JPEG vs RAW – Do you like cake?

Matt Krumins Photography Tutorial

I’m often asked by students if they should be shooting RAW so I thought I would take a minute to try and explain the concept of RAW vs JPEG with a simple analogy (in true Matt Krumins style).

Do you like cake? I like cake… in fact most people like cake, but the fact is that some cakes do look and taste better than others and depending on your preferences this changes from person to person. For today, we are going to consider a JPEG image to be a cake. Once a cake is baked (in-camera) it can be really quite difficult to change it. You can cut it up into different shapes (cropping), or you can pop some icing on it (filters) but whilst these things may improve the cake slightly, it is really not dramatically different from the cake you started with.

A RAW file on the other hand is the ingredients to your cake; unlimited, raw ingredients. If you want to change the mix to affect your final cake you can, and if you bake it (export it) and are unhappy with the mix you can go back to your raw ingredients and forever tweak the mix until you are happy with the final outcome.

This means that a RAW file is much more forgiving than a JPEG image as it has the ability for you to do major adjustments over and over again after the image is shot without losing any quality. The trade off for RAW thought is that it requires processing in editing software such as Lightroom (after all, have you ever eaten a bowl or raw cake ingredients? eeww).

If your camera has the ability to shoot RAW it will almost certainly have the ability to shoot RAW + JPEG. This means the camera will save a RAW file AND a JPEG to your memory card. This allows you the peace of mind that you have a highly editable image available if you need it, but also a JPEG version which can be used straight out of camera for the vast majority of you images.

RAW file types:
Olympus – .ORF
Nikon – .NEF
Canon – .CR2
Sony – .ARW
Fuji – .RAF
Panasonic – .RAW

You can decorate a cake with icing (filters) or cut it into a different shape (cropping) but you are very limited in the changes you can make once it’s baked (into a JPEG).

The most important part to understand within this analogy though is that whilst a RAW file gives you the ability to make major adjustments after the shot has been taken, when all is said and done a RAW file is baked into a JPEG before being presented to your audience just as a JPEG is baked in the camera. If your image straight out of camera is the exact look you are after, there isn’t necessarily any added value in shooting RAW.

A common (I’ll call it) ‘Myth’ is that RAW files are higher resolution, but if you are shooting your cameras highest quality JPEG you will find that if you compare the JPEG to a processed and exported (as JPEG) RAW image, they may look different but the actual image quality will be the same.

Greater editing ability allowing major corrections and adjustments. Critical in recovering dark shadows and bright highlights as well as micro-contrast in textures. RAW also allows you to change your white balance after you have taken the shot.

Smaller files which can be used straight away without processing. Your camera must be set to the highest quality JPEG for the above statement about image quality for it to hold true.

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Example of JPEG vs RAW editing

Underexposed image out of camera

Results of adjusting JPEG

Results of adjusting RAW

This is a great example of where RAW is vital to your photography workflow. The original image is underexposed deliberately to retain the detail in the sky above the tower; this unfortunately results in the tower being under exposed. As you can see with the images to the right, if you push the shadow information up and pull the highlight information down in brightness you can still achieve a balanced image using RAW however the JPEG edit comes out muddy and contrasty.

The takeaway from this example is that a RAW file gives you much greater dynamic range in a shot at the expense of needing to process the file.