. Unless you’re using a very fast memory card it’s going to quickly slow the burst speed. It’s also going to drain your camera battery a lot quicker.

Another advantage of shooting in-camera JPEG’s is the in-camera processing. Usually, this is satisfactory for a finished image and often can be quite good. It probably won’t match what you can achieve using RAW format editing, but most of the time it’s going to produce a nice image. That’s going to save you a lot of processing time which you can invest in other things like getting out with your camera more. One further aspect of in-camera processing is that the camera will apply automatic lens correction. Many manufacturers seem to make a better job of this than some of the popular RAW converters.

Advantages of the RAW Format

But it’s not just the JPEG image that has advantages. Possibly the biggest advantage of RAW over JPEG is the highlight and shadow recovery. When you capture a scene using JPEG format, if you get the exposure wrong it can cause clipping of the histogram. This is where areas turn to black or white, losing detail. When you experience clipping with a JPEG image, you’re losing detail but with a RAW file, you can often recover. This gives you greater freedom to open shadows and recover highlights whilst still producing a high-quality image.

Another advantage of the RAW format over the JPEG is that some of the adjustments applied during processing become locked into the JPEG image. For example, the colour space and the camera profile. With a RAW file, you set these during processing but when shooting JPEG, they’re applied at the point of image capture. What this means is that if you want to shoot JPEG, you need to get your settings and exposure right in camera.

Advice for Shooting with JPEG

Let’s finish this article by summarising the key points:

  1. Don’t dismiss shooting JPEG. JPEG images are very good and have some advantages over shooting in the RAW format. Think carefully about the type of photography you do and when this format could work for you.
  2. Using JPEG capture can be a great emergency fallback if you’re out in the field and find yourself with limited storage.
  3. Be sure to set up your camera properly for shooting JPEG. If your camera supports user-defined profiles create one for JPEG capture. That way you can change your settings quickly and be sure you haven’t missed anything.
  4. When setting your camera to shoot JPEG consider the size and detail settings. Be sure you adjust the noise, contrast, colour and sharpness settings which most cameras provide. Also, be sure you set a large colour space (usually Adobe RGB) rather than sRGB and pick a suitable camera colour profile.
  5. Spend some time testing your camera. The image used in this article was from a Fuji camera. The in-camera Fuji JPEG files are renowned for quality but not all cameras are equal. Test yours and test it at different ISO settings. It’s best to understand the limitations and find any problems in advance.
  6. Try to get your image right in camera. If you have problems with exposure and clipping you probably can’t fix the problem later. If exposure is an issue, shoot bracketed exposures so you can select the best or do some exposure blending.

In short, the JPEG format has a lot to offer even the most dedicated RAW format photographer. Don’t rule it out.

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