RAW vs JPEG: A guide to choosing the best file format for your photography

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RAW vs. JPEG is arguably one of the most debated topics in digital photography. But does this argument deserve to be the subject of discussion in the first place? Is one really better than the other? And is it even a good idea to stick to just one file format?

Photo by Kawin Harasai

Let’s examine both formats—from their individual definitions to their strengths and weaknesses—to help you distinguish them from one another and get to the bottom of the debate once and for all.

01. What is RAW format?

RAW is actually an umbrella title that includes hundreds of different file extensions like NEF and NRW for Nikon; CRW, CR2, and CR3 for Canon; and ARW, SRF, and SR2 for Sony.

Most popular editing suites can read these files. However, since manufacturers tweak their RAW algorithms all the time, these programs have to be continuously updated to ensure compatibility.

Photo by Jeslyn Chanchaleune

RAW is technically unprocessed data from the camera. It preserves all captured details in an image by using lossless compression. Nevertheless, it still needs to be converted before you can view and share it.

Photo by Joao Silas

All the information RAW contains provides a lot of leeway when editing on your computer. In fact, 12-bit RAW is capable of recording up to 68 billion colors. That means you’ll retain most of the detail in the photo even after editing.

Photo by rawpixel

Strengths:

  • Uses lossless compression, so all visual information the camera captures are retained, producing vivid photos
  • Has high-dynamic range, so you can post-process without loss in quality
  • Contains metadata, so you can review exposure settings you used
  • Cannot be altered, so you can use it as proof that no changes are made to a photo

Photo by Sharon Pittaway

Weaknesses:

  • Unprocessed, so you have to convert it to a .JPEG (ironically enough) or .TIFF file to view it
  • Takes up more memory space
  • Increases camera’s buffing rate, so you can’t quickly take photos continuously
  • Lacks standardization, so compatibility of different RAW file types between editing programs may become an issue

02.What is JPEG format?

JPEG stands for ‘Joint Photographic Experts Group’, the committee responsible for creating the eponymous file format, which, quite surprisingly, was released way back in 1992. Arguably the most recognizable image format, it is used everywhere from the photos we post on the web to the ones we take with our mobile cameras.

Photo by Manki Kim

JPEG uses lossy (or irreversible) compression to effectively store and display photos produced by digital cameras or other devices such as scanners. This means it gets rid of some details in a photo to make it easier to view and save.

An example of a JPEG image with visible artifacts. Photo by Chad Verzosa

The compression rate can be adjusted through the camera or an editing suite. By choosing low-compression, most of the details in your photo will be retained, but the file size will be larger.

On the other hand, if you select high-compression, you’ll get a low-quality picture in a smaller file size. Despite getting rid of some details in your photo,  a JPEG file may still contain up to 16 million colors on average, which is perfect for regular images.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

Strengths:

  • Compatible with just about any modern digital device, so you can conveniently view it almost anywhere—from your laptop to your phone
  • Adjustments are processed inside the camera, so you can use the image right away
  • Filters can be applied in-camera, so you can create different effects
  • Relatively small file size, so you can store more pictures on your card, and you don’t have to worry about your camera’s buffing rate

Photo by Jatniel Tunon

Weaknesses:

  • Uses lossy compression, so your photo loses some details
  • Limits colors, especially 8-Bit JPEG which can only record up to 16 million colors, when your camera is capable of capturing even more
  • Has limited dynamic range, so post-processing could result in loss of quality, pixelation, and noise

03. Which file type should you use?

To simplify your decision making, just think of JPEG as a "Polaroid" film that’s final, and RAW as a 35mm film that still needs to be developed.

Photo by Christian Bolt

Most professional photographers choose RAW because it allows them to bring out the best in their photos. Sure, it may not be as convenient as using JPEG, but it could yield better pictures. Apart from RAW being more vividly colored and detailed, you can also adjust exposure settings without ruining your image.

Photo by Harry Quan

On the other hand, if you don’t expect to alter its appearance extensively, consider using JPEG. Doing so will also allow you to share photos more quickly and take more photos if you have limited storage.

Photo by Andrew Neel

There’s also the option of shooting in both RAW+JPEG. You can typically find it in your camera’s menu under Image Quality. Admittedly, photographers rarely use RAW+JPEG, but sometimes redundancy is good. Having both a JPEG and a RAW version is having the best of both formats.

Just remember that your camera will create two files for each photo, resulting in increased memory space and possibly slower buffing rate.

Photo by Biel Morro

RAW vs. JPEG isn’t necessarily a contest between the two formats. Ultimately, it depends on what is most suitable for your current photography project. It comes down to what you’re comfortable shooting with, how much memory you’re capable of storing, how much your camera’s buffing rate is affected, and how willing you are to process your photos afterwards.