A common misconception among individuals first starting out in the photographic field is that there’s not much to an image file. After all, why should something as arbitrary as format matter so long as the image it records is up to snuff?

The truth is, the file format you choose can have a large impact on what information the camera actually records and how it’s stored digitally. There are two main file formats generally utilized by photographers, called JPEGs and RAW respectively. Neither is perfectly equipped to handle all of the situations professional photographers find themselves in. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to understand some of crucial details that differentiate the two.

Using editing software, this photographer was able to recover details in the shadows of this image that might be discarded in a JPEG file

JPEG Files

Many tech savvy individuals are familiar .jpg files, even outside of photography. This is with good reason; it is the most commonly used image storage format employed by photographic imaging devices and digital cameras, as well as the most common type of file format used to transmit images across the internet. However, the vast majority of JPEG users could tell you very little about the nuances of the file, despite the fact that it has been in use since 1992. Even the acronym itself – which stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group – is a bit cryptic.

What makes JPEGs such an excellent choice for recording photographs and subsequently transmitting them lies within the way the image is processed. Immediately after the shutter on the camera is released and the internal sensor records image information, the file is processed within the device itself. Automatically, layers of contrast, sharpening, and noise reduction are implemented over the photographic files. Colors are blended together for seamless image tonality, with the file eliminating the color pixels that it deems to be redundant. This subsequently cuts down on the overall size of the image file.

Because of the mechanisms that JPEGs implement without prompting, it is an appealing format for photographers that do not have the luxury of time to sit down and edit a photograph or may find themselves with a limited amount file storage space. Since the JPEG is easily interpreted between devices and is universally used in photographic sharing online, shooting straight to JPEG can make a lot of sense to those anxious for quick, easy to process results.

However, there are some major drawbacks for photographers working primarily in JPEG. As a “lossy” file, when the camera implements automatic filters and pixel blending techniques, original file information is thrown out and impossible to recover. Though a small file size can be helpful in long-term storage, it is not conducive to any sort of printing or large-scale display. What’s more, although the JPEG theoretically involves less attention in post processing, each time a photograph is adjusted and saved, the image file begins to degrade – even when set on the highest possible quality settings. Photographers using JPEGs risk damaging their images with the passing of time.

This photograph uses saturation and and selective coloring to highlight the effects of JPEG artifacting.

RAW Files

Unlike the JPEG, a RAW file is a lossless file. This means that it processes every piece of information received by the camera’s sensor and records it exactly as is without any sort of compression. Since the filters applied to JPEG files are not implemented in RAWs, at first appearance a RAW image may appear to be dull in comparison to its JPEG counterparts.

However, because the RAW records all of the details of a composition exactly as is, it is actually ideal for editing and can be used to create images with richer tonality and detail. In fact, details in bright highlights and dark shadows that are often thrown away in JPEG processing due to their similarities in tone can often be recovered when working with RAW files in post processing software.

The image on the left displays an unprocessed RAW image, while the image on the right shows the same image in JPEG format.

Although many professional photographers are attracted to the level of control and versatility that inherently comes with a RAW file, the format comes with its fair share of drawbacks and faults. Currently, RAW formats are proprietary to camera manufacturers, meaning that standards in what constitutes a file differ between brands like Nikon and Canon. Because companies are often making adjustments to the RAW file standard, they make bad candidates for any sort of long-term storage. What’s more, because of all of the information stored in a single RAW file, they quickly take up hard drive space and often must be relegated to external hard drives.

In addition, RAW files are not readable outside of software specifically equipped to process large image files. Instead, they must be converted into more accessible file formats such JPEG or TIFF through third party programs such as Adobe Photoshop to be shared and efficiently stored.

Most images shared on the web are formatted as JPEGs

The Verdict?

The fact of the matter is, you know better than your camera what it is that you need and want in a photograph. Because of this simple fact, many working photographers consider RAW to be the superior image file format due to its ability to record accurate image details. However, it is important to keep in mind that it may not always be the best choice in the context of your circumstances. Photographers expecting immediate, sharable results often lean towards shooting JPEGs in the field.

Still can’t decide which file format is right for you? Many modern day cameras have the option to record JPEGs and RAW files simultaneously. As an experiment, set your camera to this setting, snap a few shots and upload them to your computer. There, you can observe the differences between files for yourself to form a more informed, experience-based opinion.