RAW vs. JPEG: Who wins?

rawjpegIt seems to be one of the biggest debates in digital photography–what’s better: RAW or JPEG? Who wins?

Some pro photographers say JPEG: you should always know the perfect settings for a photo. And others say always shoot in RAW: it’s better quality and you have more power to change things later on.

Well, I think both formats have advantages and disadvantages, so rather than take one side for everything, I’ll run through some of the key differences between them, and then suggest when each format makes sense.

RAW

  • allows maximum control in post-processing
  • allows you to change white balance later without any loss of quality
  • allows you to change exposure, saturation, sharpness, curves, etc with less quality loss than you’d experience with JPEG
  • larger filesize means you’ll fill up your memory card faster, and it’ll take longer to download images to your computer
  • can only take a few shots in a burst before filling up your camera’s buffer

JPEG

  • any post-processing will result in quality loss (especially exposure adjustments)
  • smaller filesize means you can fit more on a memory card (usually twice as many), and you’ll download images faster to your computer
  • allows you to shoot significantly more shots in a burst

Why RAW usually makes more sense

It’s important to remember that the JPEG format was originally created to compress images and make them easier to transport over the Internet. JPEG is an image distribution format.

On the other hand, RAW is an image capture format. It was created to give you maximum control in the digital darkroom. To get the highest quality images, this digital darkroom is very useful in making small corrections to the image (e.g. color temperature, curves, etc).

Shooting in RAW usually makes the most sense, if your goal is to get the highest quality image possible. It’s especially important for landscape shots, where white balance is often a problem.

Does JPEG ever make more sense?

With all the benefits of RAW, it may seem like the clear winner for everything. However, there’s one property of JPEGs that may make them the winner in some situations:

With JPEG you can shoot a lot more photos in a burst, than you can with RAW.

This varies with each camera, but as an example, my Canon XTi can only take 10 RAW shots in a row before pausing a few seconds as it writes the photos to the memory card. But, with JPEG the camera can take 27 shots before this pause.

When is this useful? Wildlife. Any time you’re photographing a quick moving subject, you can significantly increase your chances of getting a sharp photo by simply taking more shots.

This is why JPEG is great for shooting birds and butterflies, as they can never stand still for just one second! :)

What do you think?

Have you found another reason to shoot in JPEG or RAW? Do you only shoot in one mode? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains or the Mojave Desert, both located in the beautiful state of California.

Comments

  1. Can we stop calling it “raw vs jpeg”? That just perpetuates ignorance. All digital photos start out raw, and they all must be processed into an image file such as a jpeg to be viewed or printed. Raw and jpeg are both vital steps in the creation of almost all digital photographs. The real debate is in-camera processing software vs out-of-camera processing software.

    Raw is to jpeg as exposed but unprocessed film is to negs and slides. We didn’t need a debate on un-developed film vs developed film, nor do we need a raw vs jpeg debate.

  2. The_Napkin says:

    I think RAW vs JPEG is a fine title seeing as they are settings on the camera. Ignorance is bliss.

    I always shoot RAW. Regardless of when and where I’m shooting, RAW gives me the best opportunity to “save” pictures that were poorly shot. For me, it’s really no contest.

  3. Excellent article. One thing to remember is, photography as an art form is subjective. When creating an image as a work of art and not as an exact duplication of the subject matter, the white balance,color balance, density , and contrast all become dependent on the makers intentions. Shooting in raw gives you much more leway and control than shooting a jpeg.

  4. I shoot primarly in JPEG for the same reason you noted. Faster reading of data to
    memory card. But from time to time I love to shoot landscape, seascape, cityscape and when I do, speed is not an issue so I shoot RAW. Works for me. Thanks for your article. Don Vega :-)

  5. Terri McLellan says:

    I do both. If I am shooting kids activities JPEG, but if I am working on something that will be printed larger than 4×6 and I have the time then it is RAW. Both work for me. Thank you for your article.

  6. I was baffled by the whole RAW/jpeg thing for the first few years I used my DSLR, but now I finally get it. One point that you made that I found particularly revealing was describing .jpeg as an image distribution format and RAW as an image capture format. Kind of makes the distinction even more clear in my mind. Thanks!

