JPEG vs. RAW Formats

When most people (non-photographers) buy a new camera, one of the first things they do is go into the settings and see what they can do with it! If it’s a DSLR camera, they often see things like RAW, JPEG, RAW + JPEG, and they have no idea what this RAW thing is so they either choose JPEG, because that’s what they’re familiar with, or RAW + JPEG, because why not have it all?

The people that chose JPEG download the images and go on their merry way.

The people that chose RAW + JPEG download their images and look at the nice JPEG’s, but, more often than not, see companion files with the same name as their JPEG’s, but with weird file extensions like .CR2 or .NEF, the RAW files. Sometimes they’ll have programs that can handle these (the default “Photos”app on Apple computer are able to read these files, but many computers cannot).

So let’s see what exactly these files are before straight up comparing them.

JPEG Files

JPEG stands for: Joint Photographic Experts Group

You can think of these as pictures. That’ll make sense later, but in the digital age, think of them as pictures you can put right up on your digital wall for the world to see!

That’s just useless trivia though. You want to know what they are, right? Basically, a JPEG is a pre-processed, image with lossy (aka. irreversible) compression. It’s a full image right out of the camera (this will make more sense when we get to RAW) that you can just upload, email, text, and show people. It is processed directly in the camera, so no post processing is needed.

JPEG’s usually do not take up much space, depending on the resolution of the camera. They always take up less space than the RAW files that would be created by the same camera, however, without question.

They usually come out of the camera with decent contrast and color. They look like nice pictures, and there’s nothing wrong with them for casual hobbyist photography.

If you’re into taking picture of sports and your camera can shoot in bursts, you’ll get more with JPEG’s! Because they’re so small, the camera can process more at once, so bursts will go further!

They process quicker in the camera, so even if you’re not taking photos of sports, you’ll see that the camera rarely stops you from shooting, whereas RAW files will sometimes choke the camera’s processing and you’ll see a message saying, “Processing.”

Here’s the negative. They’re lossy and compressed. What you see is what you get, with very little give in their ability for post processing work. That doesn’t mean you can’t load them in your favorite image editing software and add silly filters and colors and that sort of thing. It means more about the recovery and flexibility of the image.
If you took a photograph and the sky looks like a big white void, you’re not going to be able to get much back in terms of clouds or blue sky or detail whatsoever.

Being pre-processed in the camera and compressed means that every pixel of the image is assigned an exact color value and that’s locked in. If you planned on using a very high quality program like Adobe’s Photoshop or Lightroom programs and adjusting colors, contrast, and brightness, it will not be a smooth transition. Basically, once a change is made, it is practically set in stone for that image.

As professional photographers value the ability to fine-tune images in post, this file format is not professional standard.

JPEG Pro’s:

  • Small File Size
  • Quick Processing Time
  • Immediate Use
  • Common and Universally Accepted

JPEG Con’s:

  • Extremely Limited Editing Options
  • Lower Quality
  • Lossy, Irreversible Compression
  • Not Professional Standard

RAW Files

RAW files, whether it’s Canon’s .CR2 file, Nikon’s .NEF file, or any other of the myriad of RAW file types out there, this is about them all.

RAW stands for absolutely nothing. It’s a general term for this file type. Each individual type usually stands for something (CR2 = Canon Raw format II) and so forth.

You can think of RAW files like the negatives of the digital age (told you it would make sense). They’re unfinished and need to be tweaked and “printed” into JPEG’s, or other file type, before they can go on your digital wall (or, you know, physical wall if you want to actually print them).

One thing that makes them potentially difficult is that each camera manufacturer has its own proprietary RAW format, as mentioned above. With each new camera, or new model of existing camera, they’ll sometimes tweak the formats and processing of each file, so the software needed to open and use them needs to be updated constantly.

These files are lossless, uncompressed, and unfinished. They have huge potential to be edited and retouched due to the amount of data they carry. RAW files capture all the data possible from the camera sensor, which includes data in extremely bright and extremely dark areas.

The amount of data is what makes them so versatile. You can load a JPEG into Photoshop and pull down the brightness, sure, but it’ll just stay a big white or gray blotch. If you load a RAW file into the same program and perform the same action, you will actually get detail back from these areas.

To show the difference, here’s a quick photograph I took using the RAW + JPEG setting
(Note that JPEG’s created by opening a RAW file and saving as JPEG retain more data that one processed in the camera). They each have the same settings for their edits, the only difference is the format the images were created in.

