RAW vs Jpg

September 7, 2009

Photowalk 2 - Footprints into the sunset
The very first photo I edited from a RAW file. Looking back, I’d change a lot about it now – mostly the tilted horizon. *shudder* I apologize. This is why looking back to see how much you’ve changed in a year is a good thing.

In a recent entry, Chrisitine asked about shooting in RAW, mentioning that “everyone seems to be shooting in RAW right now”, but that she was anxious to try it herself. I often get asked if I shoot in RAW or jpg, and why I prefer one of the other. Last year I shot all jpg. At the beginning of this year I switched to shooting in RAW + jpg. Now I shoot exclusively in RAW. I don’t necessarily think that RAW is better than jpg – really, it depends on what your priorities are. Before I get into that, let’s discuss what the difference between RAW and jpg is.


So, jpgs, as I’m sure you all know, are image files. RAW files aren’t actually images. If you uploaded a RAW file directly to the internet, and tried to display it on a web page, no one would be able to view it. RAW files are, well, just raw data.

When you tell your camera to shoot in jpg, the sensor in the camera is going to take all the data it gets when the shutter is open and compress it into a viewable jpg for you, while throwing out data that’s not going to be noticed by the human eye. It’s still the data from the sensor, just in a viewable format.

When you tell you camera to shoot in RAW, the sensor takes all the data it gets when the shutter is open and spits it out in a file for you. The only way you can see that file as an image is to either view it on the camera, or have a piece of software on your computer that can view RAW files.

Because there’s more data in RAW files, that means they’re much bigger files.

Oh, one last thing to note… the file extension of RAW files isn’t actually .raw, as you might expect. The extension depends on what type of camera you have, which makes sense if you think about it – since the data is from that type of camera. I shoot with a Canon, so my files are .CR2 files.

Benefits of JPG

The biggest benefit of shooting in JPG is the size of the files. I have a formatted 8GB card in my camera right now. If I set it to Large, Fine JPG quality photos it says I can take 1784 photos. If I switch that to RAW, I can only take 783. That’s more than twice the number of photos I can fit on one card. When you’re going on a long trip and you can’t get the photos of your camera while you’re gone, that difference will be huge.

Another benefit of shooting in JPG is that you don’t have to edit every one of your photos. A lot of times, I’m just bringing my camera along to a family gathering, and I’m not looking for photos that I’ll hang on my wall one day, and I don’t want to edit every one of them in order to show them to the rest of the gang. That’s an ideal time to shoot in JPG.

Shooting in RAW is a bit more forgiving than shooting in JPG – if you want to change the white balance after the fact, for instance, you can – so there are many “purists” that believe that shooting in JPG is better because it forces you to take everything into consideration when capturing your photo – the exposure, the white balance, the saturation, etc. As crazy as it sounds, I think it’s a valid point, especially when learning. It’s really easy to say “I’ll fix that in post”, whereas I think the art in photography needs to happen when you’re behind the camera, not in front of a computer screen. The work in front of the computer screen should help enhance the art that’s already there.

Finally, when shooting in burst mode, you’ll be able to shoot more photos per second when shooting in JPG, because it doesn’t take as long to save a jpg file to the memory card than a RAW file.

Benefits of RAW

Here’s the main reason why I shoot in RAW: I’d rather have my computer, with the program that I picked out the settings that I chose process the data from the sensor and turn it into a viewable image. It’s not that I don’t really trust my camera (I love my camera, I swear!), it’s just that I’m the type of person that likes to have control over things.

Once you have a program that you can use to edit the RAW files (my opinion on what to use will come in another entry, but if you’re dying to shoot in RAW, check out the software that came with your camera), there’s a lot more you can do to adjust the photo without compromising the quality of the photo as much. Remember, the JPG version of your photo is already compressed, and every time you make a change to it, you lose just a little more data (even when you just do something simple, like rotating it).

Here’s why I shoot in RAW:

  • I like having control over turning the raw data into an image
  • I bring a laptop with me when I go on vacation, so I can get photos off of my memory card fairly often – plus I always bring more than one memory card with me – so space is not an issue
  • I use Picasa for my photo organization, and it can read RAW files, so if I am taking just snapshots, I can easily convert them to jpg from Picasa without doing any more work than I would have if I had shot in jpg to begin with


Ok, let’s take a look at a file shot in RAW + jpg and compare the two. Remember, I can’t show you the actual RAW file, because if I were to upload it, it wouldn’t look like anything. It has to be converted to jpg (or TIFF, or what have you) before it can be seen. So, Let’s take a look at the JPG to begin with:

Frogs on my desk

Ok, yes, I realize it’s not the most exciting photo in the world, but it’s one where it’s the white balance issues are obvious, so I thought it would make a good example. It also seems a bit under-exposed to me, and since I like my colors to pop, I want to adjust the saturation, too.

Before I start with the editing, let me show you something… this is the difference in file size of the jpg vs. the RAW:

File Sizes

I wasn’t kidding when I said the RAW files were bigger.

