How Bad Is JPEG? Surprising Encounters in Landscape Photography

How Bad Is JPEG? Surprising Encounters in Landscape Photography

After a recent landscape session in the rain, I was shocked. Reviewing the files at home, I found that I accidentally shot in JPEG. Is all lost now? Let’s take a look at this very underrated format.

'Professionals Only Shoot Raw!'

One of the first lessons which I learned in photography was “Raw is better than JPEG.” Period. Since that time, I rely on my Raw files, no matter if it's for documentary work, private photographs, or landscapes. Especially for the latter, raw is superior: A supposedly better effective dynamic range makes recovering shadows and highlights easier and the white balance always stays under control.

While climbing deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of photography, I learned that JPEG isn’t all that bad. Seemingly, there are also photographers who prefer this format. Many of them come from the Fuji camp. Fuji offers different film simulations which found an avid fan base amongst its users. But why limit yourself if you can have full control of your photographs?

Shot in JPG by accident

How Compression Works

After All, JPEG is inferior in its attention to detail. The Raw format offers you information about each and every pixel, while JPEG is an already edited format. Your camera collects data on its sensor, interprets it, and produces a developed file. There are two reasons why JPEG exists: It consumes less memory space and it doesn’t necessarily need to be manually developed.

The reduction of data happens by compressing an image. When we write “xxxxxxxxxxxxx” we store twelve letters on a sheet of paper. We could also compress it to “12x” for only one-fourth of the space. Image compression is much more complicated but relies on the same principles: You summarize data to save memory space. When saving and opening a JPEG file many times in a row, compression will ruin your image.

In most cases, some information will already get irreversibly lost with the primary JPEG file. Your camera develops your image and if it decided that there is no contrast between an area of pixels, they will look all the same. No matter how far you’ll pull the contrast or clarity sliders.

A rule of thumb: The less detail, the smaller the file size.

Can You Shoot Landscapes in JPEG?

When recently I found that somehow I changed my camera’s file format from Raw to JPEG, I was shocked. It sometimes happens to me, when I miss the button for changing the ISO, which is right above the button for changing the file format on my Nikon D750.

After the shock, I was surprised: It didn’t even matter. I could edit the photograph exactly in the way in which I had in mind while shooting. It even saved me some time, because the photograph wasn’t as dull and boring as I usually find my Raw files before they are cooked into a (sometimes) tasteful photograph. I just had to care for minimal exposure changes and a few local adjustments. Was I wasting time and memory space all my life?

I didn't need a Raw file to create this edit.

I felt like an absolute beginner and a conspiracy theorist at the same time. How come everyone only shoots in Raw when there was basically no downside in my edit? I quickly realized that my landscape photograph of rainy scenery at a cloudy coastline wasn’t really representative of the average dynamic range of a landscape photograph.

What I needed was a direct comparison and some pixel peeping.

JPEG Tested Under Harder Conditions

When the weather got a bit better, I tried out some locations where I expected harder conditions for landscape photographers: caves at the beach. Inside the caves, there would be far less light than outside. A situation, where it is almost impossible to cover the full dynamic range within one frame. Yet, the original JPEG file looked better than expected.

The JPG straight out of camera.

The “Picture Control” menu of my Nikon D750 gives me the option to choose between different JPEG development styles. Even though the different styles don’t look very different, “vivid” or “landscape” were my favorites. The final photograph definitely looks appealing, but is it enough? I don’t expect it to compete with a properly edited Raw file.

An editted Raw file of the same scene.

Here, I found a lot of freedom to edit. Uncovering the hidden structure underneath the shadows was no problem, just as getting more detail in the sky was done within a shift of a slider. Even though it wouldn’t necessarily be my preferred way to edit this photograph, local adjustments helped to get a lot of detail back into the lone rock, which seemed to be lost in the JPEG. But was it really? To double-check the JPEG capabilities, I also edited the JPEG file in Lightroom. Much of the detail was still available, too.

The JPG carried a lot of hidden detail as well.

The Limitations of JPEG in Landscape Photography

In these examples, I took a lot of care for a good exposure, which would allow me to bring back the detail in both highlights and shadows. While one could see the difference in the quality of JPEG files, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. In fact, I’d claim that you can’t see the difference in low-resolution images.