  7. Why don’t shoot both: RAW and JPG?
    Nowadays cards are so large, that we all can afford to shoot in RAW. (of course, if you need to shoot fast, and a lot of continuos shoots, then for sure, JPGs, but if you’ve got all time, then definitely RAW)
    JPGs can be nice, but even to prove that it is originally your photograph – show them RAW file :)
    And even if photograph in JPG is perfect, with RAW file you can still improve it (like shadowed parts fill with light etc…)
    Since I discovered beauty of RAW files, I always use this format.

  8. I agree completely with Matt Needham.

    I myself have a 40D and choose to shoot Raw and JPEG together, which allows me to view images at a faster rate (later on my PC)

    Basically the camera produces a JPEG file for me from the RAW file.

    I shoot large RAW and medium JPEG, I only shoot in the creative modes and have the ability to select various other modes to apply to the JPEG image.

    I am a competitive photographer and will view the JPEG’s but as I need larger prints A3 I will spend more time getting everything write in CS3.

    However this does not mean I have anything against the quality of JPEG it just allows me more freedom later on with non destructive editing.

  9. I’m a raw snob and I know it. That being said there are times when I shoot in JPG and that’s either when (1) the camera doesn’t support raw (Canon PowerShot D10 for example) or (2) I’m taking pictures for eBay items when a Medium or Large JPG file works just fine. Otherwise it’s raw and if I can’t capture the moment before buffer fills then I suck as a photographer and need to keep trying :).

  10. Just wanted to say thanks for this great post. I am very slowly working my way to becoming a better landscape photographer and posts like this are very helpful. I shoot in RAW by the way.

  11. Each has it’s benefits of course, and the not so good parts. But, anyone serious about getting good images would place themselves in a position of getting both RAW and JPEG, i.e. using Canon 1D Mark III bodies (and others that do the same) which allow one to shoot RAW on one card and JPEG on the other. This maxmizes the benefit of each format and doesn’t place one in the position of losing the opportunity, especially in the area of wildlife photography or any fast movement object.
    Cheers

  12. @Matt – I agree, that technically the real debate is between in & out of camera processing, but since the option on your camera is to shoot RAW or JPEG, I thought that was a better way to discuss the issue.

    @Terri / Zack- That’s another good reason to shoot in JPEG.. For times when quality isn’t necessarily the #1 goal. Sometimes convenience is the winner :)

    @Vicky / Steve – another great point :) most cameras allow you to shoot a small JPEG and a RAW for each shot.. which lets you quickly preview the JPEGs on your computer, instead of waiting longer to see the RAW.

    Thanks everyone for your great comments! Glad this article generated some discussion :)

    I’m in the process of doing more research on RAW processing and all the little technical details, so I’m looking forward to writing a more detailed report probably next month sometime, here on PN.

  13. Post processing jpg is also faster than RAW: smaller size, less data to change. I haven’t timed it though.

    How often do you need to “save” a photo?

    I shoot jpg most of the time for speed. On the 50D with an Ultra3 card, it’s non stop large/fine jpgs for 90 shots. But primarily for me it’s speed of processing and trying different post processing settings when experimenting with the look of an image.

    Still learning so I’ll also shoot 2-3 shots with different settings, framing and perspectives when the situation allows. I also do not make a living shooting so perhaps do not need the ultimate in end results.

    Has anyone quantified/considered the actual quality benefits? If jpg provides 80% or the potential, is that extra 20% worth it? It is for some, so there really is no “raw or jpg” better. Each for the purpose as everyone has mentioned.

