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Raw versus JPEG: a comparison

By January 4, 2018 Photography No Comments

Ask yourself a question: do you see yourself as a Raw shooter, or are JPEGs more your thing?

Raw and JPEG are the file formats offered by most DSLRs and CSCs when you move beyond Auto, and they basically relate to how your images are saved onto the memory card by the camera.

In general, there are three key differences between the two formats: bit depth, compression, and processing. Here, we’ve drawn up a comparison table to establish the subtleties. But remember that this isn’t a question that you only ask once—you can chop and change from one to the other with every shot if you want to.

Element Raw JPEG
Bit depth Raw files typically have a bit depth of 12- to 14-bits. In its simplest sense, the greater the bit depth, the more colours the camera can record, resulting in smoother tonal gradations and better colour fidelity. The main benefit is that this extra colour allows greater latitude when you process your images. JPEGs are 8-bit files, but don’t let the numbers fool you—an 8-bit image can reproduce 16.7 million colours, which is more than your eyes and brain can manage. However, if you start to process a JPEG too heavily on your computer the image will start to degrade more quickly than a Raw file, leading to a potential loss of quality.
Compression Raw files are either saved to the camera’s memory card in their entirety (‘uncompressed’) or the image data are compressed slightly (using ‘lossless’ compression) so it takes up less space. Regardless of whether the image is compressed or not, a Raw file will take up more space on a memory card than a JPEG. All JPEGs are compressed using a ‘lossy’ process that discards data to make the file smaller. At the highest quality (lowest compression) setting this is unlikely to be noticed, but JPEG artefacts can appear when images are heavily compressed, or a JPEG is repeatedly opened and resaved (as a JPEG).
Processing A Raw file is made up of the ‘raw’ data from the sensor, without any in-camera processing (contrast, sharpness, noise reduction, and so on) applied. Instead, this processing happens on your computer, where you can use Raw-conversion software to make changes to almost every aspect of your photograph (even the exposure can be changed to a certain degree). The emphasis here is on extracting the best photograph from the ‘purest’ image the camera can make. When you shoot a JPEG, the camera processes the image for you, so the white balance, contrast, sharpness, and countless other settings are saved as part of the file. This makes it hard for radical adjustments to be made in your editing software without the image quality suffering, but then you shouldn’t need to—the emphasis here is on getting the picture ‘right’ in-camera so no additional tweaking is needed.
Best for
  • Photographers who want the best image quality their camera’s sensor can deliver, and aren’t afraid to work for it.
  • Control freaks who need their white balance set to the nth degree, exposures within a fraction of a stop, and every other picture parameter set ‘just so.’
  • People who need their images NOW! A JPEG can be printed or uploaded the second it has been saved; a Raw file will need processing first.
  • Impatient snappers who would rather be shooting than sitting at their computer processing yesterday’s photographs (or those from the previous week, month, or year…).

Beyond Auto is Chris Gatcum’s easily accessible guide which will set you free. Unlike other beginners book it does not attempt to explain each and very button, dial and feature on your camera, or explore precisely where each pixel comes from. Instead it concentrates on the key creative controls, including exposure, focus and colour; essential skills that’ll enable you to take the sensational pictures that Auto mode simply can’t.

Beyond Auto, Chris GatcumBeyond Auto
Chris Gatcum

Buy it now!
RRP for print edition: £9.99
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