Raw vs. JPEG: Take the Quiz!

In general, advanced photographers are pretty confident about which file format, raw or JPEG, to use when making images.  But does that confidence have any foundation?  Listening to some shooters spouting off on this topic makes us cringe; there are so many myths and misconceptions around these two settings that beginner photographers must feel overwhelmed.  Well, we’re going to sort through this mess on Saturday at our oopoomoo Talk, Raw vs. JPEG:  Which One is Right for You? This talk is for both beginners and advanced amateurs.  In fact, this talk is for anyone who has told another shooter, “shoot in raw format if you want to be a good photographer”.  Take the quiz below to see if you know as much as you think you do!

Q: Professional photographers only shoot in raw format, and everyone should aim to photograph in this format.  True or False?

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Is this scene better captured in raw or JPEG format?

A: False on both fronts.  Knowledgeable pros photograph in the format that works best for the occasion; part of being a pro is knowing how to get the most out of your camera.  For example, wedding photographers often photograph in raw + JPEG format because this allows them to quickly send hundreds of proofs, the JPEGS, to clients for review.  The pro then processes those raws that are the final selects.

We know numerous pros who only shoot in JPEG format because the images are finished in-camera, and the final results of the shoot are instantly ready to send to the client (who always seems to have a pressing deadline!) Most photo journalists only shoot in JPEG, not only for concerns about immediate deadlines, but also for veracity — the image was captured in-camera and not subjectively massaged in raw conversion software.  Like many pros, we shoot in either raw or JPEG format depending on the context.  When we are shooting for ourselves and want the flexibility to process our images according to our artistic vision, we shoot in raw format. When we are shooting for clients who need fast delivery of accurate results of their products, we shoot in JPEG format. Rarely do we shoot both at the same time because each format requires very different approaches behind the viewfinder.

©Darwin Wiggett

The photo above is from the Talyn Stone photo shoot and Darwin shot in raw format. A large part of the creativity in this shot is done at the time of capture (model pose, lens, location and lighting choices) as most good photos should be, but the flavor of the image has been enhanced in the processing of the raw file (see the unprocessed photo below).

The RAW capture of Talyn

Q: Raw is a superior file format to JPEG. True or False?

A: It depends. There is a myth floating in photography cyberspace that raw is a ‘superior’ format and that only amateurs shoot in JPEG format.  It’s time to leave behind this kind of ego-stroking mentality.  The fact is that there are pros and cons to both formats.  Whether you shoot in raw or JPEG is going to depend on your personality, your interests, your skill level with the camera, your skill with processing software and the final output or goal of an image.  In other words, it’s a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. For example, even if a raw capture gives you more and ‘better’ data to work with, if you captured poor data to begin with, then you’re still going to have a poor output even if you shoot raw. If your processing attempts can’t rival your in-camera jpeg, then why would you shoot anything other than JPEG?

©Darwin Wiggett - JPEG capture

©Darwin Wiggett - raw capture of the same scene

Q: You should bias your histogram to the right to get the best data possible no matter what format you shoot.  True or False?

A: False. The ‘expose right’ guideline is very helpful when shooting in raw format and trying to capture the best data possible. But always ‘exposing right’ for JPEGS is just a bad idea. The reason to shoot JPEG in the first place is to have the camera process the image so you don’t have to do so later at the computer. So, shooting JPEG means you have to capture the best possible data in-camera so the camera can use its processing algorithm to deliver a great result that needs no more processing after the fact. If you are post-processing your JPEGs, then you are not doing all you need behind the lens to give your camera the best data possible. JPEG shooters should not have to do image manipulation after the fact.

The funny thing about shooting JPEGs over raw is that JPEG format demands that you be a better photographer than a shooter using raw format. In short, shooting decisions  such as white balance, picture style, choice of lighting, and use of filters are more critical when the image is finished in-camera than when the data is simply harvested (raw) to be processed later.

