JPEG versus RAW. Each are terms you are likely familiar with but what is the difference? 

Before we get too deep into each of these file formats, let’s start things out simply. What is a JPEG and what is a RAW file?

JPEG:

  • Compressed and ready to publish images straight out of camera
  • Can be posted online or printed
  • 8-bit Bit Depth
  • Do not need to be post processed
  • Small file sizes

RAW:

  • Uncompressed image format
  • Can not be posted online
  • 12,14, or 16-bit Bit Depth
  • Must be post processed before using the image in any way
  • Must be exported as a JPEG after post processing
  • Large file sizes

“So, you’re telling me a JPEG is ready to go and I have to edit a RAW file before I can even use it?”. Yes, that is exactly what I am saying… and I know that sounds overwhelmingly lame, but, what if I told you shooting in RAW will actually improve the quality of your images?

Why Would Anyone Shoot RAW?

You can’t post them online, you have to post process the images, these RAW files are starting to sound pretty horrible… what if I told you there’s a little more to the story.

Imagine JPEG and RAW files like this. JPEG files are like buying a cake from the store, you receive a nice cake, iced with everything already baked into it. RAW files on the other hand are like getting all the ingredients for the cake laid out in front of you, but you have to bake the cake yourself. Now how the heck does baking translate to what I am talking about?

JPEG files give us an image in a nicely wrapped and ready to go package. It’s already set up and ready to go, it is hard to make any additional changes in post processing because of this. RAW files on the other hand give you all the information, but leave it to be adjusted and altered in post processing. In regards to exposure and colour in a RAW file, nothing is yet set in stone. 

The key points to highlight is that JPEG files are 8-bit while RAW images can be 12, 14, or 16-bit. Now if you were like me, bits make no sense. What the heck does 8-bit even mean? Are we talking about some retro video game? Let’s break down Bit Depth in simple terms.

What is Bit Depth?

Bit Depth is referring to the bite rate of your image. Bits are found in literally any digital media you see. It represents the amount of possible colour hues, shades and exposures the image is capable of displaying at once.

All images are broken down into a red, green, and blue channel. Each of these channels display a wide variety of colour hues specific to that colour. This variety of colour between the RGB channels make up the image you see in front of you.

Colour-depth-explainer-image-1

To keep it simple, let’s start in black and white. In the example above, if we have a 1-bit image, each colour channel would only be able to show 2 luminosity values per colour channel. As we go up in bit depth, our tonal value doubles.

Now let’s add some colour values into the mix. Below is a look at how many possible colours can be displayed in varying bit depths:

1-Bit= RED- 2 values X GREEN- 2 values X BLUE- 2 values= 8 possible colours

2-Bit= RED- 4 values X GREEN- 4 values X BLUE- 4 values= 64 possible colours

Doubling our tonal value each time, now let’s look at 8 bit.

8-Bit= RED- 256 values X GREEN- 256 values X BLUE- 256 values= 16,777,216 possible colours

Pretty crazy right? 16.7 million colours can be displayed in an 8 bit image, otherwise known as a JPEG. Now how many colours could a RAW file display in 12-bit?

12-Bit= RED- 4096 values X GREEN- 4096 values X BLUE- 4096 values= 68,719,476,736 possible colours.

A 12-bit RAW file can capture and display up to 68.7 BILLION with a B, different colours in an image. That sounds pretty incredible except for one thing… most modern displays only display in 8-bit. That means the display you are using right now could not properly display an 12-bit image in all its glory. Likewise our eyes would not be able to see the differences between 8, 10, 12 bit and higher. So…

Why Would We Ever Want To Have A Higher Bit Rate?

This is where post processing comes into play. Although our 12-bit RAW files will inevitably be compressed and exported into an 8-bit JPEG image, that does not mean we won’t be able to utilize such a high bit rate.

When we edit a photo in any post processing application, we change exposure values, colour hues, and more. As we change these values we are pushing our image capabilities further and at some point the colours and exposure values will begin to fall apart. This is when we start to experience something called Banding.

What is Banding?

Banding occurs when you push an images colour or exposure beyond its bit depth. These lines begin to form in the image due to the image being unable to display the necessary amount of colours and/or exposure. Below is an example of banding:

an example of extreme banding in the gradient of the sky caused by over doing the adjustments.
This is a very extreme version of banding.

If you want to see some examples of banding across different bit rates, let’s go into photoshop and create a 8-bit and 16-bit project. Below are two black and white gradients, each with matching curves and brightness adjustments. As you notice in the 8-bit gradient, the gradient begins to fall apart and we can see the banding in the varying shades between white and black. Now looking to the 16-bit image, we have the same adjustments but the gradient is still able to hold together. This is because it has a far greater tonal depth allowing to display more colour and luminosity variants even as we push values of the gradient.

8 bit banding example
Notice the slight banding beginning to occur within the greys of 8-BIT
16 bit banding example
Same gradient and adjustments as the 8-BIT gradient. No visible banding.

By shooting in RAW we are able push our images further in post to make our images come to life. By shooting in JPEG we negate our ability to make significant exposure or colour adjustments without losing quality.

So Should I Shoot In JPEG or RAW?

Whether you shoot in RAW of JPEG you will still end up with an image to share with others or capture a memory. The primary difference to consider is, “will I be post processing this image?”.

If editing your images in programs such as Lightroom or Photoshop doesn’t seem like your cup or tea, you just care about capturing moments with your friends and family; maybe JPEG is the best option for you!

For those who are looking to improve their photography, make their photos pop, and are looking to work with clients as a photographer, you need to be shooting in RAW. Shooting RAW will allow you to add your unique editing process to make each image your own, as well as, allow you to make the most out of any camera you have!

One last thing to consider is the size of your memory card. If you only have a memory card with just a few gigabytes of storage, you will quickly fill up the card shooting in RAW. Since there is so much more information in a RAW file, each image can range from 25mb-50mb. JPEG’s however are typically only 2 or 3mb. Keep that in mind before you go out shooting!

If you have any further questions about each of these file types, just leave a comment down below! 

Happy Shooting!

-Brendan