The Difference between RAW and JPG Files


In this chapter you will learn an important consideration for digital photography: whether to shoot a photo in RAW format or compressed JPG format.

Content in a nutshell

The advantage of RAW images is their good quality and editability, requiring, however, an image editing program in order to share the image either digitally or in print. JPG, on the other hand, is light and flexible, but less customizable for further processing.


The difference between RAW and JPG files

Digital photos are usually in JPG format. With an SLR camera and with several other types of digital cameras, it is also possible to take pictures as so-called RAW files.

A RAW file can be compared to a negative in a film camera: unlike a JPG, which is a pre-compressed file format that can be printed directly or shared on social media, a RAW image must always be processed in an image editing program such as Photoshop and eventually exported as a compressed image file such as JPG, PNG or TIFF.

The biggest advantage of a RAW image is that it contains much more information than a JPG, which makes it a higher quality image file and much more editable than a JPG. In other words, when taking photos in JPG format, we have to make most of the choices already at the time of taking the picture, whereas with a RAW file there is a lot more room for post-processing.

Although a JPG can be further edited in image editing programs, it will never be as adjustable as a RAW file. For example, it is almost impossible to correct a high degree of overexposure or underexposure in a JPG image because there is no information in the white or black areas of the image.

In contrast, there is a lot of information even in the brightest and darkest areas of a RAW image, even if the image at first glance may look overexposed or underexposed.

Let’s take an example: You take a photo of a landscape on a cloudy but bright fall day. You want to record not only the deep shadows and darker colors of the trees but also the subtle variations in the clouds in an almost white sky. In most cases, we will end up with a picture where the sky is partly overexposed and there are areas that are pure white, which means there is no information on the color values in the picture.

If the image is in JPG format, there is little you can do with the white areas in the sky. Since the aperture and time settings of the camera at the time of the shooting have created an image in which the tone of the sky has been reduced to white, there is no information in that area of the image.

If the image is taken in RAW format, however, the sky usually contains a lot of information, even in the brightest areas, and it can be revealed by adjusting the brightest areas of the image in the RAW editing mode of the image editing program. The same applies to the dark areas and even sharpness to some extent.

JPG on the left, RAW on the right

Professional photographers usually take their pictures in RAW format and this is also recommended for those who work in other visual arts. What then are the benefits of JPG images? Raw files are heavier than JPG files, so they take up more space on a memory card, in a computer, etc.

As mentioned earlier, RAW images can never be downloaded directly to digital platforms or printed on paper, for example. Previewing and browsing them is also not as quick and easy, which can slow down the selection of images for further processing.

However, there are also programs for previewing and sorting RAW images, such as Adobe Bridge, which also displays a lot of other information about the images. Most cameras also allow you to take both a RAW and a JPG image simultaneously, making available both file types of the same image.

When a RAW image is opened, the file can be edited directly in many ways. As mentioned above, the brightness and contrast of the image can be adjusted in detail. Color adjustments can also be made in RAW editing mode, although you will find the same adjustments also in the actual image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop.

RAW editing mode also offers you optical distortion correction tools and image sharpening. However, sharpening an image is always artificial, and will never match an image that was accurate to begin with. Nevertheless, this can be a great help in bringing extra sharpness to slightly unfocused images.

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