RAW vs JPEG: Explaining the Difference with a Box of Cereal

Tutorial

In running my photography channel, I get a lot of questions about RAW files vs. JPEG, and some people not fully grasping exactly what RAW files really are. So, I figured a box of cereal may simplify things. Read on.

Most mirrorless and DSLR cameras allow you to shoot either JPEG files, RAW files, or both at the same time. I think part of the confusion from newer photographers is not quite understanding how the file format fits into the post-production process.

JPEG

A JPEG file is a completely finished image that your camera fully develops and processes the moment you take the shot. Most cameras have a menu where you can pre-adjust settings like color, sharpness, clarity, and so forth before you take your shot. Once those parameters are set, the camera will apply these settings to the final JPEG before it’s saved to the SD card.

In order to keep the file size down and to make the file more compatible, your camera throws out some of the extraneous color data and other information before it provides you with the image. Once thrown away, that sensor information is lost forever.

JPEG files can be read/opened by almost every software application available today for post-processing work like cropping and exposure adjustment. However, once you do so, and then make those adjustments and save your image back as a new JPEG file, it will result in a generation loss in terms of quality. Remember, from the time you first took the shot, your camera’s initial image settings (sharpness, color, etc.) were already baked into the final JPEG image.

RAW

Unlike a JPEG, a RAW file is not an image at all. It is, put simply, a blob of binary data that represents what your camera’s sensor recorded at the moment you took the shot. You need software such as Lightroom or Capture One that can understand how to read and convert this file of data into something that you can see, edit, and often share on social media or deliver to clients.

In terms of file size, a RAW file is also a lot larger than a JPEG file. That’s because it’s containing all of the data straight from the camera’s image sensor. But it also contains other information as well. For fun, let’s compare it to a box of cereal. More specifically, a box of Froot Loops. Sure, why not?

If the entire cereal box itself is the RAW file, then:

1. The various colors of the cereal itself are the actual sensor data. And this data can be manipulated in finer detail in post-production than a JPEG file’s data. For example, you can take out all the green and blue bits of cereal and put them into their own bowl. This is much easier to do with a RAW file and will yield better results.

2. The ingredients sidebar on the side of the box is the RAW metadata. Think of this as data about the data, i.e., lens used, date photo taken, ISO settings, and so forth.

3. Inside the box, included with the camera’s image sensor data cereal, is a smaller, lower-resolution “preview” JPEG image. This JPEG image is used by various programs to show you a preview of your RAW file quickly so that you can have a reference point to begin your culling and editing process.

Be sure to watch the video above for a more, um, hands-on approach to the cereal analogy.

JPEG vs. RAW

So, given the complexity and often extra time and storage space needed for handling RAW files, should you bother shooting in that format? Why not just use JPEG since they are most compatible and oftentimes are exactly the shot you want?

Unless you have very specific reasons for only shooting in JPEG, then I would strongly suggest that you always shoot in RAW format. In fact, I go a step further. I always shoot, no matter what, in both RAW and JPEG. I propose three reasons for this:

1. More Sensor Data to Work With

There’s just more sensor data in RAW files to work with when editing your photos. One of the most important reasons for shooting RAW is to retain color information. For examples of this advantage, as well as highlight/shadow/color recovery, see the video that accompanies this article that will demonstrate this.

2. You Will Get Better

As you develop your skills as a photographer, you will gain a more critical eye over what you shoot, and you will want to sometimes revisit shots that you’ve taken in the past. Having RAW files, with all your camera’s sensor information, will allow you to revisit your shots and give you the best possible quality image to apply your new skills to processing.

3. RAW Processing Software Will Improve

Software developers will keep releasing updates and new versions to their RAW processing programs like Lightroom. Photos you shoot in RAW format today could actually look even better when you run them through an updated software processor at some point in the future. Yes, your photos can actually improve in quality over time.

Cost to Shooting RAW?

RAW files accumulate up a lot more hard drive space than JPEG files, no doubt about that. Additionally, they are more processor-intensive, require more specific software and post-production workflows, and are generally slower to share on social media.

For some photographers, speed is the name of the game. And having JPEG files is the fastest possible route between shooting and the handoff. Also, for high-speed action burst shots, your camera will often handle burst rates faster with JPEG files than it would with RAW files.

Lastly, RAW processing is interpreted by the individual software used to develop the files. For example, a Fujifilm RAW file will look different in Lightroom than it will in Capture One. Additional editing is often needed to get exactly the look you want.

Unsure? Then Shoot Both!

I always shoot both RAW and JPEG files. Always. It sounds cliche to say this, but it’s so true: by shooting both formats, I really do get the best of both worlds.

If one day I want to go back and have access to my original negatives, they’re always there. Likewise, I love the straight-out-of-camera JPEGs from Fujifilm (my camera of choice), and sometimes I’m in too much of a hurry to bother dealing with a RAW file. For a minimum of hassle and fuss, I’ll jump over to the SOOC JPEG. But, I always have a backup copy of the RAW.

Does it take up more storage space? Yeah. But you know something? Storage space is getting cheaper all the time. The cost is minimal when you consider the cost of the equipment and the hours spent capturing the images in the first place. I can get an external 2TB hard drive for about $60. And yes, I do need to carry around more SD cards.

Even if you don’t yet fully understand how to post-process images or are just getting started in photography, you might want to consider shooting both formats now, and just ‘saving’ the RAW files for a later date.

Because it’s just possible that…

One day…

You will be so glad that you have these RAW files archived and waiting there for you, perfect, pristine, and containing all of your camera sensor data exactly the way it was on the day that you originally took the shot.


About the author: Chris Lee is a corporate photographer, technical trainer, video editor located in the Atlanta area who created the pal2tech YouTube channel last year. He recently woke up one morning and realized that he loves teaching photography even more than actually taking photos. We know… he still finds that hard to believe also.

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