  14. Al Williams says:

    RAW is much more flexible and retains all the information of the captured data. JPEG files are a wonderful means of distribution, but I’ve never thrown away negatives after printing them and I don’t like “throwing away” data by shooting JPEG (with one exception). As an artist, I want to have as much flexibility to develop my images by reprinting them over time just as I did (and continue to do in black and white) in the traditional darkroom. My Pentax K10D shoots 16bit color. 16 bit RAW files must be converted to 8 bit as part of the processing necessary to create a JPEG. Even in a tiny 4×6 print, a “trained eye” can see a difference between a print from an 8 bit JPEG and a 16 bit PSD (Photoshop File). Keep in mind, when I say “trained eye” I’m talking as a former color lab tech who spent a year printing custom color eight hours a day in a traditional darkroom. Most people wouldn’t notice a difference unless you told them what to look for, many not even then. For family photos and my professional portrait work, I shoot in RAW + JPEG setting my camera to produce 2MP JPEG files for quick sharing or proofing. The only time I shoot JPEG only is when I shoot little league sports. Shooting several frames per second from the time the quarterback releases the ball until it reaches the receiver’s hands gets me shots that I just can’t capture in RAW, and I can still crop and get good quality prints from my 10MP JPEG files. If you are are serious about your photography as a means of artistic expression and you want your whole body of work to be able to grow with you as your editing skills become more refined, then you should shoot and archive your RAW files. If you don’t have the time to learn the editing skills necessary to take advantage of RAW or if convenience is something you consider as important as optimum image quality, then RAW is not for you. RAW is more work, but to those with a deep abiding passion for creating images it is a labor of love. With a passion for photography still growing strong twenty years after it was ignited by seeing my first b&w print slowly change from a blank sheet of paper to a photograph, for me it’s a no brainer. RAW, except when capturing bursts, is always better in the end because any RAW file can easily produce a range of JPEG files of different sizes as needed for sharing or commercial printing. You can’t recreate that original RAW data from a JPEG.

  15. Max Young says:

    True, we could go around in circles all day long talking about raw v jpg, but as for me, it’s jpg all the way.

    My 5D Mkii cranks out amazing flower jpgs (with some in-camera tweaking first). Very occasionally, if the light is changing every few seconds, I will shoot raw just in case, but 95% of the time the Canon nails the exposure.

    The critical factor for me is time. The jpg files are huge in themselves – the raw files are humungous, and my oldish macbook takes ages to process each file, so it’s just out of the question. Oftentimes I turn the quality setting down to small jpg (5mp size) which for most things is enough. Heck, I’ve sold tack sharp 30″ x 20″ prints from 6mp files.

  16. Debate? What debate?

    Use whatever works for you. Simple.

    As a part-time college photography instructor, it is all JPEG. I want them to shoot JPEG just like I used to have students shoot slide film — I want to see what THEY shoot, not what comes back from the lab/computer.

    Second, as a free-lance travel photographer that shoots for several travel companies, again, It is all JPEG. It is all about file size. RAW files are huge and the companies don’t like using them. OK by me.

    Plus — and the main reason I shoot nothing but JPEG — I like to get the image in the camera as best as I can. Period. Again, I shot slide film for years and just carrired that over into my digital work.

    JPEG works for me. My website. My e-mails. My editors. My students. My SDHC cards. My Photoshop skills. My computer. My vision. My peace of mind.

    Life is Good. No debate.

  17. Very interesting and easy to read. To me shooting in RAW or JPG is often an issue for a simple reason: I am not always able to access a powerful computer to process my images.

    At home, I have a big iMac that can easily rune several softwares at a time, in these conditions, I find RAW much a better option for all the setting and post process it allows.

    When I travel, I carry a rather old (5 years) laptop. Post processing RAW files is a real pain with this computer, but JPGs are ok.

    That’s why when I am home I set the camera on RAW. When I’m on a trip I try my best to keep the camera on RAW+JPG, and if I really need to shoot a moving subject (which is not at all my main practice but happens once in a while) I set the camera on JPG.

    Last, I just want to add that my D300 never really disappointed me regarding this issue, neither in RAW, nor in JPG. The image quality is really good in both formats.

    Congrats for your work, your site is really interesting.
    Cheers!

  18. I shoot raw all the time.
    Butterflies and dragonflies are my favourite subjects.
    For me, It’s not about being a good photographer. It’s about getting a good photograph.

