RAW VS JPEG - Which File Format is Better?

12 minutes read

This may be a controversial opinion, but you really can edit your JPEG images if you would like to, but should you?
Let’s take a look at a quick comparison between your regular jpg photo files and a RAW photograph file.

Written By
Updated On

All of the data!

So, a single jpg file from a camera, and I’ll use my Sony a7Rmk3 as an example, is around 32mb in size, while the same file in raw format comes in at around 85mb. This is because your raw format typically contains much more information from your camera’s sensor! It’s an uncompressed format (though you can use compressed formats of RAW but we’re not talking about those today) that gives you all of that lovely image information to process after the fact using something like Lightroom or CaptureOne.

raw vs jpeg format

Understanding How JPEG and RAW images are Processed

When you take a photograph and you have set your camera to give you JPEG files of those photographs, the camera exposes the scene and then makes you a JPEG image of that scene, it decides on your contrast, brightness, sharpening, noise etc, whereas when you setup your camera to deliver the RAW files, you get to make all of those decisions on your own, after the fact.

Typically, when you look at a RAW file beside a JPEG file straight out of a camera, you’ll see a more vibrant image in your JPEG file, that’s because it’s essentially a ‘final image’ ready to load straight onto your Facebook for all of your friends to see! The RAW file is just that, raw, and needs developing like photographs did back when we used film!

The image below is a screen capture of my Lightroom with the same photograph, side by side in RAW and JPEG, my camera is set to capture RAW to SD card one and JPEG (Fine) to SD card two, I’ll explain why later. You can see in the JPEG on the left that the timber of my guitar neck and head is much brighter than in the photograph captured in RAW on the right.

image processing of raw and jpeg

Your camera processes the photograph as I’ve described above, making those decisions for you and creating your final JPEG image file, the in-camera processing essentially throws away any file information it doesn’t need and your photo is compressed down into the final image (often called a lossy format) once that ‘extra’ data is gone, you can’t get it back! This isn’t always a bad thing, there’s no hard and fast rule that says YOU MUST SHOOT RAW but there are some really good reasons to consider it and make that choice for yourself.

My favorite reason for shooting RAW is that I always have the ‘originals’ kind of like keeping all of your negatives that your parents stored in shoeboxes (I have them, too!) A good example is that my wedding photographer (showing my age here) was using one of the first digital slr cameras, the mighty 2.6mp Nikon D1, which captured a 12-bit RAW image!

He kindly gave me a handful of those original RAW files and I can open one today in Lightroom and process it however I’d like because I have that original RAW file! I can adjust the image and then export it to a JPEG file.

While I’m not sure my wife would like me sharing my wedding photos, I can share this example! Dipping back into August 1, 2009 I was photographing Linkin Park on stage at the very first Sonisphere concert at Knebworth in the UK, it was the end of the third song and Chester Bennington was standing in almost darkness looking out at the audience.

Going back now and thinking that would make an emotive black and white photograph with a little noise and a crop, and the fact that I was photographing in RAW allowed me to work on the original file and make that change very easily. The original file was from my Canon 5DMk2 at the time, the file is a mere 22.7mb - how times change!

Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington in the dark, I’ve exported a JPEG of the original RAW file to show it roughly as it was before edit

And the re-edited image, again, I can edit it over and over without losing any quality in the original file, all because I Shoot Raw!

Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Sonisphere 2009 © Simon Pollock

As I mentioned, I capture both RAW and JPEG at the same time, there can be times when you simply want to deliver an image right away and you’re happy with the camera making those editing decisions for you, I can give you an example of this from a shoot I had last night! I was photographing a soccer club’s final game, they were expected to win and they did. I captured those celebratory moments and the team manager had asked for a couple of images right away that they could upload to their team’s social media. In this case, being able to WIFI a JPEG directly via my phone to hers is a great option! While It’s true I could have used Lightroom Mobile on my phone, I still had celebrations, group shots, club rooms, trophy presentations etc. to photograph, so it was all about speed and ease of use - JPEG files are perfect for this!

I’ve since loaded all of the RAW images in Lightroom and made my final decisions on which of the 550 photographs to deliver, I’ve been through and performed a first edit and will go back through to do some minor touch ups before exporting to JPEG in a handy size and sending them to the client, but because I photographed the event in RAW, I still have all of the original files to revert to should I need to make any further edits in the future.

