There has been a longstanding debate in the photography community about RAW vs JPEG file formats. Both have their benefits and drawbacks, so determining which one to use isn’t as simple as you might think.
In fact, rather than thinking about RAW vs JPEG as a single choice to make, it’s best to reframe the question entirely. So don’t think about which format to always use.
Instead, think about when to use RAW and when to use JPEG.
Understanding RAW and JPEG formats
If you’re new to digital photography, terms like “RAW” and “JPEG” might seem a little strange. So what actually is a RAW photo? And what is a JPEG photo?
When you press the shutter button on your camera, it takes in color and light data, then converts the data into a photograph. RAW is one type of file format that your camera can use, and it’s found on dedicated cameras like DSLRs and MILCs.
A RAW file is the unprocessed image data straight from the sensor. It must be converted to a usable image format via a program such as Lightroom or Luminar. RAW files are much larger than JPEG files, and they often don’t look good until they are edited. Therefore, a longer post-processing time is required, and memory cards fill up quicker. But you do get a flexible file that can be endlessly edited to look exactly how you want.
JPEG images are RAW files that are instantaneously converted by the camera into a format that is easy to share. In the process, however, JPEGs lose some of the data captured by the image sensor.
JPEG files have widely used since 1992, and the original intent was to create an image format that was a nice compromise between quality and file size. If you’re old enough to remember the early days of the internet, you know that bandwidth was a precious commodity, and a single image file could take several minutes to download on a dial-up modem. JPEG helped solve that problem and quickly became the dominant format for digital photos. This legacy lives on today, and nearly every digital camera and mobile device can shoot JPEG photos.
So which format is better? That’s a question only you can answer, and it all depends on your photographic goals. But it’s a bit like deciding between a truck and a sedan, a microwave and an oven, or whether to wear shoes or sandals.
In other words, it’s not a question of whether JPEG is better than RAW or RAW is better than JPEG. Instead, it’s about deciding when to shoot in RAW or JPEG and why.
When to shoot in RAW
There’s no question that RAW files offer much more flexibility during the editing process. When it comes to recovering highlights, bringing out detail in the shadows, adjusting exposure, and all other types of edits, RAW reigns supreme.
While RAW does have some downsides, the advantages can easily outweigh the disadvantages.
In general, I recommend shooting RAW in the following situations:
You’re shooting paid photos for clients
When working with clients, you want all the flexibility you can get. The best-laid plans can often go awry, and despite all your preparedness, you can still end up with images that are too dark, too bright, or need severe color-correcting.
This is where RAW excels, as it lets you recover as much information as possible to fix errors or tweak the image to your liking.
You know you’ll be doing extensive editing
If you are shooting in extreme conditions, you’re pushing your camera and your skills to the limit, or you’re even just taking normal pictures that you know you will be editing, then RAW is a good choice.
If I’m taking more than just casual snapshots, I like to err on the side of caution; I’ll shoot in RAW, even if I’m not sure how much editing I’ll be doing.
You might want to edit your images years later
This one is a little tricky, since it’s difficult to predict whether you will or won’t want to edit your pictures years or decades down the line.
Some photographers like to shoot everything in RAW just to be on the safe side. While it’s impossible to predict the future, it’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which RAW files would offer less flexibility than JPEGs or other file formats.
We might reach a point years down the road where machine learning and artificial intelligence are able to give RAW-style flexibility for lossy formats like JPEG, but we’re not there yet. RAW formats are used by world-class institutions like the National Archives in the United States. Such facilities certainly know a thing or two about storing images for the long term, and if RAW is good enough for them, then it’s likely good enough for you.
When to shoot in JPEG
Some people are of the opinion that all pictures should be shot in RAW, but I tend to disagree.
While RAWs do have advantages over JPEGs, there’s nothing wrong with capturing JPEG files if they work for you. Just because some people shoot in RAW doesn’t mean you have to!
In general, I recommend using JPEG in the following situations:
You like the look of your camera’s JPEG files
The biggest advantage of RAW is also one of its key disadvantages; having the freedom to adjust your photos ad infinitum isn’t much of an advantage if you don’t really want to edit them.