    I concentrate on the subject, shoot single frames to choose the moment when focus and composition come together, as I don’t want to search through hundreds of images to find my lucky sharp shot. A monopod and flash ensure that most shots will be free of hand shake or subject movement.
    Back home, the main adjustments I make are the same every time, correcting or calibrating the sensor as I see it.
    I have had a very badly exposed shot that recovered enough in Lightroom to be very popular on Flickr, and even used for an online encyclopaedia as a subject header.

  19. retepvosnul says:

    If you need the “power” of raw to “tweak” your image that much that, if you were using JPEG artifacts would show and range would cap out, Then maybe you need to learn to judge the lighting situation better.
    The time and effort needed to reach just about the same result in raw compared to JPEG is madness, pure madness.
    If you really need a wider dynamic range, go HDR and stop being a whining raw adapt.
    Raw apologetics are a industry fabrication used to make the job look more complex then it should be.

  20. JJ McRidinbuddy says:

    I tend to take pics that are once-in-a-lifetime occurances, like snowboarders jumping. I get plenty of burst shots per jump in RAW, and I know that if the shot is killer but the exposure isn’t perfect, I can make the adjustment and make the guy buying that photo very happy. I hate saying “aww, sorry dude. your backside 720 was perfect, the shot was perfectly framed and in focus, but you can’t read your sponsor’s logo because the pic is too dark. I tried to fix it in PS but it came out grainy.” Here, have some free JPEGs, kid…

  21. Claudio R. says:

    Always Raw + Jpg for me (Nikon D300 and D700 + Capture Nx 2 + Noiseware professional). I try always to get the best Jpg “right out of the cam”, without anything to do “later”. If you shoot with nice lens ,with the right exposure, the right color, the right timing and the right White Balance…Jpg will be ok and will not need anything to do “later” with Software!… but sometimes there are exposure or white balance errors… or blown-out highlights or too black shadows…or simply, I might want the photo to look “different” … in this case the Raw is always with me and I can have a second chance ! (This is great!! With film you are DEAD, and with Jpg is easy to create artifacts and loss of quality…. ) . The Nikon Raw , with Capture Nx , has also the ability to change the picture style (i.e. switching from “neutral” to “vivid” or “portrait” etc… ) , and sometimes this is enough for me… a flat and dull shot with the “standard” mode may turn to a great “vibrant” shot switching to vivid mode… Raw + Jpg Mode isn’t fast… but I almost always shot quite slowly, so it’s not a problem. I need a lot of space in the CF cards and my HD’s… this is the only true drawback.

  22. Bruce Stansfield says:

    Hi and great to read the comments, I shoot in both depending on the subject like the AI Williams, but I have a question, I know that each time you alter and save a jpeg you lose some quality, 1.”What format is best to use when working on an image and doing a few saves”? and 2.”what format is best to store images when finalized ie Raw, Tiff or PSD”? and one more 3.”Is there any loss of quality when transferring/copying photo files between hard drives”?
    Thanks, I am an old pro who is “getting digital” in my amateur years.
    Bruce

  23. I am currently operating my fifth digital Nikon, D300. Unfortunately it took myself too long, until possession of the D300, for the use of RAW photography. I did take the writings from one professional photographer who beleives that there is no advantage to shooting in RAW. Totally incorrect in my opinion. You will never need to shoot RAW if all your images are perfectly exposed in each and every way possible. It does take longer to perform in the long run but if you are concerned with obtaining the best detail from your images and losing far fewer images than with JPEG go RAW. A classical example of how advantageous RAW can be is the altering of colors to the exact true colors at the scene. Very very beneficial and to myself worth its weight in gold.

  24. I am currently using my fourth digital nikon and with this D300 I only shoot RAW. The benefits for myself are totally irreplaceable. If everything I photographed was always perfect and never needed any touch-up work I would use JPEG. The advantages of RAW to myself are worth its weight in gold. It is totally amazing to myself why all photographers don’t use RAW.

  25. Great site Steve. Wouldn’t it be nice if camera companies came up with uncompressed jpeg’s.

  26. I shoot both a small jpeg and large RAW all the time. Once the “keepers” are identified, I name, sort and file the small jpegs on my computer for future reference. Any photos I want to process right away are done from the RAW files. All other RAW files are sent to storage on external hard drives and DVDs and filed by date. I tell beginning photographers that, if they aren’t sure that they need to shoot in RAW, they probably aren’t ready yet.