Getting a great in-camera, finished JPEG means the photographer actually has to know the fundamentals of photography; raw shooters, on the other hand, can get away with knowing less about basic photographic principles. (We’re not advocating for photographic laziness though!  The more you know, the better your file quality regardless of file format.) So who says JPEG is for amateurs! If you don’t know just how differently you need to expose raw versus JPEG images, then come and learn more at our talk!

©Samantha Chrysanthou- Middle-toned scenes should have an average exposure, right?

Q: If you are just learning how to process raw images, you should shoot in raw + JPEG mode.  True or False?

A: By now, you should guess the direction we’re heading here by debunking these rumours.  This is also false.  Yet we hear photographers advising the hapless beginner to shoot in both modes as a ‘hedge your bets’ kind of mode.  The argument is that, if you shoot in raw + JPEG, someday when you are skilled at processing raw files, you’ll be glad you had that raw file from a year ago because now you can go back and rescue it from the bowels of your hard drive, process it, and win a contest!  There is an exception that proves every rule, so we won’t say that having just this situation happen is an impossibility.  But, realistically, as we’re learning, most of our early efforts are crap…or worse.  (Some of our early images make great instructional slides on what not to do!)

There are some big disadvantages to shooting raw + JPEG when you aren’t skilled enough to process a raw file.  For example, you’ve increased your file storage costs in this duplicate system and, unless you have a very organized file numbering/naming system, you run the risk of de-coupling the raw and JPEG files and losing one or the other of them.  Not only have you increased the cost of storing your images, you’ve also given yourself a headache after spending hours trying to find that darn raw file of your favourite JPEG image!  And how often do we actually go in and play with a raw file after the fact?  For most of us, the answer is probably ‘not often’.  Shooting raw + JPEG also acts as a crutch:  if you really want to learn the control of raw processing, then kick away the JPEG crutch and get processing.

©Darwin Wiggett - raw capture processed in Camera Raw and Photoshop

©Darwin Wiggett - the unprocessed raw file

Q: If you do HDR (high dynamic range) imaging, then raw is the only format to use. True or False?

Of course false. JPEGs captured well in-camera will make great HDR photos. Raw images not exposed well or processed poorly can look terrible:  just check out the garish HDRs polluting Flickr, for example. We constantly see ‘advanced’ photographers who tout the ‘quality’ of raw format yet feed their HDR programs terrible raw captures resulting in noisy, banded, and artifact-laden HDR outputs. Garbage in is garbage out no matter what format you orginally started with!

©Darwin Wiggett - 10 image HDR/Pano from raw files

Finally, there are very different considerations to be made in the field when shooting in raw vs. JPEG format.  The big issue is:  are you exposing for the raw file or the JPEG file?  What is the best capture in the field for one is often not ideal for the other.  Shooting both formats at the same time is problematic. As we mentioned in question 3, if you’re shooting in raw format, you’re going to try to bias your exposure slightly to the right.  But this may leave your JPEG image looking bleached and over exposed.  Yech!  Sure, you can try to darken the picture a bit on the computer, but you won’t be able to play with it too much before seeing a loss in quality.  And if you expose for the JPEG image so that it looks good on your LCD (which is what most JPEG shooters do), chances are the raw image is either underexposed or metered to an ‘average’ of the tones in the scene, and this is non-optimal for a raw file.  Why shoot raw when you come away with poor data?

These myths above are only the most common.  On Saturday, we’ll be discussing:

  • how to figure out which format will work best for your style of shooting and skill-set
  • the pros and cons of raw and JPEG formats
  • how to obtain optimal capture for each format
  • how to best expose for high contrast scenes for both raw and JPEG
  • how to shoot for the best data for HDR images

So if you are puzzled by the raw vs. JPEG debate, then come out on Saturday, Feb. 18th when we will set the record straight!  Please help us spread the word if you know of anyone who would be interested in this topic.  (And if you got any of the quiz questions wrong, come along too so that, next time you hear a photographer spreading these vile rumours, you can correct them!)

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

33 Comments

  1. Kevin
    February 13, 2012

    I’m still developing my skills as a landscape photographer, and have shot primarily in RAW format for post processing. I still believe that shooting in JPEG would limit my ability to produce a final image. I use Photoshop Elements almost exclusively for my processing. Perhaps I still have much to learn?

