RAW vs JPEG: Which File Type is Right for You?

Image: Ben Stephenson via Flickr

Plenty of photographers focus on post-processing; it’s the most personal and detail-oriented way to iron out all the details of an image. However, before you even get get to post, there are ways to set yourself up for a more useful, effective post-processing workflow after the shoot is wrapped. If you’ve ever heard a photographer or Photoshop guru talk about RAW vs JPEG, you might be wondering what the big deal is. And you’d be right to wonder; there is a big difference between the two — and they can change your post-processing in a big way.

Put simply: Both file types yield different results. If you shoot your photos in RAW, they’ll come out as all the data processed by your camera’s sensor, with no changes made between the snap of the shutter and when you upload to your computer. The file will be large — which is why many hobbyists and beginners often opt for smaller JPEG files — but it’ll be one that you can process to your liking afterwards. RAW files are highly customizable after the fact.

JPEGs, however, let your camera do more of the work for you; they’re the result of the camera processing all the RAW data on the spot. You can work with that file afterwards, but the processing drops a lot of the data that your sensor originally picked up.

Most people who work with Photoshop prefer RAW files, as they offer you every piece of information that your camera saw – nothing dropped, nothing forgotten. Both images might look gorgeous to the naked eye, but the detail loss can impact or detract from the details of your image.

When it comes to white balance, RAW files tend to be the better options. Instead of worrying about your white balance options on your camera while shooting, post-processing allows you to correct it after the fact. However, there remains a big difference between the two file types. On one hand, JPEG allows you to correct your white balance. But your camera has already processed and corrected it – that means your camera has permanently set the new changes it decided to make. RAW gives you complete flexibility, allowing you to change the white balance as if you actually took the photo that way. As a photographer, this actually gives you a lot more creative control. If you make a mistake at the time of shooting, it allows you to correct any problems that occur or make any changes using all the original data from your camera.

RAW files do have a few disadvantages, though. Since the files themselves are so much larger (i.e., ~4mb for JPEG, ~50mb for RAW), you can’t fit nearly as many photos onto your camera’s memory card when shooting RAW. Though it might sound trivial if you travel with multiple memory cards on hand, it can severely limit how many shots you can take without having to worry about space. A lot of photographers have been in situations when they miss out on a fantastic shot because they ran out of space.

Another disadvantage is your buffer speed on your camera. Since your camera has to work to process bigger data files with RAW, it’ll take longer to do the work. If you shoot sports or wildlife photography, that can impact your camera’s fps.

Like with most things, both file types offer different plusses and minuses, and which you choose to shoot in depends on what you want out of your photography and post-processing experience.

If you’re looking to preserve the most detail while being able to do the best post work on your photos, RAW is the better options. Though you might run out of space on your camera and computer faster, you’re more likely to bring out colors, highlights, shadows, and contrast to your liking with RAW rather than JPEG. Ultimately, photography is supposed to be fun just as much as it’s supposed to be art. It’s important to know your camera backwards and forwards, and knowing your file types can change the way you photograph.

Drew Evans

Drew is a Seattle-based freelance writer. He spends too much time playing music, binging on Netflix, and watching his beloved Philadelphia sports teams.