I remember back when I was first starting out with photography, one of my friends who had more experience than I did kept telling me about how he loved RAW images. I would sort of smile and nod and act as if I knew what he was talking about. I guess I was slightly embarrassed because I didn’t know what a RAW file was. I didn’t know what a RAW converter was either, or a RAW editor. I knew nothing about RAW. I did know a lot about JPG images because I had worked on them for years and used that setting in my camera, but that’s as far as that went. I was lost when it came to RAW.
So what is RAW? What is JPG? While these two different file formats look quite similar on a computer screen, they’re actually quite different. Don’t worry, while there are tons of technical things to discuss between these two files formats, I’ll keep things very basic and short. I’ll give you what you need to know if you’re discussing this topic with friends. I’ll try to make you look good.
What’s a JPG?
A JPG file is an image file that many different cameras use for their photos. It’s a compressed file that uses the camera’s sharpness, contrast, and compression settings to create the image. Once created, the camera then saves that file on the memory card. As a photographer, you can generally set your camera to the desired compression setting so you can preserve memory space as well as predict how many photos you can take. These files can be high quality, medium or low. JPGs can be opened up and viewed by almost all devices, which makes them extremely popular on the internet.
A RAW file is file format that many more expensive DSLR and mirrorless cameras can use to capture photographs. Once the camera takes the photo, that photo isn’t compressed or processed in any way. It’s merely recorded as is on the data card. The scene that’s captured by the camera moves directly from the camera’s sensor to the data card with no processing applied. The file also compressed in any way, which means that it’s a lot larger than that of a JPG. While the files are larger, there’s a lot more opportunity when it comes to post-processing. RAW files offer tons more material with work with.
What’s the Difference Between the Two?
Here’s a scenario for you. Let’s say you’ve got your camera and you’re taking some JPG photos. You snap your shot. Immediately after that, your camera magically applies some sharpness filters, some contrast, white balance and a few other things to the photo and then compresses it from a 35MB file down to a 5MB one. You’re happy because you have a decent looking photo that you managed via the camera’s internal settings. You sort of don’t need to do anything to the picture. You can email it around and pop it up on your website with little to no post-processing. Think smart phones. This is how they do things.
Conversely, let’s say you have your camera set to take RAW photos. The camera takes the photo the same way, but instead of doing all that processing and compression, it simply moves the image over to storage for you to deal with later. You’re stuck with a huge 35MB file on your data card.
Why Would You Ever Want to Use a RAW File?
I know RAW files sound pretty bad right now. Why in the world would anyone want a photo that doesn’t look too great and that’s huge in size? To me, that sounds pretty silly. Think of it this way; say you know you’re going to have to do some editing in a post-processing program such as Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, or Photoshop. Because your camera can’t always accurately capture a scene and because sometimes the white balance may be off, you’d like to do all of your editing yourself. Sometimes, you even like to skew the temperature of the image and add your own sharpening and contrast. Because of this desire to preform your own post-processing, you’d like the photo file to have as much information about that scene as possible. You don’t want any compression because you know that when a camera compresses a file, most of its information disappears. You’d rather keep that information and use it to work on the photo later on. This is the value to using RAW files. They keep all that valuable information intact. JPG files toss that data. It’s like JPGs are permanently edited and shrunken down by the camera and that’s that. With RAW files, you can do what you’d like. You have liberty.
I will let you know that you can’t use a RAW file on a website or email it around to people. You’ll first need to process it in an application that can open and edit those types of files and then you’ll need to convert it to a JPG file for general usage. That’s fine though. Those applications are readily available. Another warning is that RAW files are pretty huge. If you take lots of pictures in this format, you’ll fill your computer hard drive up very quickly. You’ll need to figure out a data storage methodology if you decide to go this route.
Well, that’s about it. It’s my short take on the difference between JPG and RAW files. Let me know if you have any questions.