Same counts for underexposed photographs. Even in the darkest shadows, the Raw files will still offer us the chance to recover detail, even though there will be some noise in the final image.

Even a JPG edit of a really low exposure looks fine from the distance.

The JPEG files on the other hand, really struggle with very dark parts of the images. A lot of artifacts appear, along with colorful spots. You can get rid of some of them by using the “Detail” panel in Lightroom. Eventually, the dark areas will look like a bad print on canvas, though.

Zooming in to 100%, the lack of detailed information becomes visible.

Just like the recovery of shadows, getting detail out of the highlights is not a big problem with the Raw files. However, there will be blown-out areas, which will hopelessly be lost. Before the structure completely disappears, these highlight areas will also lack color information. You can’t shoot into the sun and expect to see all its details. Again, it’ll probably be fine as a social media picture. Especially in prints, bigger areas of blown-out highlights appear rather ugly.

Even blown out highlights can be recovered with Raw files to some extend.

My D750’s JPEGs, however, really look horrible when I try to recover highlights. There are no artifacts as we could witness when recovering the shadows. Instead, there is simply nothing hidden behind the white areas. Pulling the exposure to the left, I couldn't find the slightest idea of a shape in the sky. White only becomes gray.

In case of JPG-files, this information is hopelessly lost.

Use JPEG Only When You’re Sure

There are a lot of downsides of JPEG depending on the purpose of your images. Especially when you can’t cover the full dynamic range, you’ll have problems with the edit. But why would you use JPEG if you’ve got to edit the photographs anyway?

When you need to send or upload your photographs quickly, a well-cooked JPEG might be superior. Sports photographers and photojournalists often rely on quick transmission. You can experiment with your in-camera settings and pre-sets for JPEG development until you'll find a good recipe that works for many cases.

Especially when you want to quickly upload your photographs to social media, a JPEG-file will be quickly transmitted to your phone, where you can easily edit it because of its small file size. A lot of detail gets lost during the upload anyway. On the other hand, many advantages of Raw files will also be visible on your social media channels. Even on 1080 x 1080, severely blown-out highlights will be an issue.

My own experiments with JPEG are limited to my Nikon D750 and my everyday camera Olympus EM10. How is your experience with other cameras and brands? Does JPEG work for you or is it an absolute no-no for you?

Nils Heininger's picture

Nils Heininger is a photographer on the road. He loves long rides on motorbikes, camels and old trains. While discovering the world, he uses his camera to share stories from people across the globe. With a Micro-four thirds in his pocket and a full-frame in his bag, he's always ready for new adventures.

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Great article! Although I do see the reasons why many shoot RAW, I shoot JPEG for a few reasons.

1. I've experimented with both RAW and JPEG and my end result after editing both are virtually the same so JPEG saves me time in editing.
2. Much smaller file size which adds up to a lot of saved space. I know hard drive space is cheap (but I'm cheaper).
3. There are times when shooting on my Sony that I want to use the Clear Image Zoom which basically knocks down the resolution a bit to give me a bit more range. Yes, I can just shoot normally in RAW and then crop in post - but I like to compose my shots more out in the field than in front of the computer.
4. In those high contrast scenes, if you need more dynamic range when shooting JPEG, I will just bracket my shots and then I don't have to worry about blown out highlights or no detail in the shadows. All the info I need will be in 3 shots.
5. JPEG is a very convenient file format to quickly transfer a file to my cell phone for sharing to social media.

I also use Topaz DeNoise to take out any extra grain in my photos with superb results!

Now - who wants to start selling - I SHOOT JPEG T-shirts?

Topaz also has JPEG to RAW AI, which could be worth looking into.

I really wonder how that works!
If some detail is lost it might be possible to guess at something, but if for instance all highlights in the sky are completely blown out and the detail in the clouds is completely gone, you cannot retrieve what the program cannot even see / guess what might have been there.

I shoot

That does not roll off the tongue.😣

Ken Rockwell would be in on those T-shirts, lol

Memory is cheap, it never hurts to do jpeg + raw.

And be a digital hoarder? Memory can easily be corrupted with time under the right condition. As these cameras get higher in mp your storage costs will increase too. So this will be interesting as time goes on.