    Reply
    • Samantha
      February 13, 2012

      Shooting in raw format is a good bet if you aren’t confident at getting the final image in-camera AND you enjoy/put up with some processing time at the computer.

  2. Adrian Stone
    February 13, 2012

    Thank you for this article! I posed this same question (which was better) to a photography group a few weeks ago and the debate was wild and responses varied. You have done an amazing job of laying out the pros and cons of both JPEG and RAW and really helped me to decide.

    Reply
  3. Stephen
    February 13, 2012

    Unless I’m shooting sporting event that has someone else doing the editing for a quick turn around, I personally, am a believer in starting with the raw data. For the times that I need a quick jpg, instead of using raw+jpg for proofing, I like using Michael Tapes “Instant JPG from RAW” exporter to grab the embedded jpg previews..

    Reply
  4. Tom Dills
    February 13, 2012

    I think the main advantage to shooting RAW is flexibility…like slide film vs. print film. The goal should be proper exposure regardless of format, and for purposes that don’t require additional processing, JPEGs are just fine. I prefer RAW because I want the ability to retain the maximum amount of latitude when processing my files and making prints. I know a lot of pros that shoot only JPEG, and a number who switch depending on the occasion.

    Should be an interesting workshop! I wish I was in your area.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 13, 2012

      We agree shooting JPEG is like shooting slide film (gotta get it right in-camera)! Shooting raw is like print film, you get a negative that can be ‘developed’ according to your artistic vision!

  5. Anne Jutras
    February 13, 2012

    Hi Sam, Hi Darwin,

    Interesting subject!. I learned to shoot in RAW and I don’t think I’ll switch to JPG. I love its flexibility and the possibilities it offers.

    However, in my photography club we strongly suggest to shoot in RAW, but many people don’t like the complexity of development RAW pictures. Do you think it’s okay? If they take the proper exposure by checking their histogram., like you explain in your article.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 14, 2012

      Anne,

      A lot of people in camera clubs want to just take photos and they don’t enjoy the work on the computer. For them JPEG is perfect. They shoot and capture their vision in-camera. The camera processes the photo and voila they are done!

  6. hiro
    February 13, 2012

    Again, very useful info and great article. I also think philosophy of the photographers account for the choice of the format. In the film age, for negative-film-shooter, prints were completed works. They believe we were supposed to spend days in a darkroom, struggling with burning and dodging to make own images . Raw is similar, if post-processing takes relatively huge part of the image production, the dull images of RAW files are better. On the other hand, for positive-film-shooter or professionals required to submit slides to publishers had to complete the images at locations by using all sorts of filters, and bracketing. I guess Jpeg should be like this. Interesting finding for me was negative-film-shooters tend to talk about tonality (gradation) and positive-film-shooter focus on exposure. I saw Freeman Patterson’s slide presentation and I was so impressed by perfectly controlled exposure in his images.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 14, 2012

      We agree completely, JPEG is like shooting slide. You gotta get it perfect in-camera. There is no ‘darkroom’ work after the fact. RAW is like negative film. You get the neg and then massage it in the chemical darkroom.

  7. Jen
    February 13, 2012

    This is a great subject — and I will throw in my 2 cents worth here — from the perspective of an “amatuer”. I have in the last few years had it drilled into my brain that yes “all the pro’s shoot in raw”. Following my quest to reach that “pro” status — I always shoot in Raw on a manual setting — and yes — I even enjoy the post processing ! BUT — I was trying to shoot a series of photo’s the other day — in the aim of putting together a panoramic shot– a place I have visited before with the same goal — but have always been unsatisfied with the results. Then I had this crazy thought “why not try it in AUTO mode ???” — and you know what — it worked wonderfully. I guess my point in this is that for me being a good photographer means not getting stuck in the “rules” — and always being willing to try new things or view things differently. I will likely shoot most things in RAW — and I WILL get that panoramic shot someday without the AUTO setting — but I also won’t live by the “have to” rules anymore either !

