The debate about which format to use among RAW and JPEG seems to be one of the most controversial topics in the digital photography field. The arguments around this topic seem to have no ending sometimes as each person has his own opinion in selecting a certain format. In fact, even though the RAW format has obvious strengths in creating the good image quality, JPEG also has its own advantages.

Let’s clarify the differences between these two formats here.

What is the RAW format defined?

The RAW image format refers to the image file that have not been compressed or processed after it’s shot by the image sensor of a camera. For this file format, the in-camera processing is just at the minimal level. This digital format is equivalent to a film negative that has been exposed but not processed.

When a photo is shot, the amount of light which has stroked every pixel has been simply recorded by an imaging chip inside the camera (this chip is either CMOS or CCD) (so, the more the number of megapixels is, the larger amount of information is recorded). The recording number is either 14 or 12 bits of data at this step, based on the type of your model. If the photo is shot in the RAW format and you convert this photo into a .PSD or TIFF file, the exported result is 16 bits. This means that the above 14 or 12 bits are spread over the entire 16-bit workspace. Meanwhile, you just have the result of 8 bits with the JPEG format.

Professional photographers often like to take the best advantage of the RAW format as a way to make sure that their shooting results have not been processed by any in-camera software because these photographers prefer to perform the editing in the post production by themselves.

How a file in the RAW format is saved

When a file in the RAW format is saved, there is attached metadata with your photo. Importantly, this file includes all of the camera configurations, for example, the white balance, the color temperature as well as the sharpening level. There will be a header file for this data that the cameras attach with the photo in the RAW format. The above settings won’t change any aspects of your photo. The whole combined file will be saved into the camera memory card. Sometimes, you can find these files compressed in some cameras but others may not, but the image quality is not affected as there is just the minimal compression.

The software for editing photos will read the metadata of a file in the RAW format to display the photo, but not change any metadata.  Later, you can use the software to control the settings manually and check the effect on the files under the RAW format.

How a file in the JPEG format is saved

When a file in the JPEG format is saved, you will find that all of the data which a RAW image file keeps separately in a header file would be saved as part of the JPEG image file (and will be unchangeable).

The JPEG configurations will be automatically set by the camera, and the settings have been limited in several cases. For example, there is only between one and three configuration levels of sharpening, such as “unsharp masking,” at which the edges between the dark and light areas are found and the contrast between these two areas is enhanced. As the sharpening capabilities are limited, you may find clear halos surrounding the edges with high sharpening levels. Therefore, if you set too low sharpening levels, you may have insufficient sharpening.

Also, keep in mind that the image sensor itself cannot record the colors. The colors are recorded thanks to an imaging chip which is known as a Color Filter Array or Bayer Matrix. Based on the layman’s terminology, there are three layers for the green, blue and red colors which have been placed on every pixel, and the information on the colors are defined by comparing between the recording values of every pixel and its surroundings.

The drawback of saving a JPEG file is that the original quality of higher number of bits (12 or 14 bits) is often converted into a lower number (8 bits). With the eight-bit mode, the camera is only able to record 256 shades of color for one pixel (in comparison to 4,096 shades recorded with the RAW’s capability). Consequently, a large amount of potential date on the colors disappears. And the important thing here is that with the JPEG format, the file data will be compressed, so you have the images of smaller sizes. Obviously, a certain number of data is not recorded. If the data are just compressed in a low level (for example, 2:1), the number of lost data is just little. But when the compressing levels are higher, a large number of data is obviously lost.

Why is the JPEG format still commonly used?

The main strength of the JPEG file is that it is possible to save a larger number of JPEG images into the camera memory card thanks to the compressions to create files of smaller sizes. It is also easier to transfer these types of images on the Internet that is preferred by a lot of photographers at the amateur level. In addition, there is also a need for a large buffering zone for shooting images in the RAW format fast and continuously, while the JPEG enables you to have the camera fired quickly. One important thing for amateur photographers is that the JPEG files do not require the post-processing (Certainly, it takes you more time to process RAW image files)

Additionally, many generic converting softwares included in the camera don’t let you have many configurations for adjustments. The price of advanced editing software is not cheap at all. There are two major programs for processing images, including Adobe Bridge and Capture One (these two programs are in the Photoshop). The lowest price point of these has been about $70.

The comparison between the RAW and JPEG format: Conclusion

Not only the number of recorded data with RAW images is higher, but there is also a need for a more complex platform for converting these types of images. The full photo quality will be not affected by saving the converted images into TIFFs. With JPEG images, you’ll have more exposure of image settings around the image quality (for example, color saturation, white balance or the overall contrast). Due to this reason, keep the above-mentioned aspects within the limited range, or you may find the deterioration of photo quality become clearer.

If you are considering which format for the greatest possible photo quality, it is obviously the RAW format. However, the JPEG does meet your needs well in a lot of circumstances. If you just want to shoot quick shots of your family photos, the JPEG will be very nice. The image quality of this format is also good for the prints at the sizes that are lower or equal to A4 sizes.

In conclusion, depending on your shooting purposes, the In the RAW or JPEG format has its own advantages.

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