Raw vs Jpeg, the key to understanding
In order to continue learning the basics of photography, I have been wanting to write an article that’s a little more technical, but so important, for some time now. If you are a reader of my photography articles, you must have often seen that I talked about using RAW rather than JPEG.
So today, I will be talking about this subject which causes quite a stir on the forums and gives goosebumps to purists of the subject… Should you shoot in RAW rather than in Jpeg? If you are new to photography, you may not have paid attention, but you have the possibility to choose the type of image format when shooting. By default, the camera offers to take pictures in JPEG. Personally, I have been taking pictures in RAW for years. After a little general explanation, I will explain the advantages and disadvantages of each format. Let’s go.
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1 - A clarification of the terms
First, I wanted to point out some clarifications. As mentioned in the introduction, both formats are possible in your digital camera. First, you must remember that RAW is not an image format (and therefore not a picture). It is simply the raw data recorded during the shooting by your digital sensor. It’s the equivalent of a digital negative, if you prefer. Back in the day, if you didn’t do this development work in a darkroom, you would be left with a negative (and not a developed photo). The RAW format is the same thing. Not being an image, you cannot get anything out of it without developing it digitally using photo processing software (note that some cameras allow you, through a ” retouch ” menu directly on the camera, to create a jpeg on the fly even if you have chosen the RAW format).
JPEG is a “real” image format directly offered by the digital camera on the basis of RAW. Conversely, it is a “modified format” since it has already been processed by the camera, which has applied the settings predefined by the user. Only the information necessary to display this JPEG has been kept. The format is therefore much more destructive. In other words, the picture has already been processed by the body. RAW processing is reversible since you can’t modify a RAW file as such (I remind you that it’s not a picture!). Moreover, no software offers you to save your image in RAW format).
Here is a small explanatory diagram to better understand this.
2 - Weight, storage and performance
This is the first big difference between JPEG and RAW.
Transfer and processing times
You must realize that RAW files are heavier, much more even than JPEG files depending on the JPEG options selected (in JPEG Low, the image definition is reduced, so it is even less heavy). The transfer time between the memory card and your computer, as well as the processing and display time of the RAW by your camera or software are generally longer than for a JPEG (lighter).
Even though the prices of storage media have literally dropped to such an extent that a 1TB hard drive costs almost nothing today, the fact that RAW is much heavier remains a drawback for storing this type of format on your hard drives and even more so on the web. Obviously, storing JPEG is much easier.
Last point to know, the fact that RAW files are heavier will obviously fill your memory card much faster. It may therefore be necessary to invest in larger memory cards if you shoot in RAW.
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It should also be noted that in some cases (e.g. on low-end compacts and bridges), differences may appear in burst mode between the use of RAW and JPEG. Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, even entry-level, generally do not differ in the frame rate (number of images per second (FPS)), depending on the format). You will be more limited by the buffer (basically the RAM of your camera) and the capacity (in MB – limiting the duration of the burst faster in RAW than in JPEG). On many cameras with a mechanical shutter, it is also the mechanical shutter that will limit the number of FPS more than the file format.
No matter what camera you have now (DSLR or mirrorless camera), recent cameras will show very little difference between RAW and JPEG when shooting.
3 - Sharing, conversion and quality
Other important points to note between JPEG and RAW, the notions of sharing, conversion and quality.
JPEG is known to everyone and is a universal format that can be read by any computer. It is clearly much easier to read JPEG than RAW, even though more and more image processing software programs (even free) tend to be able to read RAW as well as computer operating systems (on Windows, for example since Windows 10, it is possible to display an image from a RAW without additional software). On the other hand, as RAW is not an image in itself, it will be necessary to convert it using a suitable program such as Lightroom, DxO Photolab, Photoshop, Capture One, darktable, rawtherapee, etc. to be able to share your image with the processing you have chosen.
Note that the RAW format is a proprietary format, meaning that each brand offers a type of RAW format (.CR2 for Canon, .NEF for Nikon, .PTX for Pentax…). The brands also offer free software to process your images (DPP for Canon, Capture Nx-D for Nikon etc.), often less powerful and less intuitive than the software mentioned above (they are free, eh!) which can be enough to start learning RAW development. These software programs have the particularity of recognizing and applying the processing settings selected in the camera body at the time of shooting, you can in other words by default convert your images directly to JPEG with these software programs and you will have exactly the same images as if you had shot in JPEG with the camera body.
As mentioned above, the main disadvantage of a RAW file is that it is “unreadable” as it is. A conversion/development step will be necessary via a raw converter/dematrixing software. To put it simply, you will have to import your RAW into a software program in order to process it, just like in a darkroom back in the day, except that it’s on a computer. But keep in mind that from the moment you see an image, a development has been done. When you shoot in JPEG with your camera, the difference is not that there was no processing, but that the “darkroom” work was done on the fly by the camera (a bit as if at the time you had given your films to a photo lab for prints, the camera being a photo lab in a way).
An important point, on certain articles on forums, you will sometimes read that RAW format photos are dull, low contrast and need processing. This is completely false. Since RAW is not an image, what you might see as a duller/non-contrasting image when importing into Lightroom or another software is not RAW itself but a “temporary JPEG” that the software has created by applying default import settings that can be set as you wish… By the way, you just have to import your RAW into a “RAW reader” (such as RawDigger), on the free software provided by the brand or even display them on the back screen of your camera, to realize that Raw and JPEG are identical since they will apply the same development.
One of the great strengths of RAW is that because it contains all the data stored by the sensor (and cannot be changed without converting it to another format), every time you resume a RAW file, you’re accessing all that data again. For example, if you shoot in “JPEG Low” in a definition of say 10MP you will get a 10MP image, if for some reason you want to go back to the original image made by your sensor and its 24MP, you won’t be able to.