  27. Excellent article!
    I’m a beginner and have tried RAW and JPG, the comments posted here have helped me in compreeção both ways.
    Thank you all!

  28. I’ve read a ton on this subject and the best article is this one. http://enticingthelight.com/2010/06/01/raw-vs-jpeg-an-end-to-the-war/

    It’s like using a flash or not, it’s just another tool. Use raw for certain situations and jpeg for others. That’s what a good photographer does.

  29. I always shoot RAW + Jpeg, just to be on the safe side. In 95% of the shots, I’m quite happy with jpg’s, but there are those times, typically due to bad lighting, that the RAW file has saved my butt by allowing me to salvage the blown highlights. Even shooting birds in flight, the slower write speed hasn’t hurt my keeper rate.

  30. I shoot large fine jpeg mode in Nikon D 200 and result is good.The pictures I shot first in
    this camera is not converted and blocked since Iam not having raw file conversion
    software.If you can send a software other than NX of nikon to my email id downloadable
    it is more welcome.Thanks.

  31. Eric Circuns says:

    I don’t get it!, RAW, JPEG, use whatever makes you happy.

  32. I use RAW in very particular, controlled situations. But on-the-go, or travelling, I like to use JPEG. Why? I can put much more photos on my memory card! The most important thing is composition… I have rarely encountered a situation where I went, “gee, I wish I shot in RAW instead of JPEG.” My colors and exposure came out fine, I tweaked the photos a little, and I think they were perfect, just what I wanted. Next important thing is lens of course, and then anything is fair game after that. If you are a person who loves experimenting with photoshop/lightroom, then I suggest RAW. Just use whatever you feel most comfortable with…

  33. I just accidentally came up with another reason to use RAW + Jpeg. I just got back from shooting some fall images along with a chipmunk. The color was crappy on all of them. So, I used the RAW images and went with those. Upon checking my camera, I saw that I had somehow changed the WB to shady, and I wasn’t in shady situations. If I wouldn’t have also had the RAW images, I would have had nothing to salvage, at least not properly.

  34. John Walton says:

    Hi Vic,
    Seen great bird photos shot in Raw and seen great bird photos shot in Jpeg!
    With my new Canon 7d it takes about 4mins to edit a large raw shot, thats when it doesn’t jam up my pc. When like two days ago I shot 250 bird pictures it takes forever to edit Raw with Canon DPP, even if three quarters are deleated. Adobe Elements 7 won’t take L Raw. Large jpeg is better than medium raw for me.

  35. I try to shoot RAW most of the time, but for sports I’ll use JPEG. I love the control I have in the post process when shooting RAW. Even when I believe I have everything perfect in a shot, I will invariably find LR3 or PS CS4 can improve on perfection!!!

  36. Interesting take on Raw vs. JPG. But it didn’t discuss how these formats effect the destination of photos.
    I shoot for newsprint and when lucky, a slick page mag now and then. I’m also just starting to shoot stock photography for stock businesses. The only destination that accepts JPEG are newsprint publications. (Check out Trail of the Week, stltoday.com for example.)
    – I find RAW converts to TIFF, which is the format of choice for most of my destinations . And a couple of stock photo places want files starting at 25 mb and rising to 125 mb and 360 dpi minimum. And some publications want some other weird stuff that only Photoshop can prepare for their own printing technology and JPEG just won’t stand up to it. The newsprint publications just want 200 dpi JPG and the names spelled right.
    – I like to finish my photos in16 bit color and I’m experimenting with 32 bit color, although I can’t see a difference in 32-bit and 16-bit color. (that 32 bit is one of the wierd things I get.) But in TIFF, it stands out immensely going from 8-bit to 16 bit. (almost not noticeable from 16 to 32 bit, although I’ve been told there are technical reasons to go 32 bit for some publications.)
    – A problem with JPEG is that every time you press the save button, the colors change. Until I learned about destructive editing, I thought I was taking tacky photos. But if a photo requires a couple of generations of editing and sharpening, I’ve been hard pressed to end up with the photo I shot.
    – If you must, Bridge can open JPEGs into the RAW editor.. You can do all of your editing there and output it as a TIFF or DNG and save all the details with no color or tonal deterioration.
    – A last-resort option is to shoot in RAW medium or medium large. I use that for (ugh) sports and I still get some pretty chubby TIFF files as well as the depth of colors that RAW delivers.
    – Another way to use RAW for action is I use my 7D for action because it focuses and shoots faster in both formats. The 5DII is still a tank — albeit worth it for the picture quality it delivers.

