RAW vs JPEG: Does It Matter Which One My Photographer Uses?

Whether you are looking to hire a photographer or you’re a beginning photographer yourself, hopefully this article will give you a little more information about RAW vs. JPEG photo file formats. Rather than hit you with a ton of highly technical stuff, I’m going to try to keep to layman’s terms and skip over the highly detailed stuff, but if you have any questions feel free to Contact Me and I’ll be happy to help!


What is a RAW file?

When you use a digital camera to take a photo, there is a lot of data hitting the sensor that is captured and stored by the camera. This “raw” data must then be processed in some manner before it can be presented to you as an actual photo that you can see and make prints from. I usually equate this to the data captured and stored on a piece of film. It’s there on the negative, but in order to use it you will need to either scan it or utilize a darkroom to print it. When viewing a RAW file inside processing software, they often look dull and flat because they haven’t been edited yet.

Pros

Raw files contain ALL of the data that the sensor read at the time of capture. You can use this information when editing so you have a lot more flexibility if you need to brighten/darken/adjust colors/sharpen etc.

Cons

The amount of data stored in a RAW file contains as much information as the camera could capture, thereby making RAW files quite large! Plus, you can’t just print a RAW file or post it online so some amount of processing has to be done in order to make it usable.


Example of RAW vs. Camera-created JPG vs. Photographer-edited JPG

RAW vs JPG file example
Portugal, 2010

Notice the difference in the sky. Detail was lost when the camera processed the file, but editing the RAW file in Adobe Lightroom allowed me to bring that detail back. The verticals were slightly off so I corrected the “lean” so that buildings and the archway are more upright. I was also able to selectively edit areas within the image to bring out the color, brightness and texture as needed.

What is a JPEG/JPG file?

Just like using a darkroom to print from a film negative, every image that we capture will require some sort of processing applied to it before it’s usable for online use, printing, etc. Sometimes that processing is applied in-camera, and sometimes the photographer applies those settings in special software designed to process RAW files. Once processed, the final image is compressed and saved in a different file format (usually a JPG.) These final JPG files should look like the scene captured and be ready for use.

Pros

JPG files are ready for viewing, posting online, printing, etc and can be used immediately. And because they aren’t storing ALL of the raw data, they are much smaller than RAW files.

Cons

The disadvantage to shooting strictly in JPG format is that you are relying on the camera to process them for you. You can still edit JPG files later if they aren’t perfect, but because you aren’t working from the complete set of RAW data your editing options may be limited.


So which one is the “right” one?

Most professionals that I know shoot in RAW and then process the images into JPGs before delivering to a client. This ensures that the client receives images they can use immediately, and the quality is controlled by the photographer.

However, that doesn’t mean shooting in JPG mode is a bad thing. If you get a great result using your in-camera processing and don’t need to do any extensive editing, JPG files are just fine.

But wait, there’s more! Cameras that have the ability to shoot in RAW format also have an option to shoot and store both RAW+JPG at the same time. This takes up a lot more space on the memory card, but you also have immediate use of the JPG files. This works well for shoots requiring quick turnaround time or those that require very little editing. You get the best of both worlds if you have the storage space.

If you’re an amateur photographer, I recommend shooting in RAW+JPG. Use the JPG files so that you can quickly view your photos and get feedback on how you’re doing, but as you get more proficient you will have the RAW files that you can edit if you wish. Storage is relatively inexpensive these days, so I prefer to store more than I need rather than wishing I had all the raw data later on.

On a Side Note…Why won’t my photographer give me their RAW files from my shoot?

Many of us have our own “photography styles” and the editing process is part of what makes our work unique to us. If we delivered RAW files, even to someone who had the software and knowledge to process them, we would essentially be turning over a lot of our creative process to someone else. Could you imagine Ansel Adams handing over his film negatives not knowing how his final prints were going to turn out? This is why it’s so important to select a photographer whose style matches the look you want.