You are making an assumption not in evidence. He said shoot raw+jpg. Didn't say anything about what is kept.

So if i follow your reasoning, shooting jpeg is better. But smaller files means more files per drive.
So a drive loss means more photos lost too

You should always be backing up your files anyway. Redundancy can be a life saver!

This is my philosophy as well. It doesn't seem to be a big deal as far as storage, and though performance of the camera processing is slower, since I'm not a pro, I'm generally not in a hurry. Most pictures I take are for posting somewhere, to be honest, and the JPGs my camera produces, perhaps with a little tweaking, are usually just fine, but once in awhile I get a picture I really like, so I turn to the RAW file and go from there.

I'm the same way. I'm just learning about post processing, so I try to make my photos look good "out of camera". JPGs are easier to share, but like you, every now and then, I take a photo I'd like to put a little more extra effort into, so I have the RAW file to work with.

Here's a side tip for any other D750 owners. Reprogram the record button (located on top near the shutter button) to control ISO. It makes for quick ISO changes and no chance of making the same mistake this author made. And as far as I know in still shooting mode the record button has no other function anyways (although I changed it so long ago I may have forgotten it's original function).

Why didn't I figure that out myself? Sure! Thanks for the input. Never even thought about the record button being of any use.

Cool, but jpegs are for lazy people who don't care to learn the art of photograpjy. You think the real analogue artists from the past paid someone to develop their images, not having control over how they were developed and turned out? heeelllllzzz nooooo.

That seems like a rather pedantic statement. People have interests in photography that range from casual shooting, hobbyist, enthusiast, professional to fine art. Not everyone is interested in spending hours processing photos to have something to show to friends and family. It takes quite a commitment to learn all of the finer points of post-processing techniques and applications. I would dare say that most non-professional photographers would rather have a nicely presented photo out of camera that they can simply tweak with basic processing programs, such as those included in Windows and on the Mac.

I applaud the author for taking the time to do an objective experiment that can guide the more casual photographer toward a solution that will enhance their photography experience, instead of dashing their confidence with picayune treatises on why no self-respecting photographer could ever use anything but a full frame camera, professional lenses, and shoot nothing but raw files and spend hours on their weekends processing them.

If all instructional content were made for uber-professionals (which I would imagine you consider yourself, given the snobbishness) then the appeal of photography to all but those who have a serious interest, or do it as a profession, would be squelched. This would not serve anyone at any level of photography.

Not everyone who plays the piano aspires to be Keith Jarrett. Some are content to be Billy Joel. Should we call them lazy and unworthy of the title of artist?

Didn't realize the art of photography began at tweaking white balance and pumping that clarity slider. What would Ansel Adams have to say about that? 😉
It's like Skrillex saying that Adele is a lazy musician for not spending hours in the studio for the purpose of mixing her music.

In photography, like in music and film, there are different genres. Some require tweaking (oftentimes automotive and product photography), some do not (documentary, wedding).

I myself spend hours in post-processing, but I would still give more credit to those who can actually nail a photograph that's usable straight out of the camera. Photography is, after all, about drawing with light, and if you manage to create a good photo at the press of a button - all the more creds to you, sir.

I also get the article reference to Fujifilm users, those cameras DO create beautiful colors within camera. I've not shot JPEG for years, but when I got X-T3 I got a pleasant surprise.

Here's just a snapshot while testing out strobe and the Fuji, SOOC.

Ansel Adams spent hours in a darkroom for a reason....he didn't have sliders. ;-)

Are you completely sure he didn't have sliders? There may have been a white castle or krystal within driving distance?!? Don't assume if you don't know 😁

I lived just outside of Chicago for four years. White Castle was a staple for a good grab n' go or for when you just felt like eating fast food. I like your thought process! :-)

I spent hours in the darkroom - i didn't have "sliders" but thete were plenty of different post proces techniques to change the final output on paper (including paper type etc) - post processing techniques in the darkroom qere just as important as post processing now in the digital age (we even did a simple retouching)

One more time - 8 bit per channel color, no dr to speak of. I shoot lots of studio but why to spend good money on high end equipment if you will just use jpg? Seriously...

