RAW vs JPEG: Which Image Format is Better for You?
Snapping shots in RAW vs JPEG is a common question every photographer has had some point. As a photographer, you’ve probably wondered what the best file format is for your photos. Some say it’s JPEG, and others swear by RAW. There is a good argument to be made for both.
Here’s everything you need to know about RAW vs. JPEG, especially how each format fits your specific photography needs.
What is a JPEG file?
JPEG is short for Joint Photographic Experts Group. Created in 1992, a JPEG is an image format designed to store compressed and lossy image data. It’s the most widely used image compression method in the world.
When to use JPEG
Although JPEG files are technically lower quality, they’re perfectly suitable for various applications.
Here are some scenarios in which you should use JPEG:
- You’re dealing with images that’ll be published on the web—on social media, a blog, or a homepage and you want to make them easy to download and share.
- You want ready-made images with no need for post-processing or editing.
- You want to send images or previews to your clients, colleagues, friends, or family yet don’t want the pictures to weigh gigabytes and take ages to upload.
- You’re shooting bursts of shots.
- You manage an image library and want to manage your storage capacity efficiently.
Note: Although JPEG is the recommended format for web images, it’s not appropriate to save infographics and pictures with lots of text in JPEG image format.
Related: Browse our infographics here.
What is a RAW file?
Also referred to as digital negative, RAW refers to the uncompressed version of image files as directly captured from the camera’s sensor. Unlike JPEG files, RAW files are relatively large because they store unprocessed raw image data. You can convert RAW into any other image format, including JPEG.
When to use RAW
There’s more to RAW files than the simple quality image it delivers. Here are some scenarios in which you should call for a RAW image format.
- You’re shooting images with the intent of editing and post-processing (adjusting the white balance, color, and tone) them later with Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop.
- You want to capture images with as much detail or color so you can tweak light and dark shadows later.
- You’re shooting images for commercial and creative purposes.
- You’re a news photographer who wants to capture moving elements with constantly changing scenes, lighting, backgrounds, and subjects.
RAW vs. JPEG: How different elements are affected
RAW and JPEG images react differently to image processing. So, here’s how they each affect the quality of your photos.
Dynamic range (exposure)
RAW vs. JPEG winner: RAW
Shooting in RAW format rather than JPEG makes more sense if you’re prone to over or underexposing an image, and that’s because images contain a more extensive dynamic range and color gamut than the JPEG image format. Using RAW, you can capture a lot of highlights and shadows, especially when an image is under or overexposed. Moreover, a RAW image has better recovery potential than a JPEG image.
The following photo, for instance, was overexposed—and output in JPEG and RAW format. Despite all the modifications made to the JPEG file, it was impossible to recover the image data. You can also see how the adjustments had a slight effect on the quality of the photos. Only the dynamic range of the RAW file allowed a clean recovery.
RAW vs. JPEG winner: JPEG
Unlike RAW files, which need to be processed for finer detail, JPEG images appear sharper and brighter. To explain, JPEGs have better visual sharpness right out of the camera due to the automatic processing done by the camera when the picture is taken.
RAW vs. JPEG winner: RAW
When you subject RAW and JPEG to the same exposure and composition, RAW files tend to have a little more noise than JPEGs. This isn’t a bad thing in itself as noise translates into more detail and raw data to process.
The images below were exposed at ISO 6400 to get a decent noise reduction. When comparing the post-processed raw photo and the JPEG output, you’ll see that the former is noise-free. And even as you continue to smooth the JPEG image (on the right), the quality of the final image is not closer to what you get with the RAW image.
Note that you must apply noise reduction during in-camera processing to enjoy good quality with your JPEG files. The rule of thumb is to keep the ISO as low as possible to avoid noise interference—ISO 6400 is ideal.
RAW vs. JPEG winner: RAW
RAW files typically come out of the camera with less saturation and contrast than the image you see on your camera screen. But after processing, you get much better results. On the other hand, JPEG files have the same saturation and contrast as the image you get off the camera.
RAW vs. JPEG winner: RAW
If you’re dealing with JPEG files, you have to apply the auto-white balance to every picture for a better-quality image. However, there are more preset choices for adjusting the white balance when it’s a RAW file. Meaning there’s more room for adjustment when dealing with RAW.
RAW can also be a game-changer for photographers—especially those doing event photography—as it offers the ability to easily correct white balance during post-production.
Take the following photo, for instance. The original file was too blue due to the incorrect white balance and the weather. After processing, the RAW file provided correct colors, while it was nearly impossible to recover details from the blue channel in the JPEG file.
The advantages of using JPEG
Although it has fewer features than the RAW format, JPEG has many pros. Here are some of them.
Smaller file size
JPEG files are fully processed in the camera—meaning that metadata such as white balance, tone curve, color saturation, sharpening, and color space are pre-integrated into the image.
