Raw vs Jpeg | A Quick Guide

RAW or JPEG? This is, still, a very hot topic in the photography community.

As in-camera automatic processing gets better and better, some photographers have discussed using JPEG over RAW.

This is a quick and concise article touching on the pros/cons of each and what’s (objectively) best. Let’s jump in.

First off, what is a RAW file?

To put it simply, in photography, a RAW file is simply an unaltered image file. This means a file that has been untouched by any sort of automatic processing, encryption, or compression.

What you have is an image file that is in it’s complete, for lack of a better term, original state. Your camera hasn’t done any automatic editing tweaks nor has it reduced the file size for lighter storage.

A jpeg, on the other hand, has been already pre-processed and compressed by your camera.

For this reason, those pictures that get posted on social media with the caption, “unedited” are inherently false, as every jpeg is automatically processed by the camera itself (whether that be an actual camera or a smartphone).

Panorama of a sunset, showcasing the shadow recovery aspect of raw.

Shooting in RAW

Advantages of RAW

Better Dynamic Range

Shooting in RAW has a variety of benefits. First of which being that the shadows and highlights (the ultra dark and ultra bright parts) of images are much easier to recover. Due to the larger file size, the camera is able to capture a wider range of light (data).

Even if a sky is super bright or some shadows are super dark on the preview image, putting the image into a program like Photoshop and Lightroom will allow you to lighten or darken the image in order to even things out.

Of course, completely blown out highlights (extremely bright parts of the image) are impossible to recover, but dark shadows are able to generally be pushed way up in brightness. A lot of photographers suggest, “exposing for the sky” as shadows are much easier to recover than highlights (ultra-bright parts of the image).

White Balance (Color Temp)

Finally, another great benefit of shooting in RAW is that you’re able to tweak the while balance of images with almost no limitations. Is the image too cold (blue)? Then bump up the colors to give it more of a warm cast.

Too warm? Bring it back down and give it a cool, moody tone. The same is possible with jpegs, but to a much more limited degree.

Disadvantages of RAW

Larger File Size

Arguably the biggest disadvantage of shooting RAW is the substantially higher file size. On my camera, a RAW file is about five times as large as a JPEG.

While this may have been an issue many years ago, storage is now so dirt cheap that I personally don’t think its a huge concern. Solutions such as external hard drives and even cloud storage are now cheaper than they’ve ever been, making the “RAWs are too big!” argument more and more irrelevent.

More Effort

Since RAWs don’t have any automatic in-camera processing, they often come out looking a lot more “boring” and flat versus JPEGs straight out of camera.

Obviously, the point of RAWs is to throw them into post-processing software and make them beautiful, but some photographers enjoy having the instant gratification of a image as soon as they hit the shutter button.

Additionally, for photojournalists/event photographers/etc, the processing time of RAWs can be a huge detriment. In some cases, you need to get photos out as quickly as possible, making JPEG the better choice.

An example of how raw can recover highly contrasted shots.

Shooting in JPEG

Advantages of JPEG

Low Effort

This advantage is really subjective, but it should be noted. I personally prefer to sit down and thoroughly edit all my images, but some photographers are much more interested in the art of actually getting out and shooting, rather than sitting at a laptop moving sliders around.

JPEG allows you to get an image that is “pretty damn good” by just hitting the shutter button and moving on. This makes the file format perfect for casual photographers who just want some quick social media snaps or simple family memories.

JPEGs are Fast

I briefly touched on this earlier, but JPEGs are a great option if you need/want to get photos out quickly.

In the case of a big newsworthy event: publishing photos and getting the content out there is much more important than making sure every image is meticulously edited.

Disadvantages of JPEG

Less Data

JPEGs have smaller file sizes, meaning they simply don’t have as much data to work with as RAW images do.

You can’t push shadows or highlights as far in post-processing, and the file size compression makes for images that just aren’t quite as high quality as their RAW counterparts.

So when should you shoot in RAW vs jpeg?

There’s really not a great answer for this as it comes down to what type of photographer you are. For me personally, I shoot virtually everything in RAW. I enjoy manually post-processing and I appreciate the added control and flexibility that a RAW file can give me. The only downside is the greater file size.

On the other hand, if you don’t ever want to touch editing software, then you can shoot jpeg. In modern cameras, the automatic processing is pretty respectable, and if you’re just shooting casually, it doesn’t matter that much.

That being said, many photographers will agree that one of the biggest skills in the art is post-processing, thus I’d suggest for everyone (especially new photographers) to shoot in RAW as it will aid in the learning process.

A lonely tree in the mountains. Exposing for the sky allowed for a nice, even image.

Hopefully this helped you decide between RAW vs jpeg. If you enjoyed this content, feel free to subscribe to our newsletter or read some of our other guides. As usual, I’d be happy to answer any questions. Thank you for reading. 🙂