Adventures of a Sage—Photography as a Lens for Self-Discovery

Tag: Technical

Deciding Which Format to Shoot: RAW or JPEG

Deciding whether to shoot RAW or JPEG is a strategic decision. OK, I know this journal is intended for hobbyists, and that the word “strategic” in that context is harsh and unpleasant. The Sage promised self-discovery. But no, now we need to make “strategic decisions.” I may have just lost half my audience.

For the five loyal fans who remain, it’s important to understand that before you press the shutter button, you have a choice of different file formats in which the image will be saved. And that choice determines what you can, or can’t do, with that award-winning photo after capture. Recognizing that you will never catch that exact same image of the Loch Ness Monster again (or his preferred side), this is an important decision.

One format (RAW) gives you an infinite number of post-processing options after capture. The other format (JPEG) locks color and exposure of the image based on software in the camera. Which format to shoot depends on what your goals are.

Differences Between RAW and JPEG

Before I delve into each format, let’s look at visual differences between the same RAW and a JPEG image.

Comparison of RAW vs. JPEG Images
Out of Camera

(NOTE: Scroll images horizontally to view on a small screen)

RAW fileProcessed JPEG
RAW images are blah images: flat, dull, and require post-processingJPEG images have been processed, compressed, and are ready to view

Yuk!  Why would anyone want to use the RAW format? Patience young grasshopper. Let’s look at the differences between file formats in more detail. The following table compresses a 500-word essay:

RAW vs. JPEG Differences

What it isA processed, finished image. You’re done.A digital negative.
You’ve only just begun.
DataContains less data.Contains more data.
File sizeDepends on image and camera sensor.Depends on image and camera sensor. Multiply left column x 2-8.
Color8-bit JPEG = 16.8M colors.12-bit RAW = 68.7 billion colors.
16-bit RAW = 281 trillion colors.
CompressionImage is compressed.
Pack more images onto your memory card!
Compressed data is gone forever.
No compression.
Buy more and larger memory cards!
Original data available forever.
Image qualityLow to high.
(Select in-camera.)
Very high on steroids.
ViewabilityUniversal. View on any device.RAW file structure is specific to camera brand and model. Photo editing software must have an interpreter for your specific camera model integrated into the software.
To share the processed image you must convert it to JPEG or some other image format (PNG, TIFF, BMP, etc.)
Enlarged printsNo issues up to 8-1/2 x 11” and possibly larger.Wall size.
Artistic control / ability to editLimited.Infinite.
Adjust exposure and white balanceNo.Yes.
Adjust colorNo.Yes.
Fix dynamic rangeNo recovering blown-out highlights or under-exposed shadows.Significant (but not unlimited) amount of highlight and shadow recovery possible.
Back-ups & transfersFast.Not so fast.
Best advantageSmall, compressed file. Universal viewing.Archive quality file. Infinite artistic control.
Most important disadvantageJPEG file quality degrades each time they are saved.Large file size and post-production required.
Why useConvenience.
Full artistic control.
Time requiredNone required after capture. Ready-to-go.Requires post-processing. Time required depends on how much work you want to do.
Who usesHobbyist.Professional.

After reviewing the above table, you probably, immediately, and definitively know which format you want to shoot. You’re either in the, “there’s no way I want to waste my time post-processing RAW files” camp. Or, you’re in the, “I’m an artist and I need flexibility and control to convey my vision” camp.

Take note that your opinion—whether a “snap” or considered decision—provides you with insights of self-discovery. Aha.

Whether you shoot with a camera or your phone, the default format is probably set to JPEG. You need to manually select RAW if you prefer that format. That tweak is buried in the 15th setting of the ninth screen of the seventh section in your camera menu. Check your 900-page manual.

JPEG  Files Degrade Each Time They Are Saved

Here’s the kicker that most peeps aren’t aware of: Because a JPEG file re-compresses every time the file is saved, it tosses out bits of data each time you re-save the file. This degrades image quality over time.

Whoa! That’s sage advice—well worth your free subscription!

That said, given the number of times you might re-save any particular JPEG file over your lifetime, you would likely not notice a difference. On the other hand, if you want to create archival images, that would be RAW, not JPEG.

Here’s a video that demonstrates file degradation with four different compression formats (FLIF, WebP, BPG, and JPEG) after re-saving the file 500-times. (“PSNR” at the bottom of the video is “peak signal to noise ratio,” a logarithmic ratio that measures image fidelity. Do not confuse “Logarithmic” with “log rolling.” These are different terms.)

Can You Post-Process JPEG  Files?

Some argue that it’s possible to post-process JPEG files, and that photographers who shoot RAW are overly-complicating and obfuscating. To that I say: Obfuscation is the prerogative of professionals!

The reality is: you cannot post-process a JPEG file with any noticeable change in the image because of the file compression. Those nuanced bits of data needed for subtle adjustments, originally tossed out by your camera’s JPEG compression algorithm, are gone (as in “deleted”) just after you snap the shutter.

The Best of Both Worlds (Parallel Format Universes)

If you can’t decide which format you want to shoot, many cameras allow you to capture both RAW and JPEG simultaneously. While this gives you the best of both worlds, there are several disadvantages living in parallel universes: (a)

(a) Should you decide to attempt the parallel universe thing, I recommend picking up the complete set of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  1. Double the processing time—Your camera now needs to process both types of images after each shutter press. How long you’ll wait depends on two things: the zippiness of your camera’s processor and the speed of your SD card. If your camera doesn’t have a snappy processor, processing may require several seconds. The second issue is how fast your SD card can record the data. Faster SD cards can process images at the rate of 300MB per second. (Some high-speed cards may require that you take out a home equity loan.) You will wait even longer if you are shooting in burst mode capturing a fast-moving event with multiple images per second. Time depends on how many images captured + the above variables. For slow processors, bring a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At 590,000 words, you may be able to get a chapter in between shutter snaps.
  2. More storage capacity—What you make up in flexibility by capturing both formats you will lose in storage capacity. Because you are now storing both file formats your SD card will fill up much that much quicker.
  3. More time to organize your files—Now that you have two different types of formats for every image, the time required for you to view, cull, organize, post-process and curate has more than doubled. Do you file both images in the same folder? Or do you organize your files by file type? Your time requirement has increased exponentially, which can be expressed by this formula:

Time Required to Process Both RAW and JPEG Files
(Per image, assuming the speed of light is constant)

Shooting RAW on Your Phone

A quick note about shooting RAW images on a phone: Although most new high-end phones now have a RAW option built into the firmware, older phones may require a separate app to process RAW images.

What Does the Sage Shoot?

As the renowned semi-professional photographer that I am, 95% of the time I shoot RAW, because I’m shooting either stock photography or for my website. Occasionally, if I shoot images that will only be shared with friends, then I’m in JPEG mode. Consequently, this Journal will cover RAW more than JPEG.


  • Which camp are you: RAW or JPEG, and why?
  • Take a moment to consider your format decision. Does your choice give you insights of self-discovery?
  • Would you ever consider switching? Why or why not?

Thanks for reading this journal entry. Know of anyone else who may be interested? Feel free to invite them along.

Up Next

0006  Post-Processing Software