RAW vs. JPEG Files – Which Should You Use?

The biggest questions beginner photographers ask themselves is whether to shoot in RAW or Jpeg. Each file type has its clear advantages, but which one is best will depend on your specific needs and ability level. Keep in mind that you can still capture fantastic images with either file type, but you may have a little more flexibility with one over the other.

Now before we get too deep into this, let’s break down what each image file type is:

JPEG:

  • Compressed and ready to publish images straight out of the 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 Shoot RAW Instead Of JPEG

At first glance, RAW files can seem like a massive chore. You can’t upload them online, they take up more space on your computer than JPEG, and they need to be edited before you can do anything with them. Why would anybody want to deal with that extra hassle?

To give you a clearer picture, try to 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. One option is premade and ready to go while the other is up to you to put together and add your own creative flair to.

JPEG files give you an image in a nicely wrapped and ready to go package. It’s already set up, but it’s harder to make any additional changes in post-processing because of this. Meanwhile, RAW files give you all the information but leave it to be adjusted and altered in post-processing in a program like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. In regards to exposure and color in a RAW file, nothing is yet set in stone.

The key point to highlight is that JPEG files are 8-bit while RAW images can be 12, 14, or 16-bit. If you aren’t familiar with bit rates or bit depth, this probably means nothing to you, so let’s break down why this information matters.

What is Bit Depth?

Bit Depth is referring to the bit rate of your image. Bits are found in literally any digital media you see. It represents the number of possible color 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 displays a wide variety of color hues specific to that color. This variety of colors 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 color channel would only be able to show 2 luminosity values per color 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 colors

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

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 colors

Pretty crazy right? 16.7 million colors can be displayed in an 8-bit image, otherwise known as a JPEG. Now, how many colors 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 colors in an image. That sounds pretty incredible except for one thing… most modern displays only display in 8-bit. That means the screen you are using right now could not correctly display a 12-bit image in all its glory. Likewise, your eyes would not be able to see the differences between 8, 10, 12 bit, and higher. So is there even an advantage to a higher bit rate?

The Advantage Of A Higher Bit Rate

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

When you edit a photo in any post-processing application, you change exposure values, color hues, and more. As you change these values, you are pushing the image capabilities further, and at some point, the colors and exposure values will begin to fall apart. This is when you’ll start to experience something called banding.

What is Banding?

Banding occurs when you push the color or exposure of an image beyond its bit depth. These lines begin to form across your photo due to the image being unable to display the necessary amount of colors and/or exposure values. 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 an 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 you can see the banding in the varying shades between white and black.

Now looking to the 16-bit image, you 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 color and luminosity variants even as you push the 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, you can push our images further in post to make your pictures come to life. By shooting in JPEG, you negate our ability to make significant exposure or color adjustments without losing quality.

So Should I Shoot In RAW or JPEG?

Whether you shoot in RAW or 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 of tea, 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 Raw vs. Jpeg, just leave a comment down below!

Happy Shooting!

-Brendan

 

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