RAW vs. JPEG: What’s the Difference?

RAW images are uncompressed, unprocessed files that retain all the image data so you have greater editing options available to you during post-processing. JPEG images are pre-processed, compressed files that are easily compatible with multiple platforms and devices, making them easier to share. JPEG files are also lower maintenance as you do not have to edit them before sharing them, while all RAW files require some post-processing before they are ready to be shared! The file type you choose will totally depend on what your needs are and what you plan on doing with your photos!

The debate between whether to use RAW or JPEG formats is one that is seemingly never-ending in the world of photography. Some people swear by the RAW image format, while others prefer to use JPEG. Each format carries its own advantages and disadvantages, so it is important that you understand what each format is before deciding which one is better for you!

What is RAW?

A RAW image is an image file (also called a “digital negative”) that contains unprocessed data from a digital camera’s sensor. There are three parts to every RAW image file: RAW data from the image sensor, a camera processed JPEG preview and thumbnail, and all the relevant header and metadata information. As all of this information is unprocessed in the RAW format, RAW images need to be post-processed using software like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop before they can be printed, shared, or shown on a display device.

The RAW image format is a proprietary format that is tied to a specific camera model. In order for software to work with a RAW file, it must be compatible with the camera the RAW image was captured with.

RAW images are not compressed by the camera at all, and so they contain much more information than a JPEG file. When you post-process a RAW image your final product will yield greater dynamic range, superior colours, and much more detail than a JPEG.

Unprocessed RAW Image
Final JPEG Post-Processed in Lightroom.

What are the advantages of RAW format?

1. Far More Shades of Colour

While an 8-bit JPEG file can only contain up to 16.8 million colours, a 12-bit RAW image can contain up to 68.7 billion colours. A 14-bit RAW image can contain up to 4.4 trillion colours, and some high-end cameras are capable of creating 16-bit RAW images that contain up to 21 trillion colours. Since the camera does not compress RAW files, you have access to so many more colours than you would with a JPEG file that has already been compressed by the camera!

2. Wider Dynamic Range

If part or all of your image has been overexposed or underexposed, you have a much better chance at recovering the proper information with a RAW image because the RAW image stores much more information on brightness and contrast than a JPEG file.

3. Finer Control and Adjustment Potential

All image metadata in added to the file, meaning you do not lose any information related to white balance, brightness, contrast, and other adjustments. This means the RAW image itself remains totally unmodified so that you can make changes to the image later in post-processing applications like Lightroom or Photoshop. Since the image is not compressed, you are able to correct issues that would be unrecoverable in a JPEG.

What are some disadvantages of RAW format?

1. RAW image must be post-processed

Since the RAW image file cannot be opened by anything other than specific software, all images must be post-processed in some capacity before they can be shared. This can make it difficult to share images with clients or friends and family as you have to make time to edit them before sharing with anyone, unless they have the correct software to open the file.

2. Requires more storage

While it is good that RAW image files contain so much information and all the unprocessed metadata attached to your photo, this does mean your images will take up a significant amount of storage, and considerably more than JPEG files.

3. Lack of Compatibility

The RAW image format is not standardized like the JPEG format. Only certain types of cameras will be able to read certain types. For example, a Nikon camera will not be able to read Canon files, and vice versa. In addition, not all image-viewer or editors will be able to open all RAW files. If you have a brand new camera, you may also have to wait for software companies to catch up and release an update for their programs before you will be able to open your photos.

See Also:
How To Remove Noise And Grain In Lightroom
How to Install Lightroom Presets
How to Batch Edit Photos in Lightroom

What is JPEG?

JPEG image files use lossy compression for storing and displaying digital images. There are different levels of quality that can be applied when compressing JPEG files, which will impact the overall quality and final size of the image. JPEG files are processed within the camera, unlike RAW files which you must process yourself using post-processing software.

What are the advantages of JPEG format?

1. Image is already processed

When using the JPEG file format, your image is already processed in all settings such as white balance, colour saturation, tone curve, sharpening, and colour space. Because the image has already been processed and compressed, you are also left with a much smaller file.

2. Compatibility

The JPEG image file type is highly standardized across all platforms. This makes it very easy to share your images with whoever you need to without running the risk of them not having the proper software to open the file.

3. No Camera Slowdown

Because JPEG files are much smaller, cameras can write the files much faster than they can write RAW files. This increases the number of pictures that can fit in the temporary camera buffer which means you can potentially shoot at higher frames per second and for longer periods of time without worrying about slowing your camera down at all.

What are the disadvantages of JPEG format?

1. Lossy Compression

JPEG files are compressed and processed within the camera using lossy compression, which means you are losing some data from your photos. This loss of detail can result in posterization issues as well as visible artifacts around subjects.

2. Limited Recovery Options

Because the files are compressed and contain much less data, there are elements of your image you may not be able to fix. For example, if your image has been overexposed or underexposed there may not be enough data available in your image file for you to adjust it properly.

3. Camera Settings Impact JPEG Images

Since the image is already processed within the camera, there are settings that you will not be able to adjust on your own. If your camera sharpens the image, you will not be able to readjust it later. You have must less freedom with the preset camera settings!

Below is an example of how it can be difficult to recover information from an over exposed JPEG file. The first image is a photo with an over exposed sky.

Original image with overexposed sky.

The image below is a version of the original RAW photo that was processed to correct the exposure and colouring of the sky.

Processed from RAW image.

The final image was edited using the exact same steps as the processed RAW image, but the original was a JPEG. As you can see, it was impossible to fully recover the overexposed sky from the JPEG file.