The difference between the JPG and RAW formats on your camera is like making a cake. You can either buy the pre-made cake mix or purchase the ingredients separately and make it from scratch. If you’re good at baking cakes, either option could work out great, but everything depends on what you want to achieve, the time you have for cooking, and the equipment you have.

The JPG format is the cake mix. It has a certain number of ingredients that don’t need altering, because the formula is pre-prepared and you just have to mix everything together and put it in the oven.

On the other hand, baking a cake from scratch requires more time, work, and ingredients. That makes it similar to what happens with the RAW format. Both cakes can be incredible, and both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s see what those differences are and which format suits you best.

Table of Contents

  1. JPG and RAW. What are they?
  2. Dynamic range. Editing and digital development possibilities
  3. Color and sharpness. More information, more colors
  4. Metadata. Photo birth certificate
  5. Final comparison. Which format wins?
  6. Summary and tips
    1. When do I use JPG?
    2. When do I use RAW?

JPG and RAW. What are they?

To begin, let’s quickly explain what these letters actually stand for.

JPG or JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, which is the name of the expert committee that created this standard for file and image compression and encoding.

The RAW format is a term from analog photography for exposed but undeveloped film, which are also known as negatives. The file format was given this name because it isn’t compressed and contains all the information from the image as it was captured by the camera sensor.

DSC00001 JPG and RAW: Pros, Cons, and Which Format Suits What You're Doing Best

Let’s go back to the cake example. The JPG method compresses images into a universal format. It’s the one you use every day when you share an image of your puppy on WhatsApp, for example. This image has all the default “ingredients”, like in the cake mix. Conversely, the RAW format is a raw image that you can prepare to your liking.

Let’s see how they differ so you have a better idea when deciding which one to use.

Dynamic range. Editing and digital development possibilities

This value measures the difference in brightness between the brightest and darkest areas of the photo. That is the amount of information the camera can capture from highlights and shadows.

The JPG format collects a smaller amount of information than the RAW format. Look at the difference in these examples:

You should notice that the RAW photo looks much darker. This is due to the RAW image having much more shadow information than the JPG. The scenery in JPG was previously compressed by the camera, while the one that was saved in RAW format remains in a raw state, it has to be “baked” so to speak.

This baking of the raw information is carried out in a process called “digital development”. It’s another reference to analog photography, with the difference being that development doesn’t happen in a dark room, but in a program like Lightroom or Photoshop. In these programs, you can modify the different values of the dynamic range, depending on the format.

It’s as simple as this: the more information collected in the photo, the more ways you can edit afterwards to obtain a more precise result.

Let’s see how the same photos look after a basic edit:

In this example, I edited the RAW first and copied the values to the JPG, so you can see how subtle the changes are between the two. This doesn’t mean that a JPG image can’t be edited further for great results – it just means that RAW has a better chance of doing it in detail.

Color and sharpness. More information, more colors

Because the image contains more information, RAW photography has a richer selection of options for color and sharpness.

So we don’t give ourselves a headache, let’s take a quick break for some basic theoretical background. A color image is normally represented by a bit depth, usually between 8 and 24. The number of bits defines the amount of information that each pixel has (which is the little “light bulb” that makes digital imaging possible). But what does this actually mean? It’s quite simple: the amount of possible color tones that are captured in the photo is dependent on the number of bits.

With this in mind, the difference in color that each format picks up can be expressed in numbers, and it’s huge!

In an 8-bit JPG image, there are approximately 16.8 million colors.

That may sound like a lot, right?

Well, in a 14-bit RAW image there are approximately 4.4 trillion colors.

Imagine how many editing possibilities you can have from that plethora of colors. I’ll give you a moment to figure it out.

1wo0t2 JPG and RAW: Pros, Cons, and Which Format Suits What You're Doing Best

Getting back to what concerns us, the sharpness of the photo, the RAW format provides many more possibilities when it comes to editing. If you take a JPG photo with a sharpness that doesn’t match what you originally wanted, it’ll be more tricky to edit it in a subtle way to get the results you’re after. By no means impossible, but it’ll take a lot of work!

Metadata. Photo birth certificate

The final aspect I want to address is the metadata. This information, available in RAW format, is important if you want photos with details that confirm that the image is yours.

The metadata includes information on the camera you used to take the photo, the lens, the aperture, the ISO, and the location (if you have GPS). In short, all the information that can help you to prove that a photo is yours and not someone else’s.

Final comparison. Which format wins?

From what we’ve seen so far, it may seem that the RAW format is better than the JPG format, but that’s not entirely true. Both have their pros and cons. In the words of the magician Merlin in The sword in the Stone , this is “what makes the world go round.”

Let’s review the pros and cons of both formats, so that you can see it more clearly. You can save it and keep it to hand, in case you forget:

By setting the camera earlier, the photo requires less editing.The photo always requires editing or digital development.
Smaller file size = faster on camera and memory card.Larger file size = slower camera speed requires memory cards with high speed.
Smaller file size = less possibilities of editing.Larger file size = more detailed editing possibilities.
Full compatibility with software, editing programs and for social networks.Reduced compatibility, sometimes programs have to be updated to open the RAW files from certain very new cameras.

Who wins? Well, that’s up to you. The one that’s most useful for you wins, depending on what you need and what you want to achieve. Remember that both cakes can be delicious!

Summary and tips

Let’s do a quick recap. Both formats are useful and have their advantages. Each one offers you different possibilities, depending on what you want to do. Still not sure when to use one or the other? Here’s how I see it…

When do I use JPG?

  • When I go on a trip and I don’t want to carry so many memory cards or I can’t download the photos to an external hard drive.
  • When the conditions on the set can be more controlled, so that configuring the camera before the result is closer to what I am looking for.
  • When doing bursts that require more speed from the memory card and camera.

When do I use RAW?

  • When I want to prioritize the post production of the photo.
  • When I know I’ll have the time to dedicate development and editing work on the images.
  • When I want to make sure the photo file contains the metadata.
  • When I have enough memory and hard drive space to store them.

I hope this post is useful for you. Remember that the most important difference is in what you want to achieve from the photo(s) you’re taking.

Hanns Schmelzer

¡Hola! Soy Hanns. Nací y crecí en Venezuela, pero vivo en Berlín desde 2014. Puedo hablo tres idiomas (alemán / inglés / español), disfruto cocinar y soy un apasionado por los videojuegos. Pero sobre todo, ¡me encanta todo lo que tenga que ver con las imágenes en movimiento!

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