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RAW and JPG are 2 different file formats that have been around for quite some time.

RAW (or NEF, or any other file extension that your picture may have straight out of the camera) is basically what the sensor sees. You setup your camera in a certain way and adjust your settings for the exposure that you’re looking for and when the sensor collects the information from the lens it produces a big RAW file. If you have, for example, a camera with a 24mp sensor, the RAW file will very likely be a 24mb image of 6000*4000 pixels.  A RAW image cannot be opened by programs such as Paintshop, Photoshop and the likes, you first need to convert it to a TIF/JPG file, and then you can apply all the desired post-processing effects.

JPG files produced by a camera are slightly different. What basically happens is that your camera will take a shot following your desired settings, then it will compress the picture and apply some post-processing to it. These files tend to be much smaller because they’re compressed.

Every now and then you may find people debating over which one is the best format for shooting. I decided to write this post after hearing a customer of the local photo-store who was buying a 18-300mm lens and was planning to shot JPG all the time because the lens gives him all the range he needs and he doesn’t want to spend time post processing. He had a camera worth almost 1000$.

While there’s nothing wrong in the 18-300mm lens (though I’d personally go for a different solution), shooting JPG is a massive waste. There’s basically no point in purchasing a DSLR or one of the new mirroless cameras if you plan to shoot JPG only, and I’ll soon give you a few examples from my camera.

Now, let’s first talk about the advantages of JPG:

a) Smaller files: take less space on your memory card and on your hard disk

b) Can be viewed on any device (pc, tablet, smartphone)

c) They’re ready to be viewed straight out of the camera, ideal for instant-sharing

RAW files on the other hand have only one main advantage:

a) All the detail that your camera could capture is in the RAW file and after post processing the image quality will be miles ahead of a JPG

How does this translate into the real world? Let’s look at a few examples. Click on the pictures to see them in full size and get a better understanding of the differences.

Out of camera JPG:



RAW file converted to JPG via DxO Optics 9 (slightly cropped)



The JPG file from the camera has very flat and over saturated colors. The flowers are way too pink, and the sky is too blue as well. As well as adjusting the colors, a RAW file has a lot more information that can be used from software such as DxO, and that allowed me to increase the sharpness and contrast while maintaining a natural look.

Out of camera JPG:


RAW file converted to JPG via DxO Optics 9


In these 2 pictures the difference is astonishing. The JPG image from the camera is very soft and has lost a lot of detail, while the RAW file has brilliant colors and everything within the image is nicely detailed.

Out of camera JPG:



RAW file converted to JPG via DxO Optics 9



The JPG has almost no detail in the trees. Using the RAW file it was easy to recover detail in the darker areas.

“HEY WAIT A SECOND, I took some shots using RAW and they looked much worse than the JPGs!”.

Yes, that’s true, and the reason for that is that the RAW file is very neutral and looks kinda flat when you view it on your computer. Your camera will apply some effects such as saturation, sharpening etc to the JPG, so if you set your camera for shooting both RAW and JPG you’re definitely going to prefer the JPG files when you view them. BUT…as soon as you factor in a RAW post processing software, things change a lot.

The best thing that you can do is try it out. It doesn’t take much time to get a hang on the basic features, and time and experience will allow you to get better results.

My favorite program is DxO Optics 9: http://www.dxo.com/intl/photography/dxo-optics-pro

One of the most popular is Adobe Lightroom: http://www.adobe.com/products/photoshop-lightroom.html

Capture One is highly rated as well: http://www.phaseone.com/en/Downloads.aspx

All the above programs are amazing and have a free trial version. If you enjoy tinkering with your RAW files but don’t want to invest money in it yet, then an old favorite is Raw Therapee: http://rawtherapee.com/downloads

Raw Therapee is not as great as the others, but it’s free and a good starting point.

And if you’re afraid of the time required for post processing: don’t. It’s incredibly easy to load all your pictures at once and apply a combination of settings that you like to all them. There are times when you have 2 or 3 pictures that you really love and want to focus a lot on those, but what about all the others? What I’d usually do is: load all of them in DxO, apply the generic lens adjustments, click “EXPORT”, walk to the kitchen, switch the cattle on, place a bag of green tea in my cup, pour the hot water in the cup and then go back to my computer to review my pictures.

There are some situations when shooting RAW and JPG at the same time is acceptable. The first one is when you want to write a post on WordPress about how much JPGs suck. The second one is if you’re on holiday without a laptop and you just took a shot that you really want to share immediately.

Other than that,  if you buy a decent camera that’s capable of shooting RAW files, using it to produce JPG files is a huge waste of money.