Photography Tutorial: Should I shoot RAW or JPEG?

Should I shoot in RAW or JPEG? 

If you’re starting out with digital photography, and are the proud owner of a new DSLR – chances are that you’ve been advised by well wishers that shooting in RAW is the way to go! This is generally sound advice – but at the end of the day, it’s a decision you should take after understanding what RAW files really are. If you’re wondering which situations require which mode; whether you’ll get different results if you shoot in JPEG and not in RAW & vice-versa and generally what the big deal is… read on! 

But first, let’s understand how digital camera sensors work

A digital camera uses an array of millions of tiny light cavities to record an image. When you press your camera’s shutter button and the exposure begins, each of these is uncovered to collect and store light signals. This is called the camera sensor – and is the electronic version of film. To complicate things, manufacturers usually sell two types of camera sensors: a full frame sensor, which is the equivalent to 35mm film – and a cropped version of this sensor which is usually 70% or so smaller.  

Difference between full frame and cropped frame sensor

  • A full frame sensor DSLR and a crop sensor DSLR have their own advantages and disadvantages. While a full frame DSLR provides a bit better overall quality, a cropped frame sensor is cheaper and works really well for telephoto photography. 
  • Cropped sensor cameras are usually cheaper and make it easier for beginner photographers to afford their first DSLR. 
  • Examples of cropped sensor cameras include the Nikon D7000, the Canon 70D, 60D etc. Examples of full frame cameras are the Nikon D700, D800 and the Canon 5D Mark iii and so on. 



How is a JPEG File and RAW file made??

In todays era, everything is digital and so are the cameras. In the earlier days the cameras used to work on film, which were exposed by lights and the image used to be processed in a photo lab / dark room. Now with the advancements we now have the ‘sensor’ in the camera instead of a film which basically records light (the image we capture) and stores it in the memory card.

When you set the camera to shoot on RAW, the image you capture goes through the processor of the camera and is ‘STORED AS IT IS’ in the memory card. Which means, this is a direct dump of all the pixel data from the sensor – straight to the memory card, ready for processing on the computer later on. In JPEG however – the camera does the processing. The camera automatically processes the RAW data based on hundreds of algorithms developed by camera manufacturers which are stored in the camera memory. Once the little computer inside the camera has selected the best algorithm, it keeps the information it needs and deletes the rest.  

JPEG conversion


What exactly is RAW?
Raw itself means ‘fresh’, ‘uncooked’ , ‘in a natural state’ and in the photographic terms it means the SAME, which is, the image clicked in the camera is not at all processed within the camera, but saved as it is. 

  • RAW files are uncompressed and unprocessed snapshots of all of the detail available to the camera sensor. 
  • This is the reason RAW files come out looking flat and dark (how JPEG and RAW differs). The RAW file has much more data, but needs to be processed by the photographer. (See the comparisons below!) 
  • RAW images need to be viewed and processed using your camera’s software or commonly used software like Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture, etc.


What exactly is a JPEG?

The term stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group,” because that is the name of the committee that developed this format. The JPEG format was developed as the “ideal” standard for images that are both light (have less size) and have an optimal quality. From our perspective as a photographer:

  • A JPEG is a processed form of an image (unlike RAW file format) which not only reduces the file size but also the details in an image. 
  • There is a vast difference in the amount of information retained in a RAW file compared to a JPEG. (The camera only keeps what it needs and discards the rest)
  • JPEG files are processed right within the camera. While colour temperature and exposure are set based on your camera settings when the image is shot, the camera will also process the image to add blacks, contrast, brightness, noise reduction, sharpening and then render the file to a compressed JPEG. 

There’s nothing better than an examples. Notice how the RAW files look so much duller when compared with JPEGs! 

Examples of RAW Vs JPEG Images

These images are SOOC (a lovely acronym for Straight Out of the Camera). No processing done, except saved them for web use. 




So why shoot RAW anyway?

So if JPEG looks so good, why should we shoot in RAW anyway? The thing is – as a professional photographer, I don’t want my camera to do my thinking for me. I prefer to have full control over how I process an image, and not let the camera decide. Also, when I’m shooting in challenging and tricky light, it’s so much better to have more to work with. As the JPEG doesn’t contain any of the original sensor data, there’s very little you can do to recover an image, in case you make a mistake. 

To demonstrate, here’s a little experiment. We deliberately underexposed a shot by 5 stops, and shot it in both RAW and JPEG. Let’s see how they compare when we try and bump up the exposure in Lightroom. 



Now let’s put these together and compare them.


As you can see, the amount of detail we can bring out from the RAW file (even though it was BLACK and completely underexposed) is astonishing. This is an extreme example, but you can imagine how much more flexibility you can keep when editing in RAW.

So, should I always shoot in RAW?

Not necessarily! I’d advise shooting in RAW if you’re doing professional work – you need a lot of memory cards, and ultimately it takes up a lot of space on your computer. Vacation pictures, photos you make on the move and anything else that you don’t consider critical – JPEG is the way to go!

Enjoy Shooting 🙂 Questions? Ask away below! 


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