Photography class 4 - Raw vs jpeg

Photography for beginners



As a default setting, most cameras are using JPEG as a shooting format. There is very good reason for this too! Most people want a camera that they can just pick up and shoot with. JPEG will allow you to do just that. You'll be able to shoot, upload straight onto the computer, and print without any issue. This is because JPEG files are processed in the camera. (They are processed differently based on different camera makes and models) The white balance and exposure are processed based on your settings, but things like sharpening, and contrast are automatically added to the photo. The photo is then rendered as a compressed JPEG.

Compressed JPEG is known as a 'loss' format. Essentially, alot of the original image data is discarded with no way to recover it. It is really prevalent in shadow and highlight areas. JPEG will throw that data away. Dynamic range potential pales in comparison to RAW format.


Just like JPEG, RAW is an image format. The difference between the two is RAW is uncompressed and doesn't lose information. This means higher quality images are able to be produced. Problems can also be fixed that would be impossible with JPEG format.

One of the things that can confuse people is why the photos they upload onto their computer look nothing like the ones on the back of their camera screen. This is an easy one to answer. The photos you see on the back of your camera screen are processed. DSLRs automatically process photo for playback purposes. In RAW format, this isn't actually applied to the photo. The photos in RAW format are uncompressed and unprocessed straight out of camera. Any photo adjustments have to be done manually in post processing. 

RAW images can't be read be just any program. You need a program that can open and view RAW files. The RAW file suffix for Nikon is .NEF. You can view and process the images in programs like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, ViewNX, etc, before being ready to print or display. Photos then need to be exported into a JPEG format to be viewed by generic programs.

Which format to shoot in?

RAW format is by far superior. There is no question about it. The flexibility that RAW format gives you is absolutely incredible. In fast paced situations with constantly changing lighting, scenes, subjects etc, most mistakes can be fixed. Underexposed the shot? Not a problem. Wrong white balance? Easily fixed. You won't have the perfect exposure every time.

For landscape photography there is no excuse for not shooting RAW. The dynamic range RAW files hold is crazy! You can expose for the highlights, which under exposes the photo, and bring the dark areas back in post processing - all in one photo! On occasion, you can even rescue blown out areas, usually skies! It is best practice to preserve highlight details in the first place though!

Some people will use the excuse of file size as their reason to shoot JPEG. Admittedly RAW files are huge in comparison to JPEG files. The more megapixels the camera has, the bigger the RAW files. While that could be justified in some situations, the cost of storage is so cheap nowadays that storage shouldn't be a problem.

Most cameras allow the option to shoot in RAW and JPEG. Sounds like the best of both worlds? It depends on what you're shooting for. Alot of event photographers will shoot in this mode so they have a set of photos (the JPEGS) to send back to their editors as fast as possible. With this sort of photography, time and exclusivity is of the upmost importance. Rarely is that JPEG used though. Most of the time it's used as a reference photo and the RAW is requested, unless the photographer has absolutely nailed it. RAW + JPEG shooting format eats card space super fast.

The bigger the data files, the more of the buffer gets used. RAW files contain alot of data, so naturally the camera buffer will get filled fast if shooting in a burst mode. After a set number of photos, you may have to wait a few seconds for the images to be written to the card to clear the buffer. As above, shooting RAW + JPEG will fill the buffer even fast than shooting either RAW or JPEG alone.

In all honesty, even with the comparisons, I only ever shoot in at least RAW. This is to say if I ever shoot JPEG, it's either an accident, or RAW + JPEG.

Below is the exact same RAW photo. One is straight out of camera and exposed for the sky only. The only has had the exposure and shadows increased in Lightroom. The highlights have been dropped to keep the sky looking similar in each photo, but apart from that, these are untouched. As you can see, the power and details RAW holds is just incredible!

As you can see from the photo examples above shooting my city skyline, the JPEG files look very dirty and lose their detail when pushed in post processing. Even when adjusted by 3 stops, the RAW files are cleaner and brighter too.

How to change between RAW and JPEG

Press and hold the Quality button on your camera, and use the main rear command dial to switch between RAW and JPEG formats. As you scroll, you'll probably see that a few different types of JPEG. Generally these are BASIC, NORMAL, and FINE. FINE are the biggest, best quality of the JPEG files.



This classes practical element is more aimed at knowing how to change back to RAW format. We strongly recommend shooting in RAW, so if by accident you change quality setting, knowing how to change back is super important! All we want you guys to do is change to a form of JPEG setting, then find your way back to RAW. Repeat this 50 times. As with everything, periodically giving yourself a refresher on this is beneficial. I'd recommend revisiting this in around 6 months.