JPEG vs RAW – Let’s Settle it With a Single Example:

by Gavin Seim. Updated 06/23/12: It’s been a common debate, though much less so as pro’s learn that RAW is a no brainier. I deal with both the JPEG and RAW side quite often because the tools I make on Seim Effects. I’ve seen the value of RAW and once you do there’s no going back. Some photographers that still use JPEG, use a reason like… “I nail my exposure, so there’s no reason for me to use RAW”. I think when this happens it’s one of two things.

  • Showmanship. For some, I think showing everyone how spot on your exposure comes out is a great way to show off when making a presentation. OK I get that, we all like to show our proficiency, but I’d rather not toss away quality on my clients images to get expert points on the minds of my peers.
  • The most common reason however. I think some still have a mental block about RAW and don’t want to address it. I remember being in that spot years back. Somehow the larger files size and RAW data seems daunting. In reality it was not big deal at all. I know because I went thru it. If you’re in this camp just move beyond it and you’ll be glad you did.

This idea is simple and that’s why this article will be short. JPEG tosses out information that you might need later in order to make a smaller file. It keeps that the camera “thinks” it needs. RAW keeps it all. And with today’s direct RAW editing and localized adjustments using software like Lightroom, the power of using RAW data has become crystal clear. Let’s skip the banter however and settle this. I could make up a bunch of examples for you, but this one photo proves my reasoning, so I’ll keep this short.

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1: Here is an outdoor wedding scene from a 5D MK2 unedited other than being cropped. Yes it’s a bit under exposed, but had it been correctly exposed I would have lost even more detail in the sky area. Now at a glace, this photo seems like no matter what we do it will be pretty bland. Lets look.

2: Next is the RAW version edited only in LR using presets, brushes, color channels etc. I worked the RAW file to get the most dynamic range possible and there was much more there than initially expected. A pretty amazing comeback. In fact I feel there’s actually too much information and it feels a bit over processed. But my goal here is simply to how you how much information is in there. Not to say this is exactly how I would edit it.

3: Finally I took a JPEG version of the original file and got as close as I could to the RAW version using many similar LR settings. Here is the result. Not half bad if you didn’t see the RAW version, but not even close if you did. The information (especially on the right) was just not in there. Even if I turned to down the exposure more to reveal greater detail in the sky, all I got was more gray. There’s just nothing in that part of the image. JPEG threw out all that information.

Bottom Line: We have a lot more to work with in RAW files. Yes, the files are larger and when my mom is taking snapshots of the grandkids I would have no problem with her using JPEG. I even use it occasionally, though knowing how much better RAW is I generally shoot RAW even for snapshots. When I’m doing professional work for art pieces or clients however, it no contest. While it may not matter that as much on some images, the ones that take advantage of that RAW data more than make up for the extra storage needs and processor used. This article was about a single example and that’s what I gave. That said there’s other advantages besides dynamic range. I feel I get better white balancing, better noise reduction, effects look better, and of course there’s less file degradation when I save out final images which makes for better prints.

I’m sure there are some exceptions, but for most I really see no excuse for working in JPEG. Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that some well known and amazing photographers still use JPEG. It’s does not mean they’re bad photographers. It just means they’ve not yet discovered how powerful RAW is, or knowing it, are not that concerned about getting the most possible information from their files. All that said, I’m open to feedback in the comments… Gav