But Simon, between RAW and JPEG which file format is better?

And while this is a very valid question, there’s no single correct answer! There are right and wrong answers based on different shooting scenarios. A good example could be a wedding photographer that might offer their clients a package that includes choices of both black and white and colour final prints, if you’ve ‘baked in’ or let the camera choose how those images come out by selecting jpeg in your camera, then you’re very limited in what you can do with those images after the exposure is captured and the file written on your memory card.

You can re-edit them after the fact, even if they are jpeg, but a much better decision would be to capture RAW files in this case. With the RAW file, you can edit both a black and white or a colour final image from the same file, export over and over again with no quality loss, you’ll have lots of extra detail on that RAW file too, this will give you much more opportunity to recover highlight or shadow detail, to adjust your white balance, brightness, contrast etc.

That’s not to say all is lost if you’ve selected JPEG in your camera, you can adjust these things, just nowhere near as flexibly as you could had you chosen RAW.

Advantages of JPEG images - JPEG is just fine, sometimes.

There are a few scenarios where JPEG is just fine and, in some cases, better! I have a good friend who is a sports photographer, he’s one of those ones that you’ll see huddled at the side of a large sporting event with the massive lens and the laptop covered by a funny little tent! He’s capturing the play in as close to real-time as he can and uploading, or ‘filing’ those images right away.

Bigger more modern sporting facilities might allow for more bandwidth and newer cameras can deliver a very large RAW file in no time, but sometimes the editors or people working on your images to get them online are more than happy with a smaller JPEG file. You might have less storage space, your camera’s memory card or your computer’s hard drive (don’t forget to backup!) are all things you’ll potentially have to upgrade if you start shooting RAW files, they can take up a LOT of space.

Advantages of RAW Files - An example of the flexibility of a RAW file!

Let’s look at an example of what you can do with a RAW file when it’s all a little dark! I was asked to photograph the men’s finals for my local soccer club last week, the game kicked off at 8:30pm and at that time, here in Australia where I’m based, it was dark! They have lights at the field where the match was played, but they’re not all that good!

If you look at my settings in the images below, you’ll see I was already at ISO 3200 and what I consider ‘minimum shutter speed’ for the focal length I was at! 1/320th at f/5.6 with a 340mm lens (I was using the lovely newish Tamron 150-500mm on a Sony a7RMk3).

In the first screenshot showing my Lightroom catalog, you can see the original RAW file as it was taken, and in the second screenshot below, I’ve simply clicked the ‘Auto’ button within the Lightroom develop module, this isn’t what I’d normally do! I’d normally tweak and edit by hand, but for this exercise I thought I’d show what’s possible with very limited editing experience!

raw image in Lightroom classic
A RAW unedited image within Lightroom Classic

You can also see in the filmstrip along the base of my Lightroom application the series of darker images and the handful of already edited lighter images. The ability to increase the exposure around two to three stops was a complete life-saver in this case!

image within Lightroom classic
An edited image within Lightroom Classic

Note: Just in case if you ever lose your Photoshop file when you are editing it on Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop, if you have any corrupt or damaged PSD files that is need of restoration, Remo Repair PSD is right here for you.

In summary!

Reading through my article above, you’d be right if you thought that I was more inclined to photograph and save my files in RAW format, I am and I have been doing so for many years. As I mentioned above, I was a live music photographer for many years and RAW saved me on many occasions!  

RAW files are great for the ultimate file flexibility when you’re going to be editing (or digitally developing) your photographs, whereas JPEG files are great for ease of use, quick delivery and are pretty much the photograph file of choice for most websites and social platforms. Now that you have a little more information on how each file format can be used, it will be much easier for you to decide which you choose. Go out and make some great photographs!

Go through this article to find out about the newest image compression standard - the Jpeg XS.

About the Author: Simon Pollock

Simon Pollock is a Melbourne-based photographer specializing in creating content around cameras, photos, and everything around it. You can see his work on popular sites like Digital photography school, Digital Reviews, gtv one, think tank photo, and many more. At Remo Software, he is adding value from his experience to create valuable content.