Nail it out of camera? You do realize that "real is boring" - most of the time. Many techniques call for a flat expisure, so you can give yourself most dynamic range to push and pull output. Maybe its just me - if you like jpg, shoot jpg.

I shoot RAW+JPEG so that I always have the choice: if the OoC JPEG is good enough or just needs some cropping, if I need it quickly, I'll use that.
If there's a shot that I really want to work with I'll use the RAW.

If that's a serious comment, an argument could be made that JPGs (only) serve people well who have mastered the art of photography enough to set their cameras properly, pay attention to lighting, etc. and don't need, or like, to fiddle with RAW files.

I think that the folks who mastered photography understand how and when to fiddle with raws...

Right. The answer is simple. Do what suits the purpose of the picture. It's kind of meaningless to divide photographers into two camps like this.

Fujifilm users ar3 certainly known for using JPEG, but I didn't really undrrstand that until I bought an old X-Pro1 for fun. The key taje-away here isn't that Fujifilm users don't edit, so much as they tweak everything up front to avoud the need. I got a taste of this with my Olympus Pen-F, which lets you do a ton of presetting of color before the shot, including film simulations, but Fujifilm rakes this to the next level. Your film emulation, color tweaks, dynamic range settings, etc. all chnge what happens tomthe final JPEG. Used correctly, you may get just what you want SOOC. Very few other companies have done much to enable better JPEG.

Did that convince me to start shooting JPEG? Nope. I still believe that half of the artistic process ought to be in the darkroom. And I have edited enough JPEG in the past to understanf its fragility.
But I can imagine, if I had some need to shoit and deliver without editing, that it's at least possible.

+1. Fuji encourages a different approach. With Canon I'm conventional. Shoot raw, process in LR. Fuji (XT3) I shoot raw + jpg and 19 times out of 20 use the sooc jpgs. I tend to treat the Fuji more like a fancy point & shoot, with several film sim recipes set up in the custom menu. Works well for informal situations. I'll dial in shutter speed, aperture, and leave it on auto ISO. Perfect for travel, around home and day at park with the family kinda stuff.

If you use ON1 Photo Raw in develope there are three selections manual, AI Match and AI Auto. AI Match is taken from the Jpeg rider on the RAW file, you also get to choose a color profile (portrait for night beach and milky way colors). Also Capture One does the same, if you compare the start to the jpeg (RAW & Jpeg). You can open a raw in most programs then look at the back of the camera to compare if so. Years ago when everyone talked about lost stars with certain cameras like the A7Sii but I believe it has to do with Ps/Lr (most used programs) but Capture One always looked like it had more stars, just a thought. C1 was free and only $30 to start for new Sony users but is for most any camera. Bottom line you pay for the Jpeg camera processing and the auto mode and your choice what you like.

Ok, first, jpg is crap, plain and simple - if you don't want to edit pictures and shooting in good light conditions, sure, but other than that? It is funny to hear all the fights between "this camera has 14ev dr and this only has 12.5" and then talk about jpg which may have 2-3 ev (not sure exactly but the exact number isn't the point) - "dxo score of xxx camera is 90" but you get everything to 8 bit color per channel? Seriously... can you shoot jpg and still have decent results? Sure, you can also take good pictures with new iPhone... what else can i say? Did i mention that jpg is crap?

If JPEG is crap, then do you send your clients RAWs, or PNG? Me confuse

WebP. 😉😆😁😀😄


??? - i send them jpg files, or tiff (depending on the project) AFTER they are processed and edited (tiff beingmore equalwith raw), lol. AFTER you are done with all the edits whete you no longer need DR, extra color depth etc then you can "bake in" the result into any format, lol. Are you confused about it? Lol

You can give them 16-bit TIFF images.

Not a good idea. The TIFF standard is, by design, extensible, and has been extended in so many ways, but not all viewers adopt all extensions, and therefore some clients may not be able to view certain TIFFs.

The idea behind the Tagged Image File Format is that the container tells one every thing they need to know about the image to be able to view it if they have the right tools. It does not provide the tools, nor tells one what are the right tools. They also tend to be quite large, as compared to other file formats.

Additionally, most clients do not need a file greater than an 8-bit integer depth. Only those who intend to re-edit may need that, and that is why we have the industry standard OpenEXR, with 16-bit or 32-bit floating point colour depth.

