RAW vs. JPEG: Which is Better?

One question I encounter quite frequently is,

“Can you teach me how to use my camera?”

I usually tell folks that the instruction manual will do a better job since every model and brand are different, but I can help explain more general questions, such as, the difference between ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Another thing I can help explain is the different file formats a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera offers. Most cameras will let you shoot in JPG or RAW. In the end you have the same image but sometimes it’s better to use one format over another.

JPG’s are the most commonly used file. Every photo you see on the Internet is a JPG. It’s the digital image king. When you take photos in the JPG format the file is ready to be uploaded to your Facebook page, with no editing necessary. That said, as a professional I edit every photograph. You won’t find a high-end professional photographer that doesn’t edit their photos before giving them to a client. A JPG, or Joint Photographic Experts Group, is a way of compressing a digital photo file. I am not sure exactly how, in my mind it’s pixel magic, but all you need to know is when shooting in JPG your photos come off the camera already compressed. So once the information is lost, like a photo that is too dark or light, it’s gone forever.

edited jpg

You can see the difference in the photos I have posted. In the JPG version, if you shoot a photo at the wrong exposure the blown out whites can’t be saved. That turns this photo of a special moment at a wedding into trash.

RAW files are a little more complicated to explain but they are the best format to shoot in, if you want to edit every little thing about the photo’s exposure. RAW literally means an uncompressed file taken directly from the camera’s sensor. What the camera saw is what you get. Since it isn’t compressed all of the information is there, even if it doesn’t look like it.

edited raw

As you can see from the photos I posted, you can pretty much correct anything in RAW, except focus and bad composition. Once you are done editing, save the file as a JPG. When you shoot in RAW you are shooting at your camera’s highest quality. Remember you can always make an image smaller or more compressed, but you can’t go backwards. File size and DPI is a whole other blog post, but when you start with the highest quality you can, it’s easy to meet the needs of any client.

The downside to RAW files is finding a program that will allow you to open them. They aren’t a typical photo file and can’t be opened unless you have a program that can handle it. Newer versions of Photoshop will open them without any problem, so will Adobe’s Lightroom. There are also many other free programs out there. All you need is a computer, the Internet and Google to find them.

Most cameras have a RAW + JPG mode, so the camera shoots one image but saves it as a RAW file and a JPG. This takes up a lot of room on your memory card but at a large event having the RAW files can really help, especially when you capture a perfect moment but not the perfect exposure. Learning a new way to photo edit can be hard at first but from my experience I have been really happy with RAW.

Have you played a lot with different formats– which do you prefer?

To learn about the basics of digital editing be sure to check out the online class Shoot It! with Caro Sheridan.

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