JPEG vs RAW: The 2019 Version

We already know that professionals shoot only RAW, and it gives more control in the post, and so on. How does that happen? Does it really matter to shoot in RAW always or could JPEG give you equally good results? In this article, we will take a look at JPEG vs RAW and where the “battle” is today.

Why do photographers use RAW when JPEG is the universal image sharing and printing format?

And What is RAW Exactly?

There’s no image format like RAW. RAW refers to the RAW data collected by the sensor of the digital cameras. It records everything as the sensor saw it, without any addition, subtraction, or processing. Yes, we can set presets in camera to view an image like how it will be – but the preview we see in camera’s LCD is due to the camera’s in-built processor.

The RAW format for each manufacturer is different. Canon uses .CR2 while Nikon uses .NEF. Within these particular formats, there are many versions and updates depending on the camera model, release date, and firmware version.

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DNG – short for Digital Negative – was an attempt at creating a universal RAW format. However, due to the market competition, it never really took off. However, you can always convert any RAW format to DNG in post-processing software to share with others – it being lighter and more easily readable in variety of software, while retaining most of the photo information that the sensor recorded.

RAW vs JPEG is a Digital Era Debate!

RAW is what the camera records, and JPEG is the most common format of sharing images. Since we’ve been using JPEGs all over, and it is a common term, we must be knowing about it in details.

So, What Is JPEG Exactly?

The Joint Photographic Experts Group created this lossy format based on compression, and hence the name JPEG. It is a format that allows flexibility in terms of the rate of compression, and the quality visible. For example, the same RAW file can be compressed to a 300kb JPEG as well as a 10MB JPEG, depending on the compression ratio. It also depends on the end-result, with print demanding higher quality and lower compression as compared to the digital medium.

Some of the direct comparisons between the two formats will lead us to:

JPEG vs RAW – Head to Head

  • JPEG is a lossy format, while RAW is lossless.
  • You can share a JPEG easily vs. RAW files that require the receiver to be able to “read” the RAW format through RAW image processing software.
  • RAW usually has less contrast, sharpness, and saturation as compared to JPEG – because it is unprocessed information.
  • You can “push” RAW files more in post-processing vs. JPEG that begins to degrade in image quality relatively fast.
  • Obviously, RAW has a higher dynamic range as compared to JPEG because RAW is lossless.
  • RAW is the starting point, JPEG is the end product. However, some prefer to capture directly in JPEG losing bypassing RAW completely.
  • You can edit RAW images any number of times, without losing image data. It is only when you export the file to another format depending on the file type, and the compression method. JPEG loses information each time you save the file – even if you just rotate the image and save it.
  • RAW image occupies about 3-5 times more space as compared to JPEGs.
  • Shooting RAW is slower as compared to JPEGs, especially when in burst mode.
  • RAW is at least 8-bit, and usually 12-bit and over. JPEG is 8-bit (except for some current day 16-bit JPEGs).
  • Almost every digital camera can shoot JPEG, while only DSLRs and some of the digital cameras can shoot RAW.

So the question is if we are going to see and share JPEG only, why should we shoot RAW? Or another question could be – if RAW is the ultimate format, why doesn’t everyone shoot RAW? Let’s break this up into two categories – those who shoot JPEG vs. those who shoot RAW. And before that, what happens to RAW till it becomes the final JPEG.

The RAW Processing – The Pipeline

RAW is an unprocessed format. You need to process the format in a RAW processing software to take it forward. Some of the big RAW processing software areAdobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop (With Adobe Camera RAW plug-in for handling RAW) or Capture One Pro 12. They are subscription based. Some of the non-subscription based options are Luminar or On1 Photo RAW 2019. Some of the cheaper and lighter alternatives include FastStone Image Viewer (handles basic editing while also can convert images to JPEG and DNG – freeware), Picasa (now discontinued – but an excellent free editing software that could read RAW), RAW Therapee (a freeware similar to Lightroom in function), and so on.

The purpose of RAW processing software is to enhance and process the RAW images so they can be shared and viewed by exporting them as a common image format like JPEG or TIFF. If you shoot in RAW format you have to run your image through a RAW processor, but even though it seem like an extra step, it is most often well worth the effort.

The JPEG Shooters – Events, Sports, Wildlife & Weddings

So if at all RAW is all-encompassing, who uses JPEG, and why JPEG is still an option in cameras? And why do manufacturers invest in creating better processors to provide finer JPEGs? And why is JPEG performance one of the benchmarks for testing any camera? The primary reason why JPEGs are still so important is because of the speed they offer. For professional photographers who have to just submit photos in media, and have to get it updated within minutes – there’s no real time for RAW processing. Rather, they invest in high-end cameras, and high-precision exposure and focus. So when speed is essential both in terms of capture and processing is crucial the JPEG vs RAW choice will tip towards using JPEG.

Sports Photography – Why JPEGs Rule the Roost

When shooting international sports, photographers don’t get time to process images.

Sports photography is one of the most difficult genres of photography – more so because you need to be precise and clear in terms of what you are shooting. It includes framing, exposure, focus, and timing. Sports photographers, especially the ones covering international fixtures, have to directly share pictures from the press box. There’s no time and scope for editing, and therefore there’s no real purpose of shooting RAW. It will only slow down the process in terms of shooting as well as transferring images. Unless shooting for a personal experience and learning, sports photography is about speed and not about shooting RAW and processing images.

