FAQ Fridays: Raw vs Jpeg

Hi Everyone, here’s another installment of FAQ Fridays! Today’s question is something we get asked a lot and the answer is something everyone would be interested in knowing. RAW vs JPEG!

Question from Mai:

Hi Pretty Geeky,
I was wondering if you can explain the difference between RAW vs JPEG? Also, I would like to know which of these two you are using?

Thanks so much!!!
And please, please respond!!!

Answer:

I’ll try to answer without getting too technical. In plain english, when you take a picture your camera sensor absorbs all the light and color information coming through the lens and creates an image (let’s call this image: ImageA). ImageA is as original of a source file as an image file can get. ImageA is known as the RAW file. Now when you hit the preview button on your camera to display the image on the back LCD panel, the camera actually takes this ImageA RAW file and converts it into a JPEG image (let’s call this image: ImageB). How vibrant this resulting JPEG image is, is dependent on the picture setting you chose (Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Monocrome, Portrait, Landscape.. etc).

So what file is saved to the camera? Under your camera settings, if you chose to shoot as RAW, then the original ImageA is saved to your memory card (typically .NEF for Nikon and .CR2 for Canon). If you chose to shoot as JPEG, then the processed ImageB is saved to your memory card instead.

What file format is better? Unless you need JPEG files right away, it is always better to shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW will give you a lot more flexibility when you are processing your image on your computer. You’ll be able to recover more highlights, more shadows, and even completely change the White Balance w/o affecting your source file. In other words, you are more able to “fix” a user error later on if you are using RAW format. Another way to think about RAW vs JPEG is this: the RAW file is the original source. The JPEG file is a product from the original source.

Take a look at this progression: Camera =====> RAW file (ImageA) ======> JPEG file (ImageB)

Now when you want to edit a file, wouldn’t you prefer to start from the original best possible source instead?

Here’s another point about JPEG files. The JPEG file format is actually a lossy compressed format. What’s this mean? It means every time you create a JPEG file, you are losing some data from the original file. From the example above, let’s say you take the JPEG ImageB and process it on your computer to create a new ImageC. This new ImageC has now gone thru two generations of loss data! Which means degraded photo quality.

Enough with the theory, let’s jump into a video! In this video we’ll attempt to recover a badly exposed image. One image was shot in RAW, the other in JPEG.

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Now that you’ve seen the video, let’s take a look at the example photos comparing the Straight Out Of Camera (SOOC) RAW vs JPEG images. It’s a night and day difference!

Is there a drawback for using RAW format? Yes. The RAW files are bigger and you will need more storage space. This means bigger memory cards for your camera and bigger hard drives for your computer. You will also need a faster computer to process RAW files. If your computer is already slow while working with JPEG files… it will be even slower if you decide to switch to RAW files. But the biggest drawback is that most non-photography people will not have a program that can read the RAW file. You can’t just hand over the raw .NEF image file to your Mom and expect her to see the file on her computer. The computer will simply see it as an “unknown” file format. To be able to read the RAW format, you need a program like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.

Is there a time when JPEG is better? When you don’t have the time to process RAW files and have to hand over the files 15mins after an event is over (Sports Photographers)… JPEG would be the better format. When you don’t care to process your photos afterwards and simply just want to “Shoot and Burn”, JPEG would be the better format. When you don’t want Uncle Bob and Auntie May calling you asking why your photos don’t work on their computers… JPEG would be the better format. =) But when you want the best possible quality, the most flexibility to manipulate your photo after you have already taken it, and you have the time to process the RAW images, RAW format is the better choice.

That’s it! Hope this gives you a better understanding of RAW vs JPEG. And to answer the original question of which we prefer? If it isn’t obvious, we always shoot in RAW. =) If you have any questions, just ask them below in the comments section.


What is FAQ Fridays?
FAQ Fridays is an ongoing weekly feature on this site where WE answer questions submitted by you. We hope this new segment will help with many of your photography challenges. As always, you can ask questions in the comments section if it relates to that certain post.

Here is a list of: all previous FAQ Fridays posts

If you have specific questions that do not relate directly… then feel free to submit your questions by using the FAQ Fridays Submission Form page.

Alternatively, you can email your questions to: faq -at- prettygeeky.com (note: email broken up to prevent spam bots).