JPEG or Raw Images?

With many cameras you can choose to take photographs as a JPEG (Joint Photographic Expert Group) or as a raw image.  Which to choose?  

As well as the camera shutter speed, the ISO and the lens aperture, which together determine the exposure, factors which affect the resulting photograph include contrast, colour saturation and colour hue as well as the degree of sharpening and the white balance (eg  daylight, cloudy, shade, flash etc).  The choice, JPEG or raw, will determine how these variables are managed.

Digital cameras record the image on the camera sensor.  The resulting digital file is a raw file and it contains all of the data captured by the camera during the exposure.  It is a greyscale image file which has embedded colour information to enable raw converter software to change the file to a colour image.  The initial raw image is dark, lacks contrast and it is not sharp when compared to film.  It is a digital negative which needs to be developed.  If you choose JPEG, the digital raw file is developed internally by the camera’s own raw converter software. The JPEG file is then copied to your camera’s image card.  Alternatively, if you choose raw, the file is copied to the card as the basic raw file to be developed by you subsequently in a computer. 

Choosing JPEG

JPEG is a good choice if you require your images to have small file sizes. 

JPEG images are automatically compressed by the camera’s computer to reduce the overall file size.  With JPEG images all of the choices outlined above (contrast, colour etc) are locked into the image when the shutter is pressed and it is difficult subsequently to change them.  You choose the degree of compression and it is not uncommon for the majority of the raw image data to be lost through this process.  As the degree of compression is increased the quality of the file decreases but even at five per cent of its original size a JPEG file may still be of sufficient quality for its required purpose.  

What is JPEG compression?  It is the removal of data which are deemed to be surplus to requirements.  For example, if a significant area of the image has a similar colour, such as in a blue sky, then instead of recording the full range of RGB colour data for each of the relevant pixels, that data will be reduced to a single value.  It is just this compressed information that is then transferred from the camera sensor to the camera card and the rest of the data are discarded.  This compression is “lossy” and the data in question cannot subsequently be recovered. 

  JPEG Image file . The image was captured as a small JPEG file (Canon 1DX MkII, sJPEG Level 3, F5.6, 1/50sec, ISO 1600, EF16-35mm @25mm, Flash -1.3 stops, File size 924KB).

JPEG Image file. The image was captured as a small JPEG file (Canon 1DX MkII, sJPEG Level 3, F5.6, 1/50sec, ISO 1600, EF16-35mm @25mm, Flash -1.3 stops, File size 924KB).

It is worth noting that with some file formats, for example with TIFF images (Tagged Image File Format), file compression is “lossless” in that the whole file is shrunk but no data are discarded and the compressed data can subsequently be recovered by restoring the file to its original size.  

The fact that the JPEG file is reduced in size has significant advantages:

  • a limiting factor when using high speed shooting, with many frames per second, is that the camera’s buffer is rapidly filled and the sensor then stops recording images while the buffer offloads its data to the camera card.  However, with small JPEG files the camera is able to accommodate an increased number of images before the buffer is filled  

  • an increased number of images can also be recorded on to the camera’s image card

  • the small size of a compressed JPEG file enables the image to be transmitted rapidly and easily over the internet.  This is often important, for example in sending sports pictures to editors for publication in daily newspapers.  Decisions have already been made in camera about colour, sharpness etc so the images are immediately available for editorial use without the need for any further development

  • JPEG images are readable by a wide range of hardware devices such as printers and scanners.

Disadvantages of JPEG include:

  • permanent loss of data

  • JPEG is restricted to files with 8-bit data (2 to the power of 8 which gives 256 levels of variation) but modern cameras record data at 14-bit (2 to the power of 14 which gives 16,384 levels of variation) and this extra information is discarded, significantly reducing quality

  • JPEG format is not compatible with the development of layered images and, in the computer, layers must be compressed before saving an image as a JPEG. 

Choosing raw

Raw is a good choice if you want the highest possible quality from the data captured by your camera, especially if you intend to print the photograph.  All of the data recorded on the camera’s sensor are copied to the camera’s card.  None of the information is discarded.  However, high quality data files are accompanied by large file sizes so that hard drives are filled up rapidly!  

Once the raw file has been downloaded from the camera card to the hard drive, all of the parameters associated with the image, such as contrast, colour saturation and hue, sharpening and noise, picture style and white balance, as well as the image exposure, can be adjusted on the computer.  This is highly significant when quality is paramount.  

With raw files:

  • the photographer has extensive creative control.  The photographer develops the image rather than the image being developed by the camera’s in-built algorithms 

  • 14-bit data can be used to determine parameters such as the image illumination levels and colour spectrum

  • white balance, which makes a substantial difference to the image, may be altered / fine-tuned in the computer

  • colour space may be selected variously depending on the image output, for example sRGB for screen output and Adobe RGB for print 

  • changes made to the raw file during development are saved as additional information to the raw data so that development of the image does not include any data loss from the raw file 

  • the raw file remains intact and is available for later redevelopment.

 Disadvantages of raw include:

  • file sizes are substantially larger than the size of compressed JPEG files

  • large files quickly fill the camera buffer and card as well as computer hard drives

  • the photographs are not immediately ready and need to be developed via a computer using a software programme such as Lightroom or Photoshop (both of which use the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in)

  • skills to use raw converter software need to be acquired

  • whereas JPEG files are generic, raw files are proprietary with respect to the camera manufacturer.  To make raw files generic they need to be converted to DNG format (Adobe: digital negative).

  Raw Image file . This image was captured as a raw file (Canon 1DX MkII, F5.6, 1/50sec, ISO 1600, EF16-35mm @25mm, Flash -1.3 stops, File size 23.29MB). After development of the raw data to a TIFF file using Adobe Raw Converter, the image was converted to a JPEG file to enable upload to the internet.

Raw Image file. This image was captured as a raw file (Canon 1DX MkII, F5.6, 1/50sec, ISO 1600, EF16-35mm @25mm, Flash -1.3 stops, File size 23.29MB). After development of the raw data to a TIFF file using Adobe Raw Converter, the image was converted to a JPEG file to enable upload to the internet.

The two images above were taken at the at the same time by a single press of the shutter with the camera set up to record both small JPEG and raw files. The sJPEG image is presented as exported from the camera. I developed the raw file as a Smart Object TIFF file using the Adobe Raw Converter (Smart Objects can be re-opened in Photoshop as the raw file and the raw conversion parameters can then be readjusted as required). The TIFF file was then converted to a JPEG for web upload. Note that the original raw file was approximately 23 times the size of the original small JPEG: That’s a lot of data to throw away!.

It is apparent from these two images that with small files, prepared for display on the internet, there are few notable differences with respect to choosing JPEG or raw format. However, if the images were to be printed, the relative small size of the sJPEG would be a limiting factor compared to the raw file.

In most instances, the choice between JPEG and raw is determined by image output.  If the images are needed rapidly, for example in sports and news, jpeg is usually the format of choice.  However, if image quality is the overriding factor (fashion, portrait, landscape, wildlife etc) raw format is more often the order of the day.