RAW vs JPG in 600 Words or Less

The question of whether to shoot in RAW or JPG is one that new photographers struggle with in droves, and the explanations and answers they get are usually long and complicated.  I’m here to put it in terms a beginner can understand, quickly in 600 words or less.  Ready?  Go.

The most important difference between RAW and JPG is that JPG files are compressed, assembled photo files while RAW files are merely a collection of unassembled data.  The major advantage to this is that each of those pieces of data can be changed in post production.  Before we get into that, let’s look at some of the major disadvantages of RAW files, which you will soon learn to ignore:

  • Since RAW files are uncompressed, file sizes are MUCH larger than JPG
  • Special software with support for your camera’s raw files is required to not only work on, but to even view your photos pre-export.  You cannot simply open them in Windows Explorer

With these disadvantages in mind, why do so many photographers choose to shoot RAW?  As mentioned earlier, the answer lies in the data that RAW gives you.  Simply put, your post-editing experience is going to be much, much better and much, much more fruitful when using RAW files.  And here’s why:

The most basic example that is used when describing RAW vs. JPG is to think of a cake and its ingredients.  With a JPG file you have a completed assembled and baked cake in front of you.  With a RAW file you have each of the ingredients in front of you before the cake was put together.  If you had used four eggs and you want to use three instead, with the completely baked cake (JPG) there is little you can do to fix it.  You can’t take the cake apart, take one egg out, and put it back together.  However, with the ingredients in front of you (RAW) you can simply remove an egg before putting it together.

It is fair to point out than you CAN make changes in post with a JPG file, it’s just that in that case the editing software you’re using has to kind of guess on those changes and as such they will be far less accurate.  The software can guess what a cake with three eggs would be like and give it to you, whereas with a RAW file the software can actually take that egg out.  In photography terms, that means you can accurately change the white balance, exposure, saturation, etc all after you’ve taken the photo with a RAW file.  With a JPG file your camera has already set all those values and compressed everything together into a JPG file.  The raw data is lost.

So what about those RAW disadvantages I mentioned earlier?  Well, the file sizes are just something that you’re going to have to deal with.  That means getting more storage, more backup space, etc.  I will be putting together a blog post on how to better deal with this later.

As for the problem of needing software to read the RAW files, that software/codec is usually available for free from your camera manufacturer.  On top of that, any decent photo editing software (Lightroom, etc) will already include support for those files.  That means you can view and edit them in Lightroom and then export them as a JPG file.  If you want to remove an egg, you just do so with the RAW file in Lightroom and re-export the JPG.

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