I provide tiff where requested, lol, with a specific parameters (mac vs pc, print proof settings etc) or jpg files AFTER they are edited (meaning thete is no more need to preserve high dr etc)

TIFF where requested, (and clearly meant for additional editing), is fine. My comment was to Adil, who suggested TIFF, in response to the silly question by Alex, "what do you send your clients.”

For most of us, our client will not, (and cannot, by license agreement), be editing our images. They are given final images. For some of us, we do not provide a product, but a service, and our clients most definitely will be doing final edits, after we completed our service.

The article is clearly speaking about formats for further edits, versus formats for final delivery. JPEG JFIF is great for final delivery. If all major edits are done in camera, there is no need for shooting raw. If editing is expected, then shooting raw is best.

In your case, you are speaking of delivering a service, (image capture), for a client who will edit. TIFF is reasonable. (OpenEXR is even better). If the client requested it in BMP format, they get BMP format. That is all external to this article, and these comments. (Lol?!?)

Indeed, JPEG JFIF (or in my case, WebP), is what we give clients AFTER editing, which I thought was clear.

Of course your latest comment here puts your first comment in o different light. No, JPEG JFIF is not crap. Like you said, and like the article said, if one shoots in good light, and has all major edits within the camera, (leaving only things such as cropping for post processing), then sure, it is great! We all agree. (Lol?!?)

That being said, unless requested by a client, (and one is fine with them editing one's images), TIFF is not a smart choice for final delivery for the reasons I gave.

At least with BMP, there are only two standards; Windows BMP, & OS/2 BMP, one of which practically no one uses, but can still be edited by just about all editing software. Not the case with TIFF. The industry standard intermediary format is OpenEXR, (and yet, Adobe still cannot handle it, even with the plug-in, due to the 16-bit integer pixel pipeline of Ps & Lr).

I live halfway around the world from my family. Jpeg is an easier format to send to them to keep them apprised of what's happening in my life. When I return home to visit, they can see the Raw files.

«No post-processing needed. Since your camera handles everything from post-processing to applying white balance to compressing….»
Absolutely, 100% agree.

«…shooting JPEG means you have a much faster workflow from firing the shutter to having a usable photo.»
Disagree. to an extent. If the goal is having a “usable” photo, then somewhat. One has to tell the camera how to develop that raw into a JPEG *BEFORE* ever seeing the raw, (and that can work just fine). That means work. That means time. That means planning. That is all just fine.

I can do all my raw processing in-camera in the field with my Pentax, before the shot… and shoot JPEG, or choose raw and do it after the shot, (still in the field, in-camera), but I prefer to relax in front of my large screen in my air-conditioned home, and take my time with it. I do not need a faster workflow; I need an ideal workflow. (Not for everyone, I know, but that is my point).

«Writing JPEG is faster. You generally have faster performance (especially in burst mode)…. …time it takes a camera to write JPEG sensor data to a memory card….»
Right. ♩Because every landscape photographer shoots in burst mode.♬ The article talks about people who can benefit from SOoC JPEG, (who may also possibly need to shoot in burst), but this is not that. Product photographers, portrait photographers, abstract photographers…. The list of those who do not need burst mode goes on and on and on and….. Shooting burst is not an everyday/everyone occurrence.

One does not get up at 3:00 to hit the road by 4:00 to be in the parking lot by 5:00 to hike to the spot by 6:00 to setup by 6:15 to shoot bursts for the next 45 minutes. One does not take an hour to set up the lighting on the product just right …to shoot bursts. One does not take the time to get the fold of the garment just right, the make-up is just so, and every hair is in position …to shoot bursts.

«…taking the raw sensor data, creating an embedded JPEG preview….»
That part of the process happens anyway, when shooting JPEG. The JPEG comes from raw sensor data processed in precisely the same way. The difference is that in raw, all the data is written, but in JPEG, the first part of the data is discarded, and the rest written.

Even cameras which are incapable of saving in raw do this anyway.

