RAW vs. JPEG Explained

Last Updated: Aug 04, 2021

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I often get asked the questions why I shoot in RAW and what advantages shooting in RAW has. Before we get into that, let’s first clarify what RAW means.

Nikon says “RAW image files, sometimes referred to as digital negatives, contain all the image information captured by the camera’s sensor, along with the image’s metadata (the camera’s identification and its settings, the lens used and other information). The RAW file is written to the memory card in either an uncompressed or lossless compressed form.

Nikon’s RAW file format is called NEF, which stands for Nikon Electronic format.

Advantages of shooting in RAW

Ability to change settings after the fact
The main benefit of shooting in RAW, compared to JPEG is that the camera doesn’t bake in white balance, hue, tone or sharpening settings into your photograph. Instead, those settings are stored as separate instructions that can be changed later on without negatively affecting the image. In other words, if you forgot to set the correct white balance while taking a picture it’s not a big deal with RAW since you can change it later on – if you had taken the photo in JPEG you’d be screwed.

Picture quality
The other benefit of RAW is the far greater tonal range (12- or 14-bit) compared to 8-bit JPEG.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the picture quality of a RAW image is significantly and visibly better unless you go down to the pixel level, but it means that your ability to make changes to settings, without negatively impacting the quality of your image is much greater. It’s a get out of jail free card for wrong camera settings.

Disadvantages of shooting in RAW

If shooting in RAW has so many significant advantages, why not always shoot in RAW? Depending on your personal processing workflow, camera model, and storage space you may not, or not always shoot in RAW.

File size
RAW files are much larger than jpegs. The sample image below in RAW is about 10MB; the JPEG version is about 2.6MB. So shooting in RAW fills up the memory card in your camera and your hard drive quicker. So assuming you take 500 pictures per month you’re looking at a difference of 16GB (JPEG) vs 60GB (RAW) you’ll need in storage space.

The larger file size also has disadvantages when operating the camera in “continuous shooting mode.” So depending on the speed, your camera can transfer files from its internal buffer to the memory card (i.e. SD Card) you frame rate may drop for instance from 7 pictures/sec to 5 pictures/sec. Plus the number of consecutive pictures you can take may shrink from 30 to 8. So once the camera buffer is full, you have to wait until the camera has finished transferring the images to the memory card before being able to take another picture.

File Format

To view or edit a RAW file you need special software, such as Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, Adobe Camera Raw or Nikon Capture NX2. JPEG‘s, on the other hand, can be viewed by pretty much any program, even the ones built into Windows. The good news is if you have software that understands RAW you can easily save a copy of your image in JPEG or TIFF.

Additional work for processing

Before you can use any of your RAW images on the web (Facebook, Blog…), print them or share them with friends by email you need to convert them to JPEG or other standard file formats (TIFF, PNG…). If you’re already shooting in RAW, you may have noticed that the JPEG‘s coming out of your camera look typically better than the RAW files. That’s because JPEG‘s are processed by your camera based on your camera settings. That means they have sharpening, color corrections, etc. already applied to make the image look its best – at least based on what your camera thinks is best. RAW images are not processed, so it’s up to you and your RAW processing software (Aperture, Lightroom…) to apply sharpening and corrections. Most RAW processing software has particular camera specific processing settings built-in – so when you import your pictures certain default settings are applied – based on the camera model and profile. Nikon’s Capture NX2 can apply the same settings as you have configured in your camera. Other solutions such as Aperture and Lightroom may not include all settings in their camera specific default profile.

Additional Notes

A nice tidbit Scott Kelby pointed out is, that the preview image you see on the LCD screen on the back of your camera is actually a JPEG thumbnail of the real RAW image (if you shoot in raw) – so the real (RAW) image may look a bit different from the JPEG preview your camera generates on the fly when flipping through the images.

Every camera make and model records RAW images in a slightly different format. So RAW (NEF) images from a Nikon D5000 may use a different file format than the ones from a D7000. So before you start shooting in RAW make sure your RAW processing software support your camera make and model. Most vendors are pretty quick with supporting new camera models when they appear. Aperture, for instance, provided an update to support the new Nikon D4 and D800 only shortly after Nikon announced them. In other cases, you may have to wait a few days or weeks for an update if you buy a brand new camera model.

Also switching between RAW processing software, such as from Aperture to Lightroom, typically means that you lose whatever changes (White Balance, Hue, Tone…) you have made to the picture. So you may have to reapply your changes after the switch.

Also when you upgrade to a newer version of your RAW processing software, the version may come with an updated processing engine (i.e. better noise reduction). Aperture and Lightroom make you aware of such an update and allow you to upgrade the picture to the new processing engine. I’d recommend doing so picture by picture to make sure you’re happy with the result, instead of batch updating all your photos, which could take some time – depending on the size of your photo collection.

When do I shoot in RAW? Pretty much all the time, except when I shoot fast-moving objects and need a high burst rate. If that’s the case and I’m sure about white balance and exposure I switch to JPEG.

Do you shoot RAW or JPEG? Let me know by leaving a comment. Also if you have any questions about this topic don’t hesitate to ask. Remember there are no stupid questions. Also, make sure to check out my tips on how to take better photos with a flash.

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