Photos: RAW versus JPG

Is there really a difference, or is shooting in high quality JPG good enough?

I’ve been reading articles online and books on photography, and one big topic that’s come up pretty often is the supposed difference of shooting in RAW format versus JPG format. If you’re familiar with audio formats, it’s the difference between .wav files and .mp3 files: big quality difference.

I wasn’t sure if it were really a big deal; after all, with a little photo editing, JPG photos look pretty good. I decided to put it to the test for myself this afternoon. As a note, all of the photos in this article have not been edited for exposure or color, they’ve only been cropped and combined for examples.

For today’s experiment, I set my camera (a Nikon D7000) to shoot in RAW+JPG, that is, so each shot would be saved as both formats. The “RAW” photos shown here have been converted to JPG using RawTherapee, a free and open source RAW image editor.

I grabbed some convenient dried flower bouquets (my wife’s decor, not mine) and set them up in the living room light. In this first photo, there really is a distinct difference between the two versions. The RAW version has better contrast between the darks and the lights, and the in-focus area is slightly sharper, and the out-of-focus areas have a smoother look in the blur.

RAW on the left, JPG on the right

The JPG definitely needs some editing to make it look good enough to show off, while the RAW is just about ready as it is. Both would benefit from editing, but one is certainly a lot closer to a finished product.

JPG on the left, RAW on the right

This picture shows an even bigger difference in the tone (brightness) on the yellow flower (is that a flower exactly? I’m not a botanist) and in the wheat stalks background. The colors in the RAW version are more vibrant and attractive than the JPG as well.

One last example: RAW on the left, JPG on the right

So is the difference worth it? RAW certainly looks better and is more professional, but it’s harder to work with. It has to be edited and converted to JPG with a professional photo editing program like Adobe Lightroom or darktable; a RAW file cannot be displayed with native image viewers in Windows, MacOS, or most Linux distros. JPG doesn’t look quite as good, but if you’re only taking pictures casually, then it may not be worth the trouble to shoot in RAW.

Want to learn more about image, audio, and video file compression? HowToGeek has an excellent article you can read here.