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 14, 2012

      Jen,

      What a great story. For me that is the real sing of a pro (someone who is adaptable and finds a solution to get the shot)!

  8. Robin
    February 13, 2012

    Sam/Darwin, thanks! Great article. I was a full time JPEG shooter until I got my first iMac! Now I have a terebite to play with I’ve been experimenting with Raw. I think RAW gives me a bit of an edge. I shoot mostly birds and it’s often fast photography, in that you don’t have a lot of time to capture. It may be my imagination, but I think raw gives me better clariy. Also the data gives a bit more wiggle room!
    Cheers to you both

    Reply
  9. Dee Cresswell
    February 13, 2012

    Great article, very enlightening. When I first went digital I was shooting jpeg and I missed my punchy slide film results terribly. Moving to raw has been wonderful. I love the transformation that happens with just a little post-processing. Any more than a little though and it usually means it’s not worth bothering. I accidentally used jpeg for some ice photos last year, perhaps I should revisit them and see if maybe they weren’t a waste afterall….

    Reply
  10. Rita Songer
    February 14, 2012

    Q#3 You should bias your histogram to the right. TRUE ! (also involves your answer to Q#2 is raw a better format?). Half of the information captured by your camera’s sensor is in the brightest exposure “stop”. For a subject that has lights, midtones, and darks you are throwing away lots of data if your histogram has a large “no data” area to the right. The “buckets” of data capture at the sensor are not the same size (smallest capture bucket for darkest tones, largest capture bucket for lightest tones – Before the sensor is saturated with light) This linear data is “cooked/interpreted” by the camera software to make the jpg (AND the camera’s histogram). Note that if your subject has only midtones then your histogram should reflect that. However, if you are underexposing a scene and forcing the little mathematical elves in your camera to produce a well lit jpg version then you are losing detail and adding noise.
    Q#2 JPG’s are 8 bit while even some point and shoot camera sensors capture 12 bit data. The camera software has to choose which data end(s) to leave out of the interpreted jpg. The histogram on the camera back is of the interpreted data (jpg) which generally uses a tone curve set by the camera maker to be biased toward the right as well as color boost and other manipulations of the data. ( The unedited ‘raw’ images can look “dull” on your computer because the default processing is not using the aggressive settings used to make the camera’s jpg, but to “see” a raw it has to be interpreted.) When the camera histogram shows slight to moderate highlight clipping there is generally more usable data to the right in the raw file. My eyes capture/interpret more stops of light than my camera sensor does so I want all the data from my camera (14 bit RAW) to produce a photo that looks more like what I saw. JPGs are also compressed (lossey) files. I always shoot Raw + jpg(fine) leaving the histograms for all 3 (RGB) channels showing on my camera. Hard drive space is cheap compared to missing the best shot. No photo can really capture all the majesty of a beautiful sunrise, but it is fun to try.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 15, 2012

      Rita,

      Great summary of why we need to Expose Right with raw. You have a thorough understanding of raw and JPEG and the differences between them. You could probably teach a course on this 😉

  11. Scott Dimond
    February 14, 2012

    No argument from me that whatever suits the task is the format to use – RAW or JPEG. But what is key, is that you check your settings every time you pick up you camera to ensure you are using the right format for the job. Just as you should always been checking the camera operating mode and ISO before a new shoot, you should be equally diligent to check the recording format. There is nothing worst than discovering, after the fact, that you shot in a less than ideal format for the task at hand. I always try to “reset” my camera back to “standard” before each shoot and then make adjustments from there. Your standard is probably different than mine but you should have your default settings and then work from there.

    And one final opinion on JPEGs being like shooting chrome (E-6, transparencies, positive film). Depending on your camera’s JPEG settings (contrast, sharpening, monochrome, sepia, etc.) your JPEGs could be more like Polaroids (one finished image – no further processing realistically possible) than a colour transparency. It is like having a mini-Photoshop technician in your camera. If you let the camera do all sorts of manipulations with the JPEG, you are restricting what you can do with it afterwards. If you are shooting JPEGs, I would suggest you go light on the in-camera adjustments unless you really know what you are doing/want. Also, I have seen no discussion on JPEG size. That matters as well.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      February 15, 2012

      Scott, great points to ‘remember’, I hate when point one happens to me!

