RAW vs. JPEG: Which Image Format is Best?

We all have been there at some point in our photographic journeys: Our cameras, set to AUTO, pointing and clicking, saving JPEG images that we perhaps edit a little and put in an album to archive. Maybe we throw on an Instagram filter to fancy it up for social media. Then we forget about these images for a while.

Years later, we return to the images only to feel that perhaps our editing style has changed and we might prefer a different look from our images. We can’t believe we didn’t pull more detail out of the dark mountain range in the background, or dim the highlights on the beach. The skin color we thought looked great at the time is too orange, or too yellow.

So we try to fix it to our liking, only to discover the limitations of the JPEG format. The color gamut isn’t wide enough to get the specific colors we want. When we try to pull up shadows to show the mountain detail, we end up with a ton of noise and image artifacts. And those highlights? They’re gone, man. You can’t recover those.

Welcome to the important decision point of RAW vs. JPEG. So many photographers lament not having shot in RAW format earlier in their lives. Why? Well, here’s an analogy: Imagine shooting with film, developing the negatives, and then throwing them away in favor of archiving the printed photos (the horror!). Could you possibly recover the same amount of detail from these printed photos that you could have gotten from the negatives? Absolutely not. What would you find if you tried to scan them back in to edit? Loss of detail. Grain/artifacts. Flatter colors.

The same is true for JPEG images. This is not to say nobody should shoot in JPEG format. On the contrary, JPEG photos are extremely convenient. The processing is done in camera for you, and the image is easy to share quickly with a smaller file size to boot. But on the off chance that you ever need to tweak an image later, and barring certain specific situations, you will soon learn that RAW is the way to go. So, what makes RAW so much more flexible?

Dynamic Range

RAW is much better than JPEG when it comes to dynamic range.

This is numero uno. The amount of sheer data stored in each RAW file dwarfs that of a JPEG file. What does that mean for you, the photographer? Flexibility. It means you can turn that bright mountain range with a shadowy foreground into a beautiful HDR landscape without sacrificing your colors, and with a more limited amount of noise in the extremes.

What is Dynamic Range? It’s actually measured as a ratio of the brightest and the darkest points of an image projected onto a sensor. Your sensor has a certain range of sensitivity to pick up these parts of an image, bright or dark, and we call that the camera’s dynamic range. Generally, the bigger the sensor, the greater the dynamic range. We measure this in the amount of ‘stops’ the camera’s sensor can capture – each stop up or down being double or half the light being allowed to hit the sensor, respectively.

With RAW files, you are able to utilize the full potential of your camera’s sensor. On modern digital cameras, that can currently be somewhere in the range of 7 stops in each direction. With JPEG, technically it also captures the image within this wide range of stops, but it does so with less information. It uses compression to reduce the file size, filling in the gaps in the detail with its best guess of what should be there. So what ends up happening when you try to process the image?

Let’s say that it appears you have blown out some highlights when taking the photo, exposing to the left. Exposing for shadows like this is a technique useful for film photography to bring up the shadows without showing too much grain. With digital cameras, you tend to do the opposite (expose for the highlights instead). With overexposed highlights in a digital image, you will go into your editing software to try to recover the detail in those highlights with more limited success.

For the sake of this illustration, let’s say you shot the image in JPEG. As you adjust your sliders to reduce exposure or highlights, you will notice that many parts of the highlights remain white. Checking the histogram, you might find that there is a tall spike on its right-hand side, indicating remaining blown highlights. That means that with the limited data in the JPEG file, you simply won’t be able to recover the data in that part of the image. It will remain a bright white forever.

Now, imagine you had set your camera to record RAW + JPEG for shooting, which gives you both formats in one shot. That’s great! You can head over to your RAW image to process it. What you might find is that those blown highlights are now recoverable. Those beautiful snowy peaks on the mountains now have shades of gray detail in addition to the whitest of whites. It’s a miracle!

The same concept applies to underexposed images. When you try to bring up the shadows in the JPEG image, that ‘missing’ information due to lower bit depth will present itself as noise. As an aside, this is similar to what a higher ISO setting on your camera will do. It fills in missing information with noise. So effectively you are getting a noisier image in the shadows with your JPEG image, assuming the scene has a high dynamic range. With your RAW file, those shadows will better retain their detail, so that when you brighten the image, noise is less of an issue.

Color Gamut

RAW is much better than JPEG when it comes to color gamut.

In addition to noise, color becomes an issue when operating with lower bit depth. Does anyone remember very old computer monitors? Or perhaps old video game systems (8-bit, 16-bit)? Do you remember what the colors looked like? The characters were blocky, the colors limited. Why is this? Memory was limited in relation to processing power, so they had to work with limited color information to make things work smoothly.

In the same way, a JPEG file is an 8-bit file. A RAW file is usually 12-bit. That doesn’t seem so different, does it? Well, considering this means a JPEG file can display 16.8 million colors, that seems rather adequate. But get this: A 12-bit RAW file can display 68.7 BILLION colors. Are you getting the picture?

Above, we adjusted the exposure to make sure the lightest parts were not too light and darkest parts not too dark. You also end up wanting to adjust contrast, whites, and blacks. When you do this to a JPEG image, crazy things start happening. Normal skin tones turn orange/yellow. Those landscape blues and greens start looking a bit fake and overprocessed. Color noise becomes apparent. There is simply not enough information for you to be as flexible in editing your image.