Now, I’m going to open that RAW file up in the RAW editor I’m currently using (as previously stated, I’m not 100% happy with it, so I’m not going to go into detail about it here – but any editor like Camera Raw that comes with Photoshop, or Lightroom, or the editing software that comes with your camera should all be able to easily do the things I’m about to do). I’m going to do three things in here: use the “auto adjust exposure” button (remember, I think it’s a bit underexposed, I’ll let the program tell me what the exposure should be), adjust the white balance (there’s a drop down for all the different light types [sunlight, shade, tungsten, etc.], or I can adjust it manually with a slider), and bump up my saturation. My final image edited from RAW and converted to JPG looks like this:

Frogs - edited from RAW

Now let’s try to make those same adjustments with the JPG image. In order to adjust the white balance, I adjusted the curves, something I keep meaning to write about and haven’t yet. The short version that will hopefully make sense later, is that I moved the Red curve down and to the right and the blue curve up and to the left. To adjust the exposure, I created a duplicate layer, set it to screen mode. Finally, I adjusted Saturation using the Hue/Saturation sliders (under the Color menu in Gimp), and I ended up with this:

Frogs - edited from jpg

At this point, the images look pretty similar, but editing the JPG file took longer than editing the RAW file. In addition, let’s zoom on on the back foot of that frog in front. The top one is from the RAW file (converted to JPG) and the bottom one is the one we adjusted from JPG:

Zoomed on on image edited from RAW

Zoomed in on image edited from jpg

As you can see, the version edited from RAW is cleaner, because the adjustments we made were from the data, and not trying to manipulate the image itself. If that doesn’t make sense, it’s ok, I’m probably not explaining it well. The point is: the more you adjust a JPG image, the “funkier” it will start to look – as you can see above. Whereas, the adjusting you do to RAW file isn’t going to have that effect. Now, this only includes the things I’m doing inside of the RAW editor, and not once I pull it into Gimp and start doing things like that Split-tone plug-in. Although, I like to think that because I started with a “cleaner” image that the results are better, but I can’t really prove that for a fact.

So. In conclusion, I’m not sure if I’ve made Chrisitine feel less anxious, but hopefully I’ve given you guys some things to think about in order to decide what format you want to shoot in. I suggest, if you have the space on your memory card, to shoot in RAW + Jpg. This way, you’ll get both files and really get a feel for what it’s like to use them both. I think there’s benefits to shooting in both RAW and Jpg, and while I prefer to shoot in RAW for the control it gives me, and the ability to fix mistakes like White Balance, I’m not going to look down on anyone shooting in Jpg (I know and respect a lot of photographers who do). If you have a reason for shooting in either RAW or Jpg that I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments!

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  • daisy_dpksh

    When you said "...or have a piece of software on your camera that can view RAW files." do you mean a piece of software on your *computer*?

  • D'oh! Yes, that is what I meant. I've fixed it now - thanks for pointing it out!

  • This is really informative and has helped me a lot. One thing I'm wondering about is do you always convert your raw files to jpg once you've finished editing or just when you intend to print them or post them online? I've just begun to shoot in raw but I've found that once I convert to jpg the pictures are looking very pixelated

  • I convert every photo that I edit into jpg once I'm done editing, yes.

    I don't know how you're converting to jpg, but I don't seem to experience the pixelated problem. Check out whatever options you're using when saving it as jpg - for instance, I use Gimp, and I just do Save As and then save with a .jpg extension - I'll get a second dialog box that asks what Quality I want, and I set it to 100%, there's also a bunch of Advanced options I've never looked at, keeping the default values. Perhaps whatever program you're using has some options, too? And maybe something's set there that's trying to optimize for file size and not image quality.

    I've also heard that some programs like Photoshop have a "Save for web" and that you shouldn't use that because it delivers poor results. I don't know if that's true or not, just something I read somewhere once! :)

  • Stephen321

    Hi. I'm just getting back into photography, collecting many cameras and lenses and starting to seriously shoot. Found your web site and I like what you are doing.

    Was going to pick up the latest Rebel and lenses this fall but opted to go with a Mamiya 645 Medium format film camera instead. Just love medium format and am shooting 6x6 and now, 6x4.5 as well. I have the film developed then scan and drop it into photoshop to work as a digital image.

    Still have my digital point and click and it's perfect for some situations and has some add-ons like a wide angle converter and a tele-photo converter so it's somewhat flexible for a small digital with a fixed zoom lens.

    Will come back in a few weeks and explore your web site a bit more, your gallery shots are interesting. I like the way you have been able to take a common subject where one would be tempted to say there is nothing of interest and you've turned it into something of interest. Are you working any long term projects? I've found that taking pictures for others, community charities, municipal, etc is a way to do things for others, get involved, and get your work up and on the walls in your community.

    I've selected a nearby historic village for my first major and long term project and will do the web site thing with it as I start to accumulate images worth publishing.

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