Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography


Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG

Sedona, Arizona

Sedona, Arizona

I often see questions in forums and magazines about whether to shoot in RAW vs. JPEG, and asking what are the advantages / disadvantages of each. I thought I'd tackle this topic since a lot of what's out there can be confusing. This post is long, but if you take the time to get through it, you will have a full understanding of RAW and JPEG shooting.
First, let me come right out and say it: if you're serious about your photography, you should be shooting in RAW. It's significantly better in just about every way possible. I'll explain:

As I'm sure you know, digital pictures are just a series of 1's and 0's collected together to form an image. There are many picture formats, such as JPEG, TIF, GIF, BMP, various RAW formats, etc. Each format stores the 1's and 0's in its own way. The most common picture format for viewing on the web, and even "general" printing is JPEG...that's what we're all familiar with. But let's backtrack a little and get behind the scenes to how we get to that final JPEG picture, and you'll see why shooting in RAW is so important.

When you take a picture with a D-SLR, the shutter opens and the sensor captures the picture. However, it does NOT capture a JPEG file. It captures a RAW file, which is a digital version of exactly what the sensor sees through the lens, no more, no less. It temporarily stores that RAW version in memory. Here's where the famous choice comes you store the image on your memory card as the RAW file that was just captured, or do you store it as a JPEG? It is NOT the same thing. Here's why:

We know that JPEG files are the "standard" format for pictures, for posting on the web, emailing to friends, etc. We also know that "eventually" every picture we take will probably become a JPEG at some point for that very reason -- so we can share it with friends, put it on websites, and email it. However, when you're taking the picture, I recommend you shoot in RAW and not shoot in JPEG, and there are several reasons why. Firstly, a JPEG version of your picture has been compressed so that the file size is smaller, for purposes of emailing, posting to the web, etc. By compressed, I mean that actual picture information is thrown in the garbage. Picture information that you took the time to capture! When you take the picture, it's stored as a series of 1's and 0's. JPEGs are stored in such a way that a computer chip takes a look at all the 1's and 0's and tries to determine what is not important in your picture, and it throws away that data so that the file size is smaller. This results in loss of detail, subtle changes in color, brightness, etc. The problem is that the computer chip is deciding what to throw out. It may throw out more or less than you want. You may be saying to yourself, "well eventually the picture will become a JPEG and all that info will be thrown out anyway, so what's the problem?" I'll get to that, after I explain what a RAW file is.

A RAW file is an exact representation of what the sensor saw when you clicked the shutter. No information is thrown out. It's all there. All the detail, colors, brightness, everything. The only problem with RAW files is that the format is specific to that camera's brand. A RAW file cannot be viewed on a web page, or e-mailed to a friend for them to just double-click on it and view it. It must be...well...converted into a JPEG by you, manually, on your home computer. say..."my camera could have just done that conversion to JPEG for me!" Here's why that's a bad idea:

A JPEG picture is a "final" version. It is the equivalent of a finished print you hold in your hand. That's the picture you show people and give to people. That final picture is going to have a certain level of sharpness, color saturation, contrast, etc, set to however you like it. If you shoot JPEGs in your camera, you're going to have set the sharpness, saturation, contrast in your camera's menus (that's partly what those shooting modes like "portrait" or "landscape" or "sports" are for...). You may also set the white balance to something like "Sunny" or "Cloudy" or "Candle", to correct the color of your photo for the lighting conditions. Once you snap the shutter, the RAW file is temporarily stored, the computer chip in your camera looks at the settings you've set for sharpness, color, white balance, etc., it converts the RAW file to a JPEG using those exact settings, it then compresses the file by throwing out information as described above, and THEN IT DISCARDS THE RAW FILE. The information and picture detail that the camera threw out: GONE FOREVER. That's it. It stores only the finished compressed JPEG, with the sharpness, colors, saturation, and white balance that you set in the camera. You're done at this point, and it's ready to post or email. There are several problems with this method when you compare to shooting in RAW. I'll explain below.