The RAW having kept all the pixels at the time of shooting, you can create a 10MP JPEG and then go back to the RAW to create another one identical but at 24MP (except on the RAW “resized” at the time of shooting that we find on some cameras under the name mRAW or sRAW, option rather associated with cameras whose sensors have a very high definition such as the D850 or the 5DS).
Software programs also propose a “quality” setting, graduated differently according to the software (from 1 to 100 on Lr and DxO, from 1 to 12 on Photoshop etc.) which obviously reduce the overall quality of the image to create JPEGS more or less heavy. Once you have created your JPEG (e.g. at a quality of 90/100), you will not be able to resume it to recover the quality that was lost between 90 and 100/100. Since the RAW contains the original data, it will always have 100% of the quality.
Finally, on colors, you will have a much more complete control over them than in JPEG, with possibilities that will be discussed in a little more detail in the next chapter.
The post-processing latitude
This is where RAW really comes into its own, in the processing possibilities. For your information, JPEGs are usually encoded in 8 bits while RAWs are encoded in 12 or 14 bits. The JPEG image keeps only the most essential information (from the RAW) when it is shot, and everything else is deleted. In a RAW format, all the necessary information is kept, which results in many more shades, colors (even if not always visible to the naked eye), and gradients. Processing is therefore much easier in a RAW format. Remember once again that processing on a RAW file is reversible (non-destructive), unlike Jpeg.
The first point concerns the exposure of the image. Having kept all the information from the shooting in RAW (especially the brightness), the processing of the exposure on a RAW file is much more powerful than on a JPEG format. This will be even more noticeable on “bad photos”, for example very overexposed or underexposed. It is much easier to recover details in highlights or shadows on a RAW file than on a JPEG.
Sensor dynamics and colors (in greater number) are much easier to use in RAW, while some of this information has been removed in Jpeg and cannot be retrieved. In other words, when shooting in RAW, you benefit from all the information that the sensor has recorded, which allows you to better exploit the capacities of your camera (which you have paid for…). For analogy, unlike the car you bought which could exceed 200km/h but with which you will be forced not to exceed 130km/h on highways (at the risk of ending up in jail), regarding your camera, no law prevents you from exploiting it fully. On the contrary, especially thanks to digital technology, you have the possibility of going beyond these limitations to better transcribe your vision.
Examples of low-light conditions where it is particularly interesting to shoot in RAW
Regarding the colors, when you shoot in JPEG, these are fixed and the nuances will be removed during the shooting. On the other hand, RAW keeps all this information and you will come back to a wrong white balance much more easily in RAW than in JPEG. Moreover, since this is fixed in JPEG, you will often have to pay special attention to it when shooting because in some cases the cameras are not powerful enough to set a “correct” balance automatically. In RAW, whether the camera is wrong or not will not matter because you can set it later to your liking, allowing you to focus on other more important things. I’m thinking in particular of framing and composition (when shooting), two aspects that are more delicate or even impossible to correct in post-processing.
Imagine that you are given an image that is already colored, if you try to color over it again you won’t get the same result, for example if you color in green an area that has already been colored blue it will become cyan and not green, whereas if the image has no fixed colors yet, you can color this area in green it will become green. In this example you can compare the 1st case with JPEG and the 2nd case with RAW.
Another positive point of RAW, for lovers of black and white, you can completely recover colors on a RAW (just in case) while it is impossible on a JPEG already saved in black and white and on which the color information has been removed, and the possibilities to customize this black and white will be infinitely greater.
The correction of defaults
Last point that I thought would be interesting to note, the corrections of optical defects, especially those of third-party lenses. The cameras do not systematically integrate the corrections. So it seems interesting to be able to edit the photo on the original file (RAW) and not on a JPEG photo.
The management of digital noise is also better managed on a RAW file, whereas working with noise on a JPEG seems more delicate when you know that the camera has already applied a certain amount of processing and that some of the information has already disappeared. To make things simple, the camera uses, like software programs, a noise processing algorithm. This one is generally much less powerful. Thus, on a JPEG with noise reduction of the body activated, the latter will have already been reduced and in a less fine way than in RAW with a software. Thus, you will not be able to redo noise processing without greatly altering the image quality. Another advantage is that with old RAW cameras, or with recent ones that you would keep for several years, the noise processing of these cameras will hardly change over time, whereas that of software programs will be able to, which will allow you to benefit from these improvements (or even on old RAW files that you would like to process much later).
I’m coming to the end of this article. I hope you can see more clearly the pros and cons of each format. Personally, I’ve been shooting in RAW for years and it’s for me the ideal format for anyone who wants to start post-processing their pictures. If you don’t have enough experience and practice on this point yet, but want to get started quickly, I would advise you to shoot in RAW+JPEG, which will allow you to have images that you can use immediately without having to go through a software program, keeping the raw files to get the most out of them the day you decide to process them again more finely, although this solution involves adding the weight of the 2 formats and therefore considerably reducing the number of photos you can take on a single memory card before you have to unload it.
Here is a small summary in table form
The pros: common format, easy to share and read on software programs, lighter weight, ideal if you are satisfied with the “simple” processing of your camera without wanting to modify them.
The cons: less ease of processing (over / under exposure, white balance, colors), compressed image from your camera, no control of your settings, only in 8 bits
The pros: possibility of much more advanced processing, reversible processing, 16 bits, suitable for B&W, ideal if you want to customize your images and even more if you want to do it in several different ways
The cons: heavier, requires upstream processing and conversion on a software to be usable
Do you want to go further? I invite you to read in detail the article on the exposure in photography.
See you soon,