JPEG vs RAW: Which is Better?

Almost all Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) or newer Mirror-less cameras create your pictures in either a JPEG (also abbreviated as JPG) or RAW file format, and in many cases allow the same picture to be recorded in both formats at the same time (two photos). For example, to the right is a picture of what the image quality selection screen looks like on a Canon camera. This camera is set to only shoot RAW.

There are some significant and fundamental differences between the two formats, but one isn't necessarily better than the other. It comes down to what you want to do with the photo after you download it from the camera, and how much creative oversight you want to have.

Untitled photo

RAW Files

The RAW file is an uncompressed and unaltered recording of exactly what the camera's photo-sensor detected. All the bits of data are stored within the RAW file, and because of this, the file size is much larger than a JPEG. The camera applies no post-processing to the RAW image, so the internal camera settings that control lens correction, color, sharpness, contrast, temperature, white-balance, etc are not applied. When trying to open and look at a RAW file on a computer, you usually need special third party software like Lightroom or Photoshop.  Ironically, even though the file is larger and there's more data in a RAW file, they often look bland and unexciting. Not to worry, though. There is a reason for this, which I will explain further down in this article.

JPEG Files

  • River in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

The JPEG file is a modified and compressed alteration of the RAW data from the photo-sensor. The camera uses the RAW file and applies its own post-processing by adding sharpness, contrast, color, vibrance, white-balance, noise reduction, lens correction, and many other things. Most cameras have various settings that can apply different types of post-processing automatically, such as standard, portrait, faithful, vivid, black and white, etc.

After the camera applies the post-processing, it saves the picture as a JPEG. When saved as a JPEG, the camera compresses the photo by removing unnecessary bits of data that don't affect the final image. This reduces the file size considerably, but not the quality (provided you don't compress too much)

Almost all point-and-shoot cameras, including smartphones, save pictures in the JPEG format. Just keep in mind, the camera applies the same post-processing to every picture you take, unless you change it before taking the next photo.

Which is Better?

So, which is Better? Well, it depends on what you want to do with the photo and how much time you want to spend doing it. If you prefer having more artistic control over your photos rather than letting the camera do the post-processing for you, then you want to shoot RAW.

As previously mentioned, the RAW file is uncompressed and contains all the unaltered data straight from the sensor, which means there is a ton more information to work with as compared to a JPEG file. You just can't see it.

As an example, if I were to lift the shadows of a RAW file by +3 stops, save it as a JPEG, then try to modify the JPEG to reduce the shadows back down -3 stops, it won't look like the original. That's because when I saved the image as a JPEG, the unneeded data was permanently removed from the file. This leads to sudden color variations called banding, rather than smooth transitions. 

Although it's possible to post-process JPEG files, less data means you won't have anywhere near the same post-processing capabilities and range. For example, with a RAW file, one can easily lift or decrease the shadows +/- 3 or even +/- 4 stops without any significant loss in quality or introducing noise. Same with exposure, highlights, shadows, white, blacks and much more.

When To Chose?

So you might be wondering why anyone would shoot JPEG. Well, most people are perfectly satisfied with their camera doing the post-processing for them. And most of the time, the JPEG file will look absolutely fantastic to a vast majority of the people who take the photo.

This is especially true if you're on vacation taking hundreds of pictures. It could take months to manually apply your own post-processing to every RAW photo. It's just way easier to let the camera do it for you. Moreover, if you are big into social media and want to post your pictures immediately, you'll want to shoot JPEG because you cannot upload RAW files to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other social platform. Besides, you wouldn't want to because a RAW file looks muted and bland without any post-processing applied.

Shooting in RAW is great for the avid and artistic photographer who wants to greatly customize their own pictures. For example,  portrait photographers do a lot of post-processing as do landscape photographers.  Shooting in RAW gives them a lot more flexibility to dodge and burn, add sharpness, reduce highlights, lift shadows, and much more. But it takes time. There is also a steep learning curve on how to use a program like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to post-process RAW photos, and many people just don't want to learn.