When you shoot in RAW, you click the shutter, and the RAW file is stored on your memory card. The RAW file is simply an exact representation of what the lens saw. No compression is done, no information is thrown out. None of the in-camera settings for sharpness, color, contrast, white balance are used -- they are all ignored. You have a perfectly pristine copy of the scene on your memory card. Now comes the next step. We already know that in order for the photo to be viewable by other people on the web, or emailed, it must become a JPEG at some point. This step is called RAW conversion. It must be done manually, by you, on your home computer, by a piece of software called a RAW converter that comes with your camera (you can also use 3rd party RAW converters). And THAT'S the beauty of it. YOU are now in complete control of what the final JPEG will look like. Not the camera. There are many advantages of doing the RAW conversion yourself on the computer. Firstly, when you convert to JPEG on your computer, the RAW files stays in-tact and remains unchanged. You can make a hundred different versions of the JPEG from your RAW file, each one tweaked a different way, and you'll still always have the original RAW file to use again. That's why RAW files are sometimes called "digital negatives". It's the equivalent of a film negative, where you can make many prints off of one copy, and make some darker, some brighter, some more colorful, etc. Also, when you convert a RAW file on your computer (vs. in-camera) your computer processor is much more powerful than the chip in your camera. It does a better job of analyzing your picture and deciding what to throw out. You also have control over the compression-level, meaning you can compress it only a little bit, keeping a lot of detail (but resulting in a larger file), or compressing a lot, and having a nice small file to email. You make the choice. The same goes for all the settings like sharpness, saturation, contrast, white balance, etc. You can look on the nice large computer monitor and decide on exactly how much sharpness you want, how much color, etc by simply moving some sliders on the screen. You can see instantly how each slider affects the picture. You can change the white balance AFTER-THE-FACT so that when you get home, you can see that maybe the "Sunny" setting looks better than the "Cloudy" setting after all. Once you have the picture looking exactly how you like it, you press the "convert" button, and voila, you have your final JPEG exactly as you want it. And if you change your mind about the saturation or sharpness a week later, simply go back into the RAW converter, tweak the settings, and make a new JPEG. You always have the option of having the photos exactly how you want them. JPEGs have all this information permanently burned into the picture. If you shoot in JPEG, and accidentally had the white-balance set to Sunny and you took pictures at your daughter's birthday party of her blowing out candles in the dark, that picture is ruined, and the moment is lost. The wrong white-balance would have been permanently burned into the JPEG. Sure you could try to rescue it in Photoshop, but it's not the same, and the quality will be terrible. If you'd shot RAW, you just change the white-balance in the RAW converter to Candle, and the picture is perfect.

In addition, you can use the RAW converter to convert to other formats besides just JPEG. For example, I convert to TIF files for editing. I use the RAW converter to make a TIF file which I can open in Paint Shop Pro. TIF files, like RAW files, are not compressed -- no information has been thrown out. So I convert to TIF and then edit in Paint Shop Pro to do my cropping, converting to Black & White, etc. on the TIF file. This way, I'm working with ALL the information and detail that was in the original picture. When that editing has all been done, then I convert the TIF file to the final JPEG to be used to post to the web or emailed or printed.

You may ask, well why would anybody shoot JPEG then? It's simple. Time. It's quicker. If someone doesn't have the time or desire to do the RAW conversion, then they shoot JPEG. (It also used to be that because JPEGs were smaller than RAW files, you could get away with buying smaller memory cards, but prices have come down so much on memory this is not really that much of a factor anymore). My question is: if you took all that time to set up and shoot the perfect picture, don't you want to take the time to get the best end result? If so, for all the reasons above, RAW is the way to go.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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Copyright 2009, Paul Timpa

Comments (8) Trackbacks (0)
  1. That Sedona shot is amazing.


  2. Thanks Chris. It’s beautiful there… Mother Nature did all the work on that one!

  3. Beautiful scene, thanks for sharing and the jpg vs raw post is well done.

  4. Thanks Rick, much appreciated. Regards, Paul

  5. Thanks! Great article, I did not know there was that large of a difference. Thanks for helping me understand RAW files.

  6. Thanks Joe! Happy to help…


  7. Paul your time and effort and sharing of your wonderful experience and knowledge gives me hope that I can take more wonderful photos and expand with some knowledge.
    Your passion for your work is wonderful and i have seen much of your work on your sites recently.. you are most inspiring
    again thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge … out to take photos :)
    xx Jeanette

  8. Hi Jeanette, thanks so much for your kind and wonderful words. It always make me happy to get a note like yours, and I’m really glad you find the info useful! You are so welcome, and feel free to email any time if you ever have any questions. Thanks again, Paul

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