As a result, JPEG images are much smaller than RAW images. An average JPEG file size is 3 MP, while the average RAW file size is 20 to 40 MB.
Most modern devices support JPEGs. On top of that, all browsers including Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Opera, and Safari are compatible with JPEGs.
Choice of compression
Applications and digital cameras that create JPEGs generally offer a wide range of compression levels with levels ranging from 1 to 12. As a general rule, level 1 gives tiny, low-quality files, and 12 shows the highest quality and most extensive files.
No camera slowdown
Since JPEG files are generally smaller, cameras write them faster than RAW files. It also means you can shoot as many bursts as you want since the camera’s temporary buffer can hold a lot of images. JPEGs also allow you to shoot at higher frame rates and for more extended periods without worrying about your camera slowing down.
The disadvantages of using JPEG
Now, here are the major drawbacks of a JPEG image format.
Because of its “lossy” image compression algorithm, the JPEG standard deletes some metadata to reduce the size of the output file, and it becomes impossible to edit the image further.
JPEG photos also have limited depth (where RAW files record up to 4096 color tones in each channel, JPEG photos can only record 256). That difference results in posterization problems and visible “artifacts” around subjects that may be visible to the naked eye.
Limited to 8-bits
JPEG images—limited to 8-bits—can display up to 16.8 million possible colors. While this sounds like a lot, it’s nothing compared to the potential that image formats with more than 8-bit can offer. In fact, when you save your photos as JPEGs, you get less color and therefore, lower quality photos.
JPEG images have a limited dynamic range and recovery potential because they contain far less data due to compression. It means that if you manage to over or underexpose an image, it’ll be nearly impossible to recover that data.
The advantages of using RAW
RAW beats JPEG on the following parameters.
More range of colors
A RAW file can offer far better color potential than a JPEG file. RAW can contain 12-bits, or 68.7 billion colors or 4,096 tonal values per color channel (Red, Green, and Blue). You can even capture 16-bit RAW images (with 281 trillion possible colors).
Wider dynamic range
From a dynamic range standpoint, RAW files outperform JPEGs, and that’s a fact. RAW files offer values ranging from highlights (whitest white) to shadows (solid black), and that gives you the flexibility to adjust exposure without risking pixelation. For example, if you have an overexposed RAW image, you can decrease the exposure much more than you can with a JPEG image.
Better control potential
The RAW vs. JPEG battle gets very interesting when looking at it from a control and flexibility angle. For example, no matter what your initial camera settings are, RAW images remain “nondestructive” and editable at any time.
In addition, RAW files don’t store camera-specific data only; they also contain metadata (camera manufacturer-specific information) along with the RAW image information from the camera sensor. This data is used for demosaicing, resulting in more accurate pixel values with less posterization.
The main difference between RAW images and JPEGs is the former generally uses lossless compression, which means that all the image data is in place.
The disadvantages of using RAW
RAW is not totally perfect either. Below are the main reasons the RAW format might not always be a good choice for you.
Requires more storage
Because RAW files contain more uncompressed information, they can be 2 to 3 times larger (in terms of computer storage space) than JPEG files. And this goes beyond physical storage like hard drives and memory cards. RAW files can also quickly fill up your camera buffer, causing the camera frame rate to drop.
This is a crucial thing to keep in mind, as storing photos with large sizes can eat up your desktop space faster than you think. iStock offers a wide variety of photo sizes and formats, giving you the option to choose which size suits your needs best while maintaining enough desktop space.
Related: Browse our desktop backgrounds here.
RAW format compatibility
Not all cameras can open all RAW files. If your camera is newly released, you may have to wait a while for the camera manufacturer to update their software so you can open your RAW files.
Longer backup times
RAW images, because of their large size (on average 20 to 50 MB) take too long to backup.
More files to manage
Since RAW files can’t be modified by third-party software, you must store your settings in a separate sidecar (XMP) file. Couple that with the fact that you have other JPEG files to keep, and imagine the number of files to manage.
RAW vs. JPEG—The verdict is clear
Depending on your purpose, both JPEG and RAW formats are great, and we can recommend each in different situations. The verdict here will depend on what we see as a finished picture.
If you’re a professional photographer, RAW should always be your pick because it gives you a more extensive dynamic range and color gamut so you can make your pictures the best they can be.
Another reason you should choose the RAW format is that the JPEG format is less forgiving. While you can take a (somewhat) bad shot in RAW format and tweak it to perfection, JPEGs don’t give you that much of a chance.
However, sometimes all you need is a simple picture, not more. Or maybe you’re not a professional photographer and don’t know how to edit photos. In those cases, you should shoot for a JPEG file format. Here again, JPEG is the ideal format for you.