Photography Basics: RAW vs. Jpg

I was pleasantly surprised at how many of you lucky ladies said you got a new DSLR under the tree for the holidays, so I wanted to do a quick little primer on RAW vs. jpg:  What is RAW (hint: it has nothing to do with meat!), why shoot in RAW vs. jpg and why shoot in jpg vs. RAW?

So you MAY have noticed that your DSLR has the option to shoot in just jpg (in a variety of sizes) or RAW + jpg.  This is probably all foreign to you if you just upgraded from a point and shoot that only shoots jpg.   Almost ALL serious photographers shoot in RAW and here’s two big reasons why:

1) It’s a non-destructive image format – you can make many more exposure, color, saturation and White Balance (hereafter I will refer to this as “WB” in this post) without degrading or “adding noise” (pixelation) to your images

2) Because of the above, It can save your butt.

Let’s start with #1: Non destructive (or less destructive) image editing.

Jpgs are a compressed file format, RAW is not. For this reason the RAW files are MUCH bigger than jpg files, which is incidentally also the only downside to shooting RAW: diskspace!

So when you edit a jpg in photoshop, you are already working with less information than the RAW file. Which may be ok if all you are doing is a slight color balance and sharpening or something, but if you really need to make some more blunt adjustments like increasing or decreasing exposure, you will start to notice that your images look grainy or “noisy” as we say in photography lingo.  But make those same changes in RAW and you will notice much less destruction to your image quality. Now, I should mention that if you wildly under or overexpose an image no file format in the world is going to save you, but by now you know how to shoot in manual mode and how to read your camera’s histogram so you know you are exposing properly. Right? ;)

But even when you metered and read your histogram correctly and exposed correctly for your subject, you may still have overexposed to the point of losing details of small bright areas of your image (known as “clipping” the highlights).

Using a RAW image editing program like Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) or Lightroom allows you to use the “recovery slider” to tame those bright spots (within reason) so that they won’t print as pure white, which is to say those areas wouldn’t have any printing at all because printers can’t print in the absence of color and your prints will look crappy.

So that’s the “save your butt” part.  What about other advantages?

Ok, here’s another big one: Ease of White Balance (WB) adjustment.

What is WB? WB is essentially setting the correct color temperature so that your image neither appears too blue, too yellow, to magenta or too green.  If you leave your camera in auto WB mode (which all cameras are set to by default) your camera will try to guess at the correct WB  for you, but it will guess wrong most of the time.. quite wrong actually.

Here’s an example, correct WB on the left, SOOC (straight out of camera) to the right:


Notice the ghastly bluish cast over the whole image on the right? Zombie baby!

In fact, when I look at the images of photographers who are just starting out, the incorrect WB stands out almost more than any other technical deficiency… almost uniformly their images look too blue (blue babies = SCARY!)

Now, to be clear: RAW will not magically set the right WB for you unless you set custom WB in camera or use a digital gray kard (subject of a future post!), but it makes it a whole lot easier to adjust than if you just try to find the correct color from within photoshop, and it does this with the temperature (yellow/blue ) and tint (green/magenta) sliders.

Photoshop has color balance layers, channel, curves and levels layers with a gazillion adjustments you could do to each (and you may even need to tweak these after you find the correct WB level in RAW) but trust me when I tell you it is soooo much easier to get this correct in RAW vs in photoshop.

The difference from the right image to the left, was the adjustment of just those top two bars (temperature and tint) in Lightroom:


and here are the same controls but in ACR which is technically a free “plug-in” for Photoshop for handling RAW files that you can download from Adobe for free:

White balance adjustment in ACR

You will notice that there are lots of other adjustments you can make in both LR and ACR, and all of those before you even OPEN the image in photoshop! The point of this goes back to what I said about less destructive image editing: If you make the majority of your adjustments to the RAW file itself before opening it and doing final tweaks in Photoshop, you will be preserving the best possible image quality.

So, that’s the upside to shooting in RAW, what are the downsides?

Well, I’ve already mentioned the biggie: filesize.  My mark II RAW files are 27.5 MB EACH! Which would explain why I just had to buy a terrabyte External hard drive. (The RAW files from the Rebel are about half that size – but still way more than the highest quality jpg.)

The other is that unedited, the jpg files that your camera produces will actually look BETTER than the equivalent RAW file. That is because the camera manufacturers have built all sorts of magical formulas for making that jpg look great including S curve, sharpening, saturation and other neat little adjustments.  So the image in RAW (depending onyour settings) can look a little less sharp, a little less contrasty and you will have to add those back in to taste, but the point is that YOU will be making those decisions and not letting the camera make them for you.

In summary, shooting in RAW is definitely not for everyone – if you do very little post processing tweaking to your files, don’t batch process, are uncalibrated and don’t really want to – you probably are just fine sticking with JPG.

But if you want to do more post processing and still maintain the highest image quality and control over the final output – go get yourself a huge external hard drive and start shooting in RAW! Chances are, you’ll never go back…

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Kristen says:

Yep, that was totally me starting out! If I had the time I would go through all my old photos now with ACR!

ariana says:

Alicia, ACR is free! Well, it’s a free plugin that will only work if you have PS installed :)

Alicia says:

Awesome toot!
I know Lightroom is $$$$, any idea how much ACR is?
I’ve downloaded a freeware called LightBox, but haven’t really figured it our yet, other than noticing my images look WAY more like film than digital, imo.
Anywho, thanks for posting this!!!!

ariana says:

Lisa E, I don’t think it matters what version of PS you run with Adobe Camera Raw.. you can just download the latest ACR version here and it should open up those CR2 Files.

Lisa E says:

Ariana- Thanks for the post! I have shot in raw at a wedding and the post processing was such a process! My canon raw file is a CR2 file. Photoshop will not open it. I went to Adobe website and they only have a upload for CS4. I have CS3. What file does your canon save it in? What is your typical work flow when working in RAW? Also what is your camera’s WB set too? I use auto.
Thanks again! You are awesome!

ariana says:

Thanks guys, glad you find it somewhat helpful! Juliana, I will, but to be honest I don’t really do much of anything anymore, I never add color or saturation. I think it has to do with being better about getting the exposure correct in camera – it really helps SO much with color and contrast too!

Maria, you made me LOL, what am I the photo nazi?! ;)

Maria says:

I agree…love these tutorials and very much appreciate them. I need to put MUCH more time into learning about both my camera and Photoshop. I have to admit I think of you when I post a pic to FB and sort of cringe knowing you might see them. I know my photos could be so much better, I just need to invest the time. Thank you for explaining it all so clearly!

Lisa says:

Thanks for the information!

kari says:

Amazing Ari..
how do you have the time to learn all of this fab/fascinating stuff… and then have the amazing gift to share with us.
thanks pal :) you are dreamy!

Juliana says:


Thanks for the tutorial!! I love them and the way you explain things. Please, keep them comming. And here is a suggestion for a next post: what are the main changes you do to your photographs? I can see that they all have such vibrant colors!!

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