Understanding the Differences Between Raw and JPEG

You have likely heard that you should capture your images in raw rather than JPEG, but do you understand why? Here is an explanation of the advantages of shooting in each mode and why raw is the way to go for an amateur photographer.

From the beginning of my career as a photographer, I have been taught to shoot in raw. I haven’t had a second thought about it until an experienced photographer I know recently mentioned that they only shoot in JPEG. Their argument was that because of their experience, they rarely take a photo that they need to adjust so dramatically that a raw file is necessary. If this causes you to wonder how much farther you can push the edits of a raw file compared to a JPEG, then you should watch this video from Nemanja Sekulic.

Sekulic starts his video by explaining the difference between these two types of images and the advantages of using both. He then has several excellent examples of how quickly a JPEG file starts to break down when recovering highlights and shadows. I was also surprised with how little control a JPEG file provided for adjusting the temperature of an image. Lastly, I will add that if you are switching to raw for the first time, you will likely have to make several changes to your post-processing workflow. Most programs can’t open raw files, you can’t upload them to websites or social media, and in most cases, you should not deliver them to your client. If this is all new and you have wondered why photographers continuously encourage others to shoot in raw, take a look at the examples in the video above.

Lead image by Pixabay user Free-Photos, used under Creative Commons.

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19 Comments

Benoit Pigeon's picture

This used to be a big debate.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Just a bored Youtuber who has nothing else to talk about like Wahlid and Francisco.

On the front page it says to click there to READ the article. Then I do and I get to a damn Video. I don't want a video - slow connection means at least a half hour for it to load, then stop/start/stop/start over and over again.

Print the article - it is not that difficult.

This jpeg vs raw debate is

Rural area, sparsly populated, Central US near the US/Canada border. Cell phone coverage is spotty to non-existent and the telephone service is what we have. Satellite is even worse.

well for Newbies it is an issue. I remember starting out just shooting JPG because I had no idea what RAW was. Then after a while, I kept hearing about RAW so I finally started shooting RAW + JPG. Then after a little while more I asked myself why am I bothering with the JPG when that's what I end up with for the images I process and the ones I don't process I don't care about having the JPG version? I'm sure many of us went through that progression.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Yes, I understand what you mean. See early on, jpg made some sense when considering the amount of data saved with compression and I think manufacturers never attempted to make a distinction between jpg and raw, probably in order to keep their growing sales. But lets not forget that the camera manufacturers are the ones who took over the film and processing and could probably have done a better job at educating the buyer. Of course I’m one of the few people who always read manuals and instructions…
I never was a jpg user because I started with digital backs which shot native files identical to RAW. I also did some drum scanning which really helped me make a fast transition to digital and I worked for many kinds of photo labs for quite a few years. However, 1mb memory early on would cost you $1, vs $1 for 1-3gb today! It was nearly impossible to explain the benefits of RAW back then, the economical value was against RAW larger files.
Today is so different that manufacturers could probably make a better effort at educating with a stand alone RAW guide coming with each camera.

Michael Jin's picture

One is an image file. One is sensor data that can be turned into an image file.

Ansel Spear's picture

And that, really, is all that needs to be said. The comparison between food ingredients and fast food was hard to digest and left a bad taste in my mouth.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

RAW = latent image
Jpg = processed film

Michael Jin's picture

Except that JPEG isn't film and if you wanted to attempt to make this analogy, it would be slide film specifically and certainly not color negative or black&white film since those two need further processing before being presentable as a final product.

A RAW file is not a latent image. It's a sensor readout that could be interpreted any number of ways. One of those ways is an image file through a RAW converter. In theory, you could could also get a numerical readout of all of the pixel values rather than an image file if you wanted... Digital photography is fundamentally different from analog photography so analogies between the two don't really translate well.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

RAW is equivalent to the latent image until you process it. Show me an unprocessed RAW capture without a jpg preview, the printed data would impress no one here.
Jpg is much like processed film where the unwanted silver can no longer be recovered to be part of an image. It's locked and attempt at recovering details can only be made during print exposure much like we would do on a MONITOR. And yes, there once, not so long ago were monochromatic ccd digital capture devices like the Leaf DCB/DCB2. No interpolation or low pass filter at capture time, have you ever seen such 4mp RAW? It's nice, very nice.
Correct, digital capture by nature is not equivalent to color negative. Color negative specific intend was to facilitate the transfer of an image for enlarging not for mass reproduction or fine reproduction. Therefore negative required actually less processing and processing alterations in chemical bath simply did not work well.
Additionally E6 or slide main but not exclusive intent was for reproduction via color separation or cmyk. In order to increase a piece of positive film potential before scanning, there were ways to play with push, pull, and first bath temperature alterations in order to create variations. So you would choose the kind of film that would react best for your final vision and process it the way you'd like. The important part was to expose for the intent and do tests before choosing what worked for you chemically for compensation. This is really what you do with RAW because exposure is set first then immediately recorded as RAW and you really cannot change the fact that under or over exposed cannot be fixed past a certain extent or processing. Finally, did you notice that your RAW files will eventually be processed and the resulting image will be printed on a CMYK device much like any scanned slide? Interesting isn't it.

Michael Jin's picture

For the end user, yes. From a technical and engineering standpoint, not even close.

Michael Jin's picture

There's a lot missing from your rather long winded and flawed explanation, but think about it however you want as it doesn't really matter unless you happen to be in the business of engineering cameras, film emulsions, or RAW conversion software.

Ansel Spear's picture

I gave up after 3 minutes.

Stephen samuel's picture

The only real advantages of JPEGs are that they're small and fast. If you're in a rush to get quick pics out, then having JPEGs are a boost. If you got the exposure right (which is most of the time), you can just email or post the JPEG as-is. They're also incredibly fast to transfer to your computer because they're so small.
(( If I have this need, Ill usually just shoot RAW+JPEG, so that I have the raws to play with in post).
That's pretty much where the advantages end.
Raw files contain more data per pixel. If you have to edit an image, then ANYTHING you can produce with a JPEG, you can produce from a RAW, but it doesn't work the other way.. (proof: You can process the RAW into a JPEG, and then do whatever you could 'only' do with a JPEG).

If you remember shooting film, a JPEG is like a print. a RAW file is like a negative. Few professional photographers would throw out their negatives when they got their print from the photo store, but that's equivalent to what 'professionals' do when they shoot JPEG-only in camera.

With multi-terabyte hard drives, the size advantage of JPEGs are mostly irrelevant..