Jpeg or Raw – Which Format is Best?

Should you use Jpeg or Raw for your photography? This is a question that has been going back and forth for some time between photographers. Many champion the use of Jpeg, whilst others will extoll the virtues of the Raw format; so, should you shoot in Raw or Jpeg?

Is the processing of Raw photos an overly complicated process? Can Jpegs give you all you need for a great final photograph? Here’s an overview of the two formats. Take a look and see what is right for you.

Jpeg

Let’s start with the Jpeg format as it is probably the most commonly encountered image type. Jpeg is certainly the most popular image format in which photos can be saved, whilst being able to display millions of colours and be compressed to reduce their overall file size. Jpeg uses what is known as a ‘lossy’ compression method. Essentially, this means that the more you compress the image, the more image data is removed from the photo. Higher levels of compression mean that more data is lost and the image will begin to degrade and detail will be lost, but you will have a much smaller file size. Minimal amounts of compression will retain more data and the detail will be preserved at the expense of a larger file size.

When you shoot in Jpeg format on your digital camera, the image file it produces is already fully processed according to settings you’ve used on your DSLR. Things like White Balance, Sharpening, Saturation and amount of compression used will be applied at the time of shooting. This will save you time later since you won’t need to do any post-processing.

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For normal shooting conditions, particularly where you might expect to take a lot of shots such as action sequences using burst mode, the use of Jpeg gives you a definite space-saving advantage when it comes to the capacity of your memory cards. A typical Jpeg from a modern DSLR is about 5MB, which is about 6 times smaller than its Raw counterpart. It also means you can shoot more Jpeg images in burst mode since the file size is smaller and there is less data to write to your memory card than Raw.

The downside is that any errors in the use of the settings applied may be irreversible. An overexposed Jpeg with the wrong white balance and with too much sharpening applied will be pretty much impossible to recover once you’re back on your computer. Jpegs contain less dynamic range between pure white and solid black than their Raw counterparts and up to 16 million colours, so you really need to make sure your exposures are as accurate as possible at the time of shooting.

Raw

This is where the other side of the debate comes into play. A Raw file, as the name suggests, is essentially an unprocessed readout straight off the camera’s sensor. They are known as digital negatives and since they are Raw, they will need a lot of attention from you in order to fully realise their photographic potential. Raw gives you the ingredients, but you need to know how to cook!

Jpegs can contain up to 16 million colours but Raw files can contain upwards of 68 billion colours. Their dynamic range is greater than Jpeg, meaning you can recover much more data from both underexposed and overexposed images. If you want the highest possible starting quality from your images, then Raw is the way to go. No sharpening is applied to these files, which means you can use much more powerful sharpening tools once you have the files on your computer, and since they use lossless compression, there is no image degradation and artefacts from the compression process.

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Another benefit of Raw is that if you happen to use the wrong white balance settings, it doesn’t matter. Those settings and all the others can be removed or modified at the post-process stage since they do not directly affect the Raw file and are there just as a reference.

As we’ve mentioned, to get the most out of Raw files, you will need to know how to process them properly. This can be a time consuming process, particularly if you have a lot of images to get through. These files are also much larger than Jpegs. A typical Raw file from a 36MP Nikon D810 for instance, is about 72MB. With file sizes like this, your digital storage solutions will need to be quite robust and your computer will need to be fairly powerful to handle them too.

Raw files are not a standardised format either, Canon cameras produce CR2 format images, whilst Nikon produce NEF files, so they are not cross compatible. You could not upload a Raw file to a social media site since it won’t recognise the format. This means you will have to save your processed files out to another format like Jpeg or perhaps Tiff in order to share them.

Summing up

This is a tricky one to sum up. Hopefully, from the points raised, you may have a slightly better understanding of the two formats and may have decided which is best to use. It strikes us that since modern cameras have the option to let you change between formats, you can modify your format choices for the job in hand. If you are a landscape photographer and you need the best quality, then Raw is the best option. If you are out and about at a friend’s party and recording the event for fun, then Jpeg is the better option for sharing. That’s the beauty of the modern digital camera: you have the choice between image quality and file size, you just have to choose your image format wisely.

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Mark Frost

Mark started work as a commercial artist during the good old days of Letraset, spray mount and having to process your photos at a local chemist. Having discovered his passion for photography, Photoshop and the wonders of digital image manipulation, he has not looked back. He is well on his way to owning more cameras than he’s had hot dinners.

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