  37. As a professional I shoot JPEG most often. Rarely do i get asked for RAW, rarely do I have time to post-process images. A photo editor for an online news media outlet told me amateurs shoot RAW, pro’s shoot jpeg. Another said if you’ve got a life shoot jpeg. It’s like comparing slides versus negatives… get it right in the camera and you don’t need RAW.

  38. I’m a nature photographer and I shoot RAW + Jpeg. I’d say about 95% I never even look at the RAW image, but there are times it has saved my shot. And it’s not because I didn’t GET IT RIGHT IN THE CAMERA, but because the Jpeg couldn’t handle the contrast. I suppose if a person had the time, he could go into the camera functions and set the contrast at the lowest setting. But, that is not practical in wildlife photography because the bird or critter won’t wait. Yep, natural light cannot always be controlled and if it takes the RAW image to recover the highlights, so be it.

  39. After my first photo trip, where I returned with a few hundred snaps all RAW, the amount of time it took to go through them.. process them.. I just moved to JPEG. For the amount of shots I take, JPEG serves better and I just trash what doesn’t make it. As I continue to learn, my keep ratio continuously improves .. straight out of camera. I do PP yes, but < 1 min per snap .. just the levels, crop if reqd and watermark. I'd rather go back and make a second shot or another different shot, then try CPR on an already lost/dead snap

  40. Well, I’ve been using JPEG forever and I am very picky about picture qulity. I take great effort in making sure my shots are taken correctly so I don’t have to be messing with the photo on the computer. I really don’t notice much loss of quality on my photos. I guess it’s because I usually don’t do much to them other than cropping. Steve, if you come across this note, please take a look at my photos an give me your opinion on quality.

    Thnak you.

  41. I always shoot raw 1. get the highest level of quality 2. record greater levels of brightness 3.easily correct dramatically over/under exposed images 4. easily adjust white balance 5. get better detail 6.enjoy non-destructive editing 7. get better prints 8. select color space on output 9.have an efficient workflow 10. it’s the pro option.

  42. Steve, read all the above posts, my comment goes back to the last word in your website, “Naturalist”.
    The order of my priorities for any shot is, Available light, Composition, Shutter speed, Aperture, ISO, and to Tripod or not. I prefer to be a Naturalist. If I give in, then I’ll join the ranks of the Techies, and spend way to much time and money on all the programs needed, which takes away my time from actually photographing my subjects.
    Thanks, still enjoying your site.

  43. Andre Barnard says:

    This might be out of place, but can anyone advice me on the following. I bought a new Nikon D7100. Because I’ve always been a RAW shooter, I took my first photos in RAW. Much to my disappointment my Photoshop Elements version 9.0.3 wouldn’t open the RAW files. Anybody out there with what to do?? I suppose the easy answer is “SHOOT IN JPEG” LOL
    Thanks a lot
    André

  44. Bud Hensley says:

    Several comments have already covered my feelings on this topic. I take adcvantage of my Nikons’ ability to shoot in both formats at once and I shoot RAW and jpeg. That gives me files I can e-mail quickly or spend the time on a computer to get an image worthy of my 13×19 printer and display on a wall that doesn’t have to go behind a sofa or other barrire to keep viewers from getting too close. The only times I don’t shoot RAW is when I need all the burst speed I can get and am sure I will not want big prints or need to make large crops of my images.

  45. JPG means less quality because the compression process reduce part of the image, posterization

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