If you captured it perfectly in camera, you might be lucky enough that this doesn’t impact your image. If aggressive editing is required, look out. This is another reason why we advise shooting in RAW. Taking full advantage of color gamut will give you full creative license in your color grading and post-processing in general.

Artifacts

RAW is much better than JPEG when it comes to artifacts.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, I always get my exposure right, only shoot low dynamic range scenes, and don’t need to worry about these sorts of things. So what’s the point of shooting RAW?” Well, my friend, let me tell you about artifacts. No, we are not talking about priceless artifacts that belong in a museum. We are talking about those annoying blocky edges that appear in every JPEG file because of compression.

A bird photo (left) and a compressed version in which blocky JPEG artifacts are clearly visible (right). Photo by JJ Harrison and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Artifacts are the gaps in data that the JPEG compression format tries to fill in to save space. This is generally not a problem for small images on the web or social media where it will go unnoticed. For larger prints or aggressive cropping, it can be a major issue. You will blow the image up for printing and find an annoying loss of detail, and this will take away from the experience of viewing the image. Nowadays, there are programs that can help recover detail and reduce JPEG artifacts, and that is great for people like yours truly who used to only shoot JPEG in camera and want to recover those memories from years past.

In vs. Out of Camera Processing

RAW is much better than JPEG when it comes to post-processing.

What are some other issues you might find with JPEG vs. RAW images? For starters, JPEG images have sharpening applied in camera. To keep it short and sweet, sharpening in your post-processing software is far superior to what you get out of the camera. If you want sharp images with minimal loss of edge detail, shoot RAW.

Noise, for that matter, is also a similar problem. Noise correction in camera is clunky and unrefined, and it leads to softer images with less detail. Using your computer to edit these images will bring more refined noise reduction for more brilliant-looking photos, without that “smudgy” look.

Lastly, white balance as applied in-camera can be inaccurate and more difficult to fix later. If the camera gets it right, that’s great. You have less work to do. If it gets it wrong, your skin tones and colors might never fully recover. These days, JPEG flexibility is far better than it used to be, but white balance inaccuracy is still an issue you might prefer to avoid.

Future Proofing

RAW is much better than JPEG when it comes to future-proofing.

Photo processing and editing software is constantly improving and evolving, and apps of the future will almost certainly be vastly superior to the software used today. Shooting and storing photos in RAW will allow you to revisit old photos in the future and reprocess the original data using the latest technologies of the time.

For this reason, RAW files are the better option for photographers who want to ensure that they can reprocess a photo years later after their skills, tastes, and technologies change.

Shooting Speed

JPEG is much better than RAW when it comes to shooting speed.

So far, RAW has trumped JPEG in many important categories, but JPEG does have its own strengths. One of the primary ones is the speed at which you can capture photos.

Shooting JPEG only will maximize the continuous shooting (or burst) speed of your digital camera, since the files are smaller. RAW photos have much larger file sizes, causing the camera’s memory buffer to fill up more quickly, and the camera will need to take a break from shooting to process the images and clear space in the buffer for more photos to be captured.

For this reason, any photographers who require maximum frames per second in their work will likely opt for shooting JPEG instead of RAW. One area of photography for which this is often true is action sports photography, as photographers will typically shoot long sequences of photos at a very fast rate in hopes of catching one “keeper” among the many outtakes.

Sports photographers shooting for news purposes commonly choose JPEG instead of RAW in order to shoot at a maximum burst rate for longer. Photo by William Warby and licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Time and Effort Required

JPEG is better than RAW when it comes to time and effort required.

If you have absolutely no interest in spending time in front of a computer post-processing your photos, then JPEG may be the format for you. The files will be immediately ready to use and share for whatever purpose you need them for, whether it’s posting them on social media or making prints and photo books.

RAW files, on the other hand, will require you to put them through a RAW image processor in order to turn the data into JPEG photos. Photographers will typically spend time processing the images before generating the JPEGs, which adds an additional layer of time and effort to the process.

File Size

JPEG is better than RAW when it comes to storage requirements.

With compressed files come smaller file sizes. Hey, we weren’t going to let RAW win on every point of argument. If file space is an issue, there is certainly the case that JPEG will not clog up your hard drives as quickly as RAW. In fact, you can store somewhere in the range of two to six times as many JPEG files in the same space you could store the otherwise identical RAW files.

If you shoot a very large number of photos every year, the cost of storing RAW images will likely be significantly more than what it will cost to only keep JPEGs around.

So, When Should I Use RAW vs. JPEG?

JPEG is useful for a few scenarios. Perhaps you lack the storage space needed for multitudes of larger files. Perhaps you are a sports journalist, and shooting RAW would use up the buffer too quickly on your camera for burst photos. Perhaps you are shooting exclusively for the web or social media, or need to get the photos shared immediately. These are all appropriate use cases for JPEG.

The bottom line is that RAW is an archival format with much greater flexibility than JPEG. Whenever possible, unless you absolutely need to only shoot in JPEG, you should shoot in RAW and give yourself the power to maximize the potential of each image. Your future self will thank us later.

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