      And yes if you are a hardcore JPEG shooter you need to really think in advance about picture styles and white balance carefully!

  12. hiro
    February 14, 2012

    Good point, Scott. The camera I am using is known to produce poor quality Jpeg images. So my questions are if there is any differences in image character between one maker to another, and differences in mage quality between entry models and professional models.

    Reply
    • Samantha
      February 16, 2012

      Absolutely there are differences. The JPEGs from the Canon Rebel are different than the JPEGs on my Nikon D300s, and the JPEGs from the Fuji x10 and Panasonic GX1 were also different (the Fuji had very saturated, contrasty JPEGs). This is assuming all the settings are to default, i.e. you aren’t comparing a saturated setting with a standard setting. It’s useful to test drive before you buy!

  13. Greg
    February 15, 2012

    Great discussion guys and gals and I agree with all points of course. One thing I am not sure is mentioned is that the only reason to shoot RAW and JPEG is to save a tiny bit of time since a JPEG can be quickly extracted from a RAW so it’s not always necessary to shoot both and you’re not saving a ton of time by doing so since a mass extraction is very fast and also gives you some more sizing options.

    Reply
  14. Kev
    February 15, 2012

    I agree, it’s a horses for courses situation. For landscape I will always use RAW. For say a social event with a fast output Jpeg is the way to go.

    Reply
  15. Jo Ann
    February 15, 2012

    Hi Darwin
    I have a Sony a 500 and there is about 4 different choices on it, one being RAW the next is combo of RAW and JPEG the other is Fine and the last is Standard…
    I’m trying to learn the right way to shoot, I was told by a friend that the Fine is the best, so I have use that one more now then any other BUT I want to Learn which is the better one.

    Please help me…

    Reply
  16. RAW or JPG?
    February 15, 2012

    […] to enhance the image in the computer? Darwin Wiggett and Sam Chrysanthou wrote an excellent intro on RAW vs JPG on their […]

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  17. Milkayphoto
    February 16, 2012

    I tend to shoot in both formats but to be honest, the RAW file is merely a backup that I rarely have to use since the JPEG results (typically) in a great image with little post processing.

    Reply
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  21. slayer
    September 26, 2012

    I always use my nikon j1 10-30mm lens to take food photos in restaurants, unfortunately, some places are dark or have warm yellowish lighting which makes the food looks sad. By taking in RAW format, would I be able to control the lighting to a better colour? (Im a noob in photography)

    Reply
    • Samantha
      September 26, 2012

      Hello, slayer. You can control the colour of your images using raw format, or if you shoot jpeg, use your white balance setting to eliminate colour casts. For example, if people or food have a yellow cast, you are probably under tungsten or incandescent lighting, so make sure your white balance is set to incandescent (usually the little light bulb icon) to correct this cast. Switch your white balance to match the light you are in to eliminate colour casts, or add more colour by trying different white balance settings in different light. There’s no right or wrong, just what you as an artist are trying to portray in your images. Read your camera manual if you’re not sure how to find and change white balance settings.

  22. Karl
    September 26, 2012

    Raw is actually an amateur format. It is a format for use by amateurs who style themselves as ‘professional fine art photographer’ or ‘professional landscape photographer’ etc. Both self-titles are oxymorons. Professionals work to a brief and a deadline. Professionals earn a meaningful, dependable pay check. Professionals light and expose correctly; bracketiing or otherwise. Professionals mostly shoot JPEG. With a minimum of pre-press, these files go to print.

    Reply
    • Samantha
      September 26, 2012

      Hi Karl. It’s great that you support the power of jpeg. We find it even more helpful to avoid the terms ‘amateur’ or ‘professional’ where possible — both just limit one’s thinking. Use the file format that works best for your needs is our message, and the larger point here.

  23. Curso Fotografia Bruno
    August 18, 2015

    THe article: true true true…. I have being felling myself alone in this batle. I always said: if you know what you are doing JPG is a great option!

    Reply

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