The difference between RAW and JPEG files - and what they are each used for


As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words. But some pictures speak more words than others and that – in a nutshell – is the difference between RAW and JPEG files.

OK – we’ll dive a little deeper of course, but ultimately, both are computer files (containers) that carry information about an image – and the difference between RAW and JPEG files comes down to the amount of data that they hold and how you can manipulate it.


JPEG vs RAW images


RAW files

RAW image files contain every bit of data used to store an image taken by a camera and store it to a high degree of detail.

They have the capacity to store far more shades of each colour than other file types; a typical RAW file will store colour intensity information between 4096 to 16384 shades, for example, as opposed to JPEG which is limited to 256 shades.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this. We’ll tackle the disadvantages first:

The file size for a RAW image is much larger – around 16MB for a typical 16-megapixel image. This means you either need to invest in larger memory cards for your camera or restrict the number of images you can shoot before uploading them to a computer.

You will need particular software to read the RAW images on your computer.

Now to the huge advantage: Even though it is taking up more memory, you are storing every single pixel of data and the maximum number of shades per colour that is possible – limited only by your camera specifications.

For one thing, this means a greater variety of colours are stored in the data, which means a more realistic representation in the photo when compared to the real-life original.

Also, RAW images have a higher dynamic range. Dynamic range is how far the brightest point in the photograph can vary from the darkest point, while still maintaining all the detail in the image. The higher the dynamic range, the greater the contrast you can record between light and dark areas.

Finally, although RAW photos are not usually as sharp or colour corrected in appearance as a JPEG image recorded by a camera, this is actually a benefit, as it allows the photographer greater control when they edit the images later on, rather than allowing the camera to make limited “auto” adjustments, as it does when saving to JPEG format.


So what does this mean to you in practical terms?

Ultimately, the more data you have to describe your image, the more control and ‘fine-tuning’ you can achieve when you are editing the image later.

As we mentioned above, you do have to import RAW images into a suitable software program – such as Photoshop – but if you are shooting in RAW format then it is because you want to edit your photos, so you will no doubt be using a program like this anyway.

RAW images cannot be processed in-camera – you must export them to a software package to edit. Another plus point of RAE images is that they are read-only; when you edit a RAW image, the result is exported and saved as a JPEG, PNG, TIFF or another image format, but the original RAW data remains unchanged.

This means that you will always have the original, unedited photo to refer back to in the future.


JPEG files

JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) files, by comparison, are much smaller than RAW files, and the actual compression rate is variable, so there is not one size per megapixel, but on average a 16-megapixel image will compress down to between 2-6MB in size.

It is one of the most common image formats in the world and can be read and understood by almost all programs, websites and mobile devices. JPEG images are small, easily transferrable and convenient.

This makes JPEG an ideal format for sending images, using on web pages and almost everywhere.

But this compression comes at a price – JPEG compression is not lossless, which means that as the file size is reduced some picture data is lost. JPEG images are restricted to only 8 bits per colour.

JPEG images are processed within the camera, although you can still edit them afterwards – but you may find your editing options limited due to this initial automatic processing.

JPEG images are usually sharper and of higher contrast to RAW, but the dynamic range will be significantly lower, as already discussed.

JPEG compression is lossy – and every subsequent edit will cause more data loss, so again, your editing options are restricted on the number of edits you can safely make.


RAW vs JPEG images


Summing up

In the end, RAW and JPEG are two very different file formats and serve very different purposes. Which one you choose to use in each situation will depend on the circumstances and how you are wanting to use the image.

Many cameras now can shoot in RAW and JPEG simultaneously – saving two files to the memory card. This gives you the best of both worlds and maximises your post-processing options, although it will cost you in camera memory space.

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