All camera manufacturers configure their cameras to process JPEGs with a certain look or style. As such, the straight-out-of-camera JPEG files can look much better than RAW files. And if you don’t plan on editing your pictures, then these JPEGs are probably the better option.
I shot in RAW frequently – until I got my Fujifilm X100F camera. I quickly realized that I quite liked the look of its JPEG film simulations such as Classic Chrome and Provia. Soon, I had stopped shooting in RAW entirely on my Fujifilm, because I just liked the JPEGs better. I could certainly edit the RAW files, but I realized over time that I didn’t want to. I liked the JPEGs just the way they were (and I still do!).
If you like how your JPEG files look, then don’t worry about RAW and keep using JPEG. It doesn’t make you any less of a person, or photographer, just because you want to let your camera do some of the editing for you.
And even though JPEG files can’t be edited as much as RAWs, you can still make some basic changes, such as adjusting exposure and correcting the color. You shouldn’t expect the same flexibility that you’d get when editing RAW files – but if that’s not your goal, then JPEGs will be fine.
You’re capturing casual snapshots of friends and family
RAW files have more flexibility than JPEG files – but if you’re shooting lots of casual pictures or snapshots of friends, family, and everyday life, then RAW just might be overkill.
RAW files take up more space on your memory card, they can be a chore to edit, and they are also difficult to share. The latter is especially important for these slice-of-life photos, and most casual shots don’t really require much in-depth editing, anyway.
When you shoot JPEG files, you lose some of the flexibility of the RAW format – but you gain the ability to easily share photos, and you don’t have to deal with conversions and editing software.
On family vacations, it’s not uncommon to share memory cards before everyone leaves, just to make sure everyone has everyone else’s photos. This is just easier with JPEGs, since every device and operating system works great with the JPEG file format.
You’re photographing sports and fast action
This might seem a little counterintuitive because sports and action shots sometimes need to be edited afterward. It’s difficult to nail the exposure and white balance when shooting some types of sports, which is why photographing in RAW can be useful.
However, it’s not uncommon to end up with hundreds or even thousands of photos after a sporting event, especially if you use your camera’s continuous shooting mode. The sheer quantity of images can turn the task of editing into an arduous process that ends up taking far too much of your time.
As a result, it can actually be a good thing to shoot in JPEG when you know you will end up with a massive amount of photos. You can learn to tweak JPEG settings in-camera, such as lifting the shadows and manually setting the white balance to maintain uniformity across your pictures. This isn’t the same as editing each image by hand, but it’s a lot easier!
The internal buffer on your camera won’t fill up as quickly when shooting in JPEG mode due to the smaller file size. This means you can take more images without waiting around while your camera transfers them to your memory card. Those precious seconds can make all the difference at sporting events or other situations where the action comes frequently and you don’t want to miss a shot.
A Compromise: RAW+JPEG
If you’re still not sure when to use RAW vs JPEG files, just know that there is no correct answer. Whichever file type you choose is fine as long as it works for you.
If you feel comfortable using RAW, then great. If you’d rather shoot in JPEG, go for it. And if you want the best of both worlds, you really can have your cake and eat it, too.
You see, most cameras let you choose a mode called RAW+JPEG. As you might expect, this mode saves both RAW and JPEG files for every shot. It can eat through your memory cards in a hurry, but as long as you don’t mind the increased storage requirements, you can avoid making the RAW vs JPEG decision altogether and just use both formats.
RAW vs JPEG: Conclusion
When I first started getting into photography, I suffered from a severe case of RAW guilt.
I thought that if I didn’t use RAW, then I wasn’t a real photographer, because real photographers shot in RAW. I thought JPEGs were for the unwashed masses and should be shunned by any picture-taker who took themselves seriously. It took me far too long to realize that this type of gatekeeping has no place in photography.
As long as you have a process that works and you’re happy with the result, then don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong. And if you haven’t yet figured out when to use RAW vs JPEG and you’re looking for some advice, then hopefully this article gave you some ideas.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about when you shoot in RAW versus JPEG and why. So share your opinion in the comments section below!