RAW vs. JPEG | Understanding your Image Files

Whether you’re a bride who wants to learn a little bit more about file extensions or whether you’re a new photographer attempting to absorb a world wide web worth of information, everyone will get something out of this article.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the term JPEG (or .jpg, .jpeg, JPG, etc.) before.  A JPEG is a type of image file.  An image file is, essentially, an electronic picture.  Although JPEG may be a familiar term for you, perhaps the terms RAW, TIFF and PSD aren’t.  These are also file extensions, like a JPEG is, but not all file extensions are created equally.  Let’s dig a little deeper…

Looking at the topic of RAW vs. JPEG can be described as a battle over control.  If you’re shooting RAW, it’s because you want total control over the photo while if you’re shooting JPEG, you’re actually letting the camera do a lot of the work. 

Digital cameras will edit a photo within the camera itself before saving it to the memory card, this is called “in-camera editing” or “in-camera processing”.  Although the specific functions of in-camera editing/processing can vary depending on the make and model of camera you are using, in-camera processing usually makes adjustments such as saturation, contrast and sharpness.  The camera makes these adjustments to the picture before saving it to the memory card.  This means that these adjustments cannot be undone.

Digital cameras are like mini computers, and like any computer, they contain a processor.  The job of a processor is to take some data and process it into another form, typically a more user friendly form.  If you think of it in terms of food, a raw file would be a chunk of raw hamburger and a camera processor would be a McDonald’s employee (no, I’m not harping on McDonald’s… I actually love the place… it just makes for a great example… but I digress…)  The McDonald’s employee would slap that piece of raw beef on the grill to turn it into a hamburger (processing it!).  The end results are a burger that looks average and tastes like every other burger that comes out of the restaurant.  Nothing unique.  Nothing special.

All wedding photographers, or rather, any professional wedding photography, should (and the good one will) shoot in RAW format.  A raw file is the modern day equivalent of a film negative.  Because the camera does absolutely no internal editing on the photo, the photographer must “develop” the photo electronically (the same way a film negative would have to be developed in a dark room, in order to make a photo appear).  Let’s revisit our McDonald’s scenario again.  When dealing with RAW files (or in this example, raw meat), we skip the McDonald’s employee all together.  Instead, we are the world-class chefs!  We use that chunk of raw meat, add our own spices and seasonings and make our own burger.  The end result is a burger seasoned to our taste and unlike any other burger out there!  The same holds true with RAW format photos.  As a photographer, we keep the file in raw format until we get home and download it onto our computer.  We then become the human processor as we run that file through our editing software creating a unique and artistic photo.

So RAW vs. JPEG is a battle over control.  But what other differences are there?

JPEGS are normal digital camera files.  And when I say ‘normal’ I mean the standard type of files that your average point-and-shoot camera takes.  If a RAW file is a parents, then the JPEG is it’s child.  JPEGs are created from RAW files; just because JPEGs are made from RAW files doesn’t mean a JPEG is the same quality as a raw file.

JPEGs are immediately viewable.  That means that you can shoot a picture with your camera, capture it as a JPEG, plus the camera into your computer 2 seconds later, transfer the file, and view it there too!  Heck, you can even plug your memory card into one of those do-it-yourself printing kiosks and print your jpegs directly from your camera.  When a camera is set to capture a JPEG file, the image sensor acquires raw data, then the raw data is immediately transformed into a JPEG and the raw data is lost forever.  As I mentioned above, if you’re shooting JPEGs you’re letting your camera do the ‘internal editing’ necessary to convert a raw image into a JPEG; this means you’re letting the technologists who designed your camera ultimately decide how your final picture will look.  Even if you are using a manual-shooting mode and setting your own exposure, if you’re shooting in JPEG you still don’t have full control over your images.

JPEG files are a lot smaller than a RAW file.  For example, on my 8GB memory card, I can shoot about 200 RAW photos.  If I were to be silly and set my camera to JPEG though, it would let me capture about 1000-1200 JPEGs!  Because JPEGs are small files, they are the popular choice for point and shoot camera file storage and the type of file format chosen for DVDs of clients images.  Just how does a JPEG become smaller than a raw file, though?  What happens to the JPEG in order for it to make that transformation?

Compression.  JPEGs are compressed forms of the raw data.  Think of what happens if you squeeze (or compress) a piece of foam – it gets smaller.  The same is true for file extensions.

A little bit about Compression

Every digital files in the world is made up of tiny little squares called pixels.  Each and every pixel has it’s own unique colour information.  When you compress a raw image, the computer program will analyze the colour information of the raw photo and “average” some of the similar coloured pixels together into one single colour, thus removing some data but resulting in a smaller image.  Every time you compress a file, you are removing some of the data.

Compression can be a good thing when used properly.  For example, clients would not want to receive 25 CDs of wedding images that are made up of files so huge that it crashes their computer every time they try to view them.  Clients would like average sized files that can be easily viewed; therefore, we compress the raw data into JPEGS for their viewing.

Compression can be a bad thing; however, when files are overly compressed.  Every time you compress the data you’re squeezing more and more information out of it.  You don’t need fancy programs like Photoshop to compress a file, either.  Simple opening up a JPEG image and saving it again causes more compression.  The moral of the story, if you want your JPEGs to stay at their maximum quality, do not re-save them.  As a side-note, this is one of the major differences between pro albums and do-it-yourself albums.  By the time a bride creates a DIY album the files she’s using to create them have been saved a few times and each time she saves it, it loses data.  You can purchase fancy printing options from “high-quality” DIY sites, but it won’t change the fact that your product is being made from compressed files.  You’ll never achieve the quality that a pro album (which is made from original files) can give you.


Let’s sum it up, not as a list of pros and cons, but as a summary of what you want and how to achieve it:

  • If you are a professional photographer and have paying clients you should be shooting RAW in order to maximize your quality and control.
  • If you have the money to purchase the speciality programs required to manipulate RAW photos, then shoot RAW.
  • If you need total control over every post-processing aspect of your photo, shoot RAW.
  • If you don’t want to lose any image data (ie: have a non-compressed file), shoot RAW.
  • If you have lots of memory cards to use, shoot RAW.
  • If you need to conserve space on your memory cards, then shoot JPEG.
  • If you don’t plan on doing any post-processing or editing, then shoot JPEG.
  • If you want to be able to easily share and upload your photos, shoot JPEG.

You’ll see many articles listing the pro’s and con’s of raw and jpeg files and I’ve always found those articles odd because it’s up to ME to decide what I think a pro and con of MY file-types is – I don’t need some article to tell me how to think about my file types!  As long as you understand the ins and outs of your file types you can decide whether or not it’s a pro or a con and what file type is right for you.

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