Every picture your digital camera produces is stored as a file in the camera memory or on memory card inserted to you camera. File (Wikipedia) is an ordered sequence of 0 and 1 with a name assigned to it.
Every time you copy picture from your camera to computer hard drive you are, actually, copying the file to your hard drive that contain encoded picture information inside (0s and 1s inside the picture file). The thing is that in most cameras you can control what is stored inside the picture file depending on your preferences.
Most popular formats nowadays
Modern digital cameras often offer a configuration option to store files in JPEG or RAW formats. It is important to choose most suitable format for your needs based on considerations below.
To be absolutely correct, JPEG is not a file format but a name of the image compression algorithm. However, it just happened that one of the most popular picture formats also called JPEG due to it uses JPEG compression algorithm inside. In this article, whenever I mention JPEG file format, I mean picture compressed using JPEG compression algorithm into file with extension .jpg or .jpeg.
Both JPEG and RAW have strengths and weaknesses. Both formats are suitable for post processing.
Which format should you select?
If you prefer to save memory space and snap as many pictures as possible in exchange to reduced image quality and less flexibility in post processing JPEG is your best choice.
If you prefer best image quality and maximum flexibility in post processing in exchange to less pictures fitting to memory and more hassle in converting pictures to other formats then you should select RAW.
My personal preference is to use RAW format always. It gives me a lot of flexibility in image post processing and better picture quality although requires more space to store pictures.
The final choice is still yours!
RAW vs. JPEG in details
JPEG is a standardized, versatile and widely supported format. It is very popular among amateur photographers who don’t yet consider serious image post processing. RAW format is more popular among professional photographers who spend a lot of time post-processing pictures to get best selling results. There are several aspects you need to consider to select the format most suitable for your needs.
File size (JPEG wins)
JPEG format was originally designed to compress digital pictures to occupy as little space as possible. JPEG does it very well. RAW format in contrast does not compress pictures or uses lossless compression that is not very effective on images. Therefore, picture in JPEG format will be much smaller than the same picture in RAW format.
For example let’s take imaginary 10 megapixel digital camera with 4 GB memory card. The average 10 megapixel JPEG file is about 4 megabytes in size. You would be able to fit 1000 pictures on 4GB memory card. At the same time RAW file size would be about 13 megabytes that leads to maximum 300 pictures on the same card. 4 GB Memory Card = 300 RAW or 1000 JPEG images
JPEG wins hands down in this competition!
Processing speed (JPEG wins)
RAW files are huge as we studied in previous paragraph. It takes a bit more time for your camera to store RAW file to memory card every time you snap a picture than JPEG file. Your computer might struggle to process RAW files if it doesn’t have enough memory or slow processor. If you notice any of such slowdowns while processing RAW files then you need to invest into faster memory cards and faster computer.
JPEG wins again!
Compatibility (JPEG wins)
JPEG is supported almost everywhere be it digital camera, computer, web browser, image editor, image viewer or other relevant modern device or application. If you send JPEG picture over e-mail you can be pretty sure receiver will be able to open and view it. In most cases JPEG files have .jpg or .jpeg extension so you can easily identify the format.
RAW is a different beast. There is no single RAW standard accepted by all camera manufactures. Almost every camera brand stores images in its very own RAW format. RAW file from camera Brand A usually is not compatible with RAW file from camera Brand B. RAW files from different brands have different extensions like .x3f, .nef etc. If you want to share RAW pictures with your friends or publish them in internet first you need to convert them into more general format like JPEG using camera specific software. JPEG wins over RAW format again!
I guess you have already started to wonder why RAW format is needed at all.
Picture quality (RAW wins)
JPEG and RAW formats are using different methods to compress and store pictures. JPEG uses lossy (Wikipedia) compression algorithm meaning that some original picture information is lost and cannot be recovered thus affecting final image quality. JPEG doesn’t store information about each individual pixel and instead uses pretty complex mathematical algorithm to store information about pixel groups. Since JPEG is loosing some information about the picture it is not good for multiple picture edits/stores. Every time you edit and store picture some pixels information is lost and picture quality decreases.
Look at the examples below. Firs crop is from RAW picture and second crop is from JPEG picture with highest compression I could choose in image editor. Do you see the difference? Right image has clearly visible artifacts and not as sharp as left one.
RAW stores all information about every pixel on the picture. In case RAW format utilize a compression algorithm it is a lossless compression meaning no information about the picture is lost. RAW format wins if you choose best picture quality and flexibility in post-processing. RAW is especially useful to recover shadow details of the picture. So, if your pictures are full of dark shadows RAW might suit better for you.
Make no mistake , JPEG format is also very good for pictures, but RAW is just better for post processing and overall image quality.
You must choose what is most important for you
|Picture quality& Post processing||LOSE||WIN|
JPEG and RAW formats are both suitable for post processing. You need to understand advantages and disadvantages of both and select the one most suitable for you. Since you are reading this article you consider processing you pictures on computer. I will not advice you what format is best. You must try both and decide which one is better for you.
Configure your camera
As a last step in formats selection you must configure your camera to shoot in selected format. Usually format selection is done via in-camera user interface. Each camera interface is different so it is not possible to give exact instructions in this article. You must consult camera user guide to check which formats are supported and how to select desired format. It might happen that you want to shoot RAW format but your camera doesn’t support it. In this case you must stick to the format provided by your camera and it is usually JPEG.
For example in my digital camera Sigma DP1 format selection looks like on the picture below: First 3 options Fine, Norm, Basic are for JPEG format quality and last one is the best quality RAW file. I choose RAW always.
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