Events & Weddings – Too Many Images

Events and weddings are one of the most lucrative photography genres. The regular shooting in weddings requires speed, less consumption of space, correct exposure, and use of artificial lights like strobes and speedguns. This means there’s rare chance of correcting exposure if it goes wrong. Also, despite the affordability of memory cards having increased, there’s still a problem of carrying and changing too many memory cards. And weddings can have 100s of GB even without using RAW, especially with modern day DSLRs high resolution photos and videos. Also, with plenty of pictures – there’s no real scope of editing them all in details as opposed to in fashion. Therefore, only the selected shots get the attention, while most of them are shot well, and then cropped or graded to fit into the theme.

Photo by Terje Sollie from Pexels

Wildlife Hobbyists – Not High on Budget

Wildlife photography is one of the toughest photography genres, and also one of the costliest. The harder an animal or a bird is to catch, the costlier the equipment and the faster the photographer needs to be to achieve the perfect shot. While most of the professional or top-end wildlife photographers today can work with high budgets, and hence afford high-quality equipment to be able to shoot fast even in RAW, it isn’t always possible.

In any case, however fast RAW becomes, JPEG is still faster to shoot. The reason is because of the limited buffer size of the camera. So if a camera shoots 4fps in RAW, it will likely shoot 3fps or so in RAW+JPEG, and 5fps or greater in JPEG Fine (highest JPEG settings). With all the impending challenges of wildlife photography, sometimes an extra frame per second is all it takes to be faster and manage the perfect image. It is especially true in case of bird photography, while shooting action shots.

RAW vs JPEG: Nature photographers on a budget often opt for JPEG

PhotoJournalism

Photojournalism is one of the riskiest genres of photography. They need all the skills of a perfect photographer, along with the skills of running for their lives when needed. To reach that point, obviously they have mastered the exposure part of the photography. Post-processing isn’t their concern, but getting the news out is, and hence they are often allowed to forego the luxury the RAW provides to be slightly faster.

The JPEGs of Today: Another Big Positive

With the manufacturers putting in money to make better processors, mostly to improve their video quality – it has impacted the JPEG quality directly. The reason is simple – the movie files shot in DSLRs are compressed formats. Same is the case with JPEGs. So the processors are made to produce the end result close to perfect. It means often the result you have in JPEG is going to be fine enough, especially if you nail your exposure.

Those Who Can’t Do Without RAW: Whatever the Year!

Despite all the improvements and positives the JPEGs offer today, RAW format is still the King. It is a clear instruction new photographers are handed out with – if you can, shoot RAW. If you can’t, try and shoot RAW. If you don’t know, shoot RAW. If you are learning, shoot RAW. If you are in doubt, shoot RAW. In worst case, you can shoot RAW+JPEG, but RAW is the almighty of image formats for digital camera users. In a few photography genres, the debate between JPEG vs. RAW is not really as prominemt, because the choice is fairly clear.

Some of the genres where RAW is absolutely mandatory are:

Fashion Photography – The Devil is in the Details, and Post-Processing

JPEG vs RAW: In fashion photography RAW is the only option

The worst thing about a JPEG format is that it loses quality each time someone opens the image, and saves it again – even if there’s nothing done. Fashion photography involves retouching and editing many times, with so many edits based on client feedback, and so on. The details, the dynamic range, everything that RAW offers becomes a premium. Also, being lossless, it can be used from scratch anytime some edit goes wrong. Fashion photography is about quality over quantity. The pixel count, the details, the dynamic range – all these are important factors shooting Fashion. It is perhaps one of the few genres that is least threatened by mobile photography and mirrorless for the same reason, and respects large-format and medium format cameras all-the-same.

Product Photography – Selling a Product via Images

Product photography is where you are selling the product based on images. There is very little that is allowed to go wrong. Often, the product shots will be difficult, sometimes almost impossible to get completely right. Try shooting white products on white background, or black products on black backgrounds, and you will understand. Apart from perfect lights and exposure, you will need an assistance from retouching. The higher you go, the more the demand for better quality becomes, and hence higher the stakes.

Photo by Irina Edilbaeva from Pexels

Astrophotography

Astrophotography is perhaps one of the genres of photography that undergoes extensive image editing. To be able to achieve that, you need to have the luxury of RAW format. Also, the problem with astrophotography is that you cannot really see the results. Most of the times, you are actually looking at the exposure meters, and still second guessing. Milky way is perhaps one subject that can never be shot in JPEG. It isn’t for the purists – the ones who use straight-out-of-camera images with minor cropping. The same goes for star trails. Even though it is going to be stacked later, the image in itself requires work before the stacking process is undertaken. Most of the times, it is about editing one image, syncing it with others, and then using for further processing.

One can’t possibly shoot Milky Way in a JPEG Format!

JPEG VS RAW: Concluding words

So what is the standing between JPEG vs RAW today? Practically all the genres of photography would work best if you shoot RAW. The possible exceptions to shooting RAW involve photographers who know what they are doing – and hence are experts themselves.

For all others, it is ideally best to shoot RAW and learn more. It is especially true for those of you just starting out in the field of photography, and those who still get the exposure wrong sometimes. RAW format is there to help us get past those mistakes we make while shooting, or cover up for impossible situations where exposing the scene can be truly tricky.

Let us know in the comments which format you prefer to use, and why? RAW vs JPEG?

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Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape, nature and macro photography. I hope you enjoy the site 🙂
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Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape, nature and macro photography. I hope you enjoy the site 🙂
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4 thoughts on “JPEG vs RAW: The 2019 Version”

  1. Hi Craig,

    Cool image with high contrast. I like it. RAW gives a bit of extra safety and room for being uncertain about which settings to use. It is also my go to setting.

  2. Some cameras, like my new Sony give an option to shoot both RAW and JPEG. It can hold two cards. That gives me a wider choice of what to use as the camera does both formats to either card.

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