This image was created from a RAW file. It’s very bright by the lamp, but you can still see the detail and texture on the wall.


Here is the Adobe Photoshop RAW screen showing the settings and, most importantly, the histogram (top right).


You can see on either side of the histogram there are two black arrows. When they’re black, as in the image, they show that nothing has been clipped, meaning it isn’t totally white or black. You can also see the measurements of light and see that nothing has been chopped off at the top. This can happen when you pull the brightness down from something pure white (or up from something pure black) and the data no longer exists below that extreme brightness or darkness.

I did pull them down from very bright and up from very dark to equalize the histogram and make the image look good. Not that this is a very artistic piece, what with my weird little power tower and wires going everywhere.

So here is what the JPEG version looked like with the exact same settings:


Every setting on this image is the exact same as the RAW image, with the exception that it came out of the camera as a JPEG, not CR2 (Canon Raw), as the first one. Here’s the histogram with this one. Keep in mind that every setting is exactly the same.


You can see so many differences in this image from the original RAW one, but look at the histogram for the most obvious part. You can see that everything seems kind of…squished. The part that isn’t squished is the spike you can see at the right, light, part of the spectrum. That’s the section of the white wall that the white light was aimed at with only a few inches between the wall and lamp. It’s extremely bright. So bright, that when the JPEG was compressed in the camera, the pixels were just assigned the color, “#FFFFFF” which is the hex value for white. Pure white.
After I brought the highlights down, you can clearly see where the JPEG file lost its ability to retain any color data. That spike in the histogram shows the part that was just too bright.
You might also notice that the little black arrows are both black, which I said was a good thing. It is. It means that nothing is too bright or dark. And yes, that area is too bright, but since I lowered the highlights, if it were to be printed on paper, it would be printed as a very light gray, maybe with some faint yellow tones, but there would be ink on the paper. If it were pure white, it would be paper, since there’s no such thing as “white ink” in printers.

The other thing you might notice is that the JPEG is a little more saturated. The green in my power tower is more green, the brown of my cork desk is a little warmer. That’s because cameras attempt to “finish” the image for JPEG’s and they’ll add that saturation and contrast by themselves (that’s why a JPEG created from a RAW image will look different than one created by the camera).

So that’s what happens when you try and put a JPEG through the same kind of editing that you might use with a RAW image. The pixels aren’t assigned certain colors, nothing is set in stone. It’s capturing literally everything the camera sensor has to offer, and camera sensors have very powerful these days. They actually have layers on them preventing them from picking up other lightwaves, such as infrared, but that’s a topic for another day.

Of course RAW files have their downside. Nothing in photography is without cost. If you get something, you’ll lose something else. I covered this in the actual image differences in my Low-Light Photography Tips post, but it applies here as well. These image files are bulky. They take up a lot of space. Let me use the image above! That RAW file was 25.2 megabytes. That isn’t a crazy amount of space, but when you think that the JPEG file of the exact same image (literally created with the same shutter click) was only 5.3 megabytes, that’s an insane amount of space. It’s literally almost 5x the size! And this is a 21 megapixel image.
When shooting on burst mode, as for sports, that can really take up a lot of time. You’ll get many less shots when the camera buffer is trying to work on creating several images of that size every second! There are ways to compensate for that, like using a faster camera (the Canon 7D is particularly good for sports) or a faster memory card, or both.

So in essence, you’re trading the convenience of a ready-to-go JPEG with small file sizes for a much better quality, but far larger and less supported RAW file. That’s the trade!

RAW Pro’s:

  • Professional Quality
  • Flexible Editing Options
  • Lossless
  • Changes Easily Corrected
  • More Recovery Options

RAW Con’s:

  • Require More Work
  • Large File Size
  • Require Special Software
  • Cannot Be Used Without Processing

I gave each one roughly the same amount of pro’s and con’s. If you’re taking pictures at a beach party or a backyard barbecue just for some fun pictures to put up on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and you just want to share the fun memories, JPEG is fine! Go for it! Heck, switch the camera to Auto! I don’t know why you would’t just use your phone if that’s the case, but it’s your call buddy.

So read over this article, maybe a few other articles you can find online, or, better yet, play with them yourself! Determine your own needs and what works best for you in your photography-related needs!

But if you call yourself a professional photographer and you’re using JPEG’s, please re-evaluate either your title or file choice.


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