JPG vs RAW — Why You Should be Shooting RAW

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JPG vs RAW |

Your DSLR camera can shoot in two different picture formats. JPG and RAW. JPG can be likened to a polaroid, once you've taken the picture, the camera processes it, spits out the final picture and it is finished. Nothing more can be done to it. Where a RAW file is more like the digital version of the film negative. You've taken the photo, but you still have to process and finalise the image before printing.

This comparison alone should be enough to convince you that you should be shooting RAW, but because I like my articles to be full of rich knowledge and over explained explanations, I'm going to give you some visual comparisons to help you make up your mind. In this article I will explain the Visual QualityHighlight and Shadow Recovery and Picture Styles.

There are scenarios where shooting JPG instead of RAW would be preferred, like sports photography for example. You may have many, many images that need to be taken, and only slight editing adjustments to be made... if any at all. Shooting JPG will allow you to shoot faster, take more images and will cut down your importing and exporting times in post. Also, if you have a lot of images to take, but won't need to process them beyond a little bit of white balance or shadow/highlight correction, JPG will be your best friend. But for the most part, RAW will be and quite frankly should be, the best and only option.


Visual Quality & Shadow Recovery


Unedited JPG
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Unedited RAW
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I conducted a quick photoshoot to give you an idea of the differences between JPG and RAW. I shot these images with JPG+RAW turned on. This allows the camera to save a JPG alongside the RAW file when I take a shot, giving me a JPG and a RAW version of the exact same file.

On the left is the straight out of camera (SOOC) JPG and on the right is the SOOC RAW file. You can see the JPG has more contrast and the colours are more saturated. Where as the RAW file has less contrast, the colours are dull and there's more detail in the shadow areas.

This is because the picture style (discussed in more detail below) has processed the RAW file in camera and saved it as a JPG. The RAW file hasn't had any changes or corrections made to it, and is the RAW data the camera captured.


Unedited JPG 100% Crop
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Unedited RAW 100% Crop
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Here is the same file again, only cropped in at 100%. You can see that the RAW file is sharper and again we can see that there's more details in the shadows and the colours aren't as saturated (this is a good thing as it gives you more latitude when processing your image).

You might be thinking the JPG looks way better than the RAW file and you might be thinking "Why would I shoot RAW when it's flat and dull?" Well you're correct, the RAW file is flat and dull, but it is supposed to be. The RAW file needs to be processed and coloured the way you want it. Shooting straight to JPG, the camera will apply adjustments and convert the file to JPG when the shot is taken giving you more contrast and more saturated colours, depending on the picture style you're using.


Identical Edited JPG 100% Crop
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Identical Edited RAW 100% Crop
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Here I've processed the RAW file (right) to create a final image. Again, I'm showing you a 100% crop. I then synced both images in Lightroom so the JPG has the exact same edits. You can see the JPG loses fine details in the hair and the colour saturation is far overpowering to the point where colour details are being lost.

The sharpening and noise reduction nearly cancel each other out, resulting in further detail loss. There still isn't enough shadow detail, and if I pushed it any further I would start to see horrible noise and image degradation. Highlights are muddy and toward the grey side on the JPG.

Obviously you would never edit a JPG to this point because you will start to degrade the image quality. This prevents you from taking your edit far and leaving your image close to how is came out of camera instead of truly making it your own. The more you edit a JPG, the less and less the quality becomes.

Shooting RAW allows you to retain the full amount of detail in your image, so you're able to finish the image the way you want it. It allows you to control the sharpening and the compression, and gives you more choice.


Blank JPG Image

Blank RAW Image

Take a look at this comparison. I took a photo without a lens and with the camera's body cap on. Using JPG+RAW these files are identical. I increased the exposure in Photoshop using a Curves adjustment pulling the curve to the top left corner on both of the files and you can see the difference between JPG and RAW.

The JPG image is still mostly black with sharp splotches of noise scattered randomly throughout the image. The RAW file however is almost all colour. This colour is sensor noise. You can see that I was able to increase the exposure so far that I was able to recover so much of the image. The image is of course nothing, but I was able to lift the blacks beyond the point of them no longer being black.

The noise is also a lot cleaner than the JPG. It is consistent in colour and you can see the noise is quite uniform, mostly being in horizontal and vertical lines. This consistency makes it a lot easier to reduce and remove noise in your editor. The noise is also a lot finer in detail, so it is hidden well within your image and is harder to notice.


Highlight Recovery

RAW is also very important for highlight recovery. The two images below are identical, again shot with JPG+RAW. I exposed for the foreground and the shadows, which left the sky overexposed. These images aren't anything special, I've simply shot them to give you a clear idea about the highlight recovery opportunity.

Unedited JPG

Unedited RAW

Again just like the shadows, you can see there's more highlight detail in the RAW then there is in the JPG. It's a bit more subtle for the highlights, but the detail is still there.

In Lightroom I reduced the Highlights and Whites sliders down to -100 for both images then exported them. You can see that I was able to recover the majority of the sky with the Raw file, however the JPG is all but lost. It just goes straight to a plain grey colour with no detail at all. This greying of the highlights in the JPG happened almost immediately.

Recovered Highlights - JPG

Recovered Highlights - RAW


Picture Styles

Your camera can utilise Picture Styles to process the JPGs in camera. Sharpness, Contrast and Saturation are some of the parameters that can be used depending on your camera. So if you're shooting JPG and the images are a bit soft or the contrast isn't strong enough you can use the Picture Styles to adjust the look of the image straight out of camera. Picture Styles don't affect RAW files as RAW files are the raw data the camera captures. They only affect the JPG image.


Some Things to Keep in Mind

RAW files can only be read by specialised software. Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom are two examples. CaptureOne Pro (by Phase One) and Phocus (by Hasselblad) are two other programs that can also read it. RAW files are not a final image format. You cannot give those files to clients and expect them to be able to view them. You must process them in software then save those final images in a format that can be shared; like a JPG or TIFF for example.

RAW files are much larger in size than a JPG so they will take up more room on your computer and SD cards. So you will want to be shooting with larger card capacities like 16GB or 32GB. RAW files can't be altered, instead changes made to a RAW file are saved to what's called an XMP file. These are separate files that are created along side your RAW file when you start making changes in software. So you need to make sure you don't delete those XMP files or move them away from the corresponding RAW file as the changes won't be see in software. This can be combatted by converting them to Adobe's RAW format — DNG —. Keep in mind this also has its own set of problems. — I have an article that explains image formats and discusses this in more depth here.

Do not give your RAW files to your clients. This is more a business tip than anything else. You must edit your images and finalise them the way you want them, it is your work. Clients should NEVER get a hold of RAW files. Keep that in mind.


I hope this article has been an interesting and informing read. If you have any questions or comments to make, comment below. Also, if you’d like to receive an email every time I publish a new post, you can subscribe to my mailing list below.

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