JPEG vs RAW: An easy explanation for beginner or hobby photographers

Even if you're fairly new to the photography world, you may have heard people talking about shooting in JPEG or RAW.

Both JPEG and RAW are the image file types that cameras are able to shoot in.

I didn’t really understand the difference when I was first new to the photography world. But to take a crude real-word example, it’s kind of like the difference between .mp3 and .wav. Both are video file types, but each have their own different capabilities.

It can get fairly complicated (..and boring!) talking about the technical aspects of photography, and discussing the differences between JPEG and RAW isn’t exactly riveting conversation. However, if you’re a photographer keen to take your photography to the next level, this might be one of the most important topics to understand.

In fact, I credit the shift from JPEG to RAW as one of the defining points in my transition from a hobbyist to an amateur photographer.

What are the differences between RAW and JPEG images?

JPEG:

You’ve most likely heard of this file type before. When you shoot using the JPEG file format, your camera ‘processes’ the image straight away. What I mean by this is that in the milliseconds after you’ve taken the photo, your camera goes to work and enhances the image to become a ‘final product’ (you’ll understand what I mean by that later). The types of enhancements your camera automatically does is things like contrasting, colours, sharpening and noise reduction.

Once that’s done, the image is then compressed (essentially flattened) to become a JPEG file. The image that you then see on your camera screen is a lovely finished image.  JPEG images are usually pretty small, around 5 to 10 MB per image.

Pretty amazing that your camera does all of that in milliseconds, right?

Now, I’m going to start getting into some nitty gritty now, but bear with me. When you first take the photo, before your camera does anything, your camera receives a huge amount of light and colour information through the sensor. Once it gets to work enhancing and compressing the image, it automatically decides what colour and light information is needed and uses that to create your final JPEG product. Because JPEG images are not large file sizes, subtle light information like the different tones of shadows or highlights isn’t really needed and therefore discarded. It’s for this reason that JPEG files are called ‘loss’ file formats, because during the compression stage a lot of information is lost and cannot be recovered.

Light information is usually called ‘dynamic range’. It’s a fancy phrase to describe different types of light, such as shadows and highlights. In JPEG files, the dynamic range is low.

Still with me? Awesome. Let’s move onto my best friend, the RAW file.

RAW:

My baby, the RAW file. RAW files are huge file types (20 – 30 MB) and aren’t enhanced and compressed by your camera, meaning that the file retains all of its light information (dynamic range). I like to think of RAW files as data, not as an image. RAW files are quite simply raw, crude, untouched data files that contain a huge amount of light information. They aren’t processed or enhanced by your camera, so a RAW file is never a finished product. In fact, RAW images look kind of flat and boring.

There’s another step needed to both bring the life out of a RAW file and that’s the editing stage. You will need to use a RAW image editing program such as Lightroom, Photoshoot or VSCO (on your phone) to enhance the image to become your final product.

Should I shoot in JPEG or RAW?

You’re probably wondering whether you should make the transition to RAW. Both RAW and JPEG have their own pros and cons and its entirely dependent on the situation and your individual photography journey.

JPEG pros +

  • JPEG images don’t need to be edited if you don’t want, and the file from your camera is immediately ready to be viewed or printed

  • Smaller file sizes can be easily saved to your phone or computer. RAW files can be way too big

  • Shooting in JPEG is best for beginner photographers to understand the fundamentals of photography such as light, composition, movement, etc., as well as learning how to edit. Shooting in RAW is the next step once you’re comfortable with shooting in JPEG

  • If you’re a hobby or beginner photographer it’s not really necessary to shoot in RAW. JPEG is a perfectly acceptable file format for social media posts, website images, etc.

JPEG cons -

  • During the compression stage light information is lost, so it’s more difficult to edit out mistakes like overexposure (when the image is too bright) or under exposure (when the image is too dark)

  • Over-editing can look harsh, as there are less pixels to play around with

  • If you move into professional photography you cannot shoot in JPEG for two reasons: if you’re working for a company they will expect RAW files, and your image quality won’t be good enough shooting in JPEG

RAW pros +

  • Light information is retained, so if you accidentally shoot too bright or too dark it’s much simpler to repair (see below). With JPEG, it’s extremely difficult to edit out mistakes, and the image begins to look ‘fake’

  • Your images will have so many layers of information, and you can manipulate light and tones to suit your individual editing style. I personally found my own editing style after I began shooting in RAW

  • For a photographer transitioning from hobbyist to amateur, shooting and editing in RAW will take you on a difficult but extremely empowering learning journey. You will truly learn to understand light, how to edit, and just how powerful your camera is.

RAW cons -

  • Enormous file sizes. If you’re shooting in RAW you’ll need to get yourself an external hard drive ASAP!

  • You’ll need to get the paid version of Lightroom to edit RAW files, unless you look into other free RAW image editing software. As a result, if photography is just a hobby, the financial cost may not be worth it

RAW file repair

To show you an example of the power of a RAW file, I took a purposely overexposed photo of my backyard using my Nikon D7200 with an 18-55mm kit lens. The same photo was taken in both RAW and JPEG. I then edited the photos in exactly the same way in Lightroom.

As you can see, the RAW image has better contrasting, colours and highlights (especially in the clouds and the houses in the background) compared to the JPEG file, which is starting to look a little washed out and flat. Whilst admittedly the difference isn’t major, these are the sort of details that become important as you progress on your photographic journey.

When you’re shooting spontaneous photos, like family photos, street or travel, you don’t always get the luxury of being able to shoot perfectly every single time (especially if you’re shooting in manual). As a result, even if you accidentally shoot a little too light or dark, you can fix it up during the editing phase and you haven’t lost a perfectly good photo.

Original photo.

Original photo.

Image shot and edited in RAW

Image shot and edited in RAW

Image shot and edited in JPEG

Image shot and edited in JPEG

And that’s that!

I hope I was able to shed some light on the major differences between RAW and JPEG.

If you’re considering the transition to RAW and you have any questions, please feel free to reach out! You can catch me on instagram @lisaknightphoto.