«You can fit more JPEG on a memory card than raw files.»
Agreed. Yet, I have never come close to half-filling my card on any given event. Not a concern. That is like asking people who charge their BEV overnight at home, and only drive 40-90 miles on any given day, “Aren't you afraid of running out of battery with only a 240 mile range?” Nope. They are not. Neither am I ever afraid of filling my card with raw files, (but just like they have supercharging stations, I have extra cards).

Whereas SOoC JPEGs are great for certain photographers, (as are Polaroid images), they suck for anyone who intends to do post processing/retouching at all. (Notice that I said, “post processing,” and not “processing”).

Sometimes people come up the weirdest reasons to support their choices. Yes, shooting JPEG is a valid choice for some, (and ought not be frowned upon), but choose it for the right reasons.

Valid reasons for shooting JPEG….
1) I have a short deadline.
2) I MUST shoot in burst mode on a regular basis and at any given time, without notice, during an event. (This does NOT include wedding photographers who go to rehearsal dinners, and plan their shoots).

Other reasons….
1) White balance, details, dynamic range, and other issues which raw addresses are not important to my photography, so why even bother?
(It is a good reason, just not a valid reason, as it all can be ignored in raw, also, by using presets/defaults).
2) Drive space is cheap, …but I am cheaper.
(Thanks to Deleted User for that arguably valid point. I am nowhere near to filling my 4× HDD RAID5, and it has been a good while. Plus, that is what archives are for. But drives eventually fail, and when the $100 500 GB 5400 rpm SATA II drive with 8MB cache which one bought years ago finally fails, one can replace it with a $50 2 TB 7200 rpm SATA III drive with 128 MB cache, [or 4 TB, with 64 MB cache, ], or for $95, a 1 TB M.2 NVMe SSD, so it is not that big a deal).

I shoot RAW as im often out in poor light and need the headroom to lift shadows and push the processing but people are free to shoot what they like and if jpegs are giving them good results, who are we to argue.

JPEG is good for many purposes and many professional photographers have no need for RAW.
I shoot RAW+JPEG always so I always have the choice and can never forget to set back to RAW, but for many situations the JPEG is good without needing processing.

But shooting RAW+JPEG, I have definitely seen that there were situations where I could not recover shadows or highlights in the JPEG but could still get a lot of detail out of the RAW file of the same shot.

True - I've read a that many of the professional photographers at the Olympics will shoot JPEG for the sake of speed. I've also noticed over the many years that the quality of images from the Olympics that are published are outstanding. I'm sure it helps that the subjects are always well lit.

But it just goes to show that there are definitely times pros can use JPEG with excellent results.

About JPEG compression: There's multiple parts to the JPEG compression which reduce quality and the ability to recover shadows / highlights.

One is that JPEG doesn't have the same bit-depth as your camera's sensor (8 bits per channel, whereas the sensor often has 12 or 14 bits per channel / pixel). So you need to do a tone-mapping between the raw data and the JPEG where information is lost. That is the loss of dynamic range.

The other is that JPEG file compression doesn't work like the example you gave ('xxxxxxxxxxxx' becomes 12 times 'x'). The type of compression you describe is lossless and doesn't affect image quality; it's the kind of compression used in ZIP files.
JPEG compression works with mathematical formulas that approximate what's in the image. Because this is only an approximation, it doesn't restore the exact same pixels as the original.
Also, when the same JPEG is opened, edited, saved multiple times this approximation is the reason that the image gradually worsens over time.

You can see the degradation in JPEG by writing a piece of black text on a white background in Photoshop or any other image editor, and saving that as JPEG. Then open the JPEG and you will often see fuzziness or artifacts around the letters.

If the results you get shooting whatever it is you shoot are up to your standards, then that's what is good for you. Pretty simple. I have both memory cards set to RAW because I actually enjoy processing my stuff and if one memory card goes kaflooey, I know the other card has all the data.

My Sigma fp lets me shoot DNG.

Which is a RAW format.

If someone likes the camera output, I believe it's fair to spend more time adjusting light and composition on set than correcting/developing in front of the computer. It might bother the "I'll fix it in post" followers though 😁

"When saving and opening a JPEG file many times in a row, compression will ruin your image."

The above statement is wrong, at least in the case of Ps.


It's generally true, but if you do not actually modify the image in between, then it might be false for some good editors.

However, why would you want to open and save the image repeatedly if you're not editing it at each step?

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