RAW vs. JPEG: Photography File Formats Explained

With the popularity of photography, more and more people are becoming familiar with the RAW file format. Unfortunately, there seems to be some misinformation about RAW, which then leads to potential conflict between photography clients and professional photographers. It’s also a confusing concept if you’re taking up photography as a serious hobby.. with the question being whether you should shoot your photos in RAW or JPEG. There are benefits to both formats, which are outlined below, as well as an explanation of what RAW actually is and why you should never actually ask for RAW files from your photographer!

The view on my laptop as I work with photographs using Lightroom, which is a software that can process and output RAW image files.

The view on my laptop as I work with photographs using Lightroom, which is a software that can process and output RAW image files.

What is a RAW image file?

Simply put, RAW is an uncompressed and unprocessed image format that cameras use to give photographers the most control over the resulting image. It’s sort of like a roll of film that hasn’t yet been developed. You can’t do anything with these files until you process them using Lightroom, Photoshop, iPhoto, etc, just like how you have to develop your film before you can get your photos printed. RAW files tend to be big, since they’re not compressed or optimized in any way.


So, as a photographer, you have a choice - RAW or JPEG file format when you take that photo. When you select RAW, the camera will output a preview image for you with specific settings you select in camera, but once you offload your images, you can process them any way you like without worrying about quality loss (adjusting things like sharpness, white balance, color saturation, whites and blacks, is all available). But you do have that extra step of processing. You need to use specific software to do that processing before you can use your photos for printing or uploading to Facebook/Instagram. And bad RAW processing is probably the #1 way amateur photographers mess up their photos.

JPEG on the other hand is much easier to deal with. You can use your photos straight out of the camera, but you are relying on your camera to process them for you. It becomes more important to get your exposure and white balance right in camera, because you can’t change it after the fact without impacting quality (JPEG is a compressed format). It’s also important to set those picture settings in your camera the way you want them, so the images that are outputted are exactly how you want them to look in terms of saturation, contrast, sharpness, etc.

Image of camera and flowers on table. Object photo session by N. Lalor Photography. Studio in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Why your photographer is probably shooting in RAW

For my Clients, I want the best possible quality. I want the most control. And I’m willing to spend HOURS working on the portraits in order to get them to their final look. For most family photographers, this makes the most sense. We can apply our specific settings (this guarantees a consistent look for every client), fix anything that’s off (which is why color correction is such a big thing), and export at highest quality. That’s why most photographers shoot in RAW, process their images, and export them in the look/style they want.

Which should I use?

If you have a DSLR or a fancy digital camera that takes RAW image files, you might have wondered about switching to RAW instead of JPEG. While it won’t instantly make you a great photographer, it will allow you to fix some mistakes in post production. The downside, of course, is that you’ll be spending a lot more time in front of your computer playing around with settings on your photos. If you’re using your camera for everyday snapshots, shooting in JPEG probably makes the most sense. Make sure you set your camera to process those images in a way that you prefer (there are sharpness, saturation, and color setting for all of it) and enjoy the ease of having your images ready to go directly out of camera. And when you’re ready to invest some more time into learning photography, RAW will be the file format you’ll want.

Image of fan and backdrop scene. Photography by N. Lalor Photography. Studio in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Why you should never ask for RAW files from your photographer

I can only assume that you’re hiring a photographer because you like the way their photos look in their portfolio. While this isn’t a problem I run into with my Clients, I see way too many Facebook posts by aggravated photographers about this topic. The thing is, it makes no sense to hire a professional photographer if you want them to give you RAW files. Ask a friend or your cousin to simply use your camera if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re going through the trouble of finding a photographer whose style you like, processing those RAW files is 80% of the final result. They’re not some mythical “digital negatives” that will open up a world of possibilities to you if you get them. They will most likely either cause too much of a headache (you’re taking on a lot of work) or you’ll never actually touch them (in which case, you just wasted a whole bunch of money). Simply make sure that your photographer provides a high resolution version of the final portraits (not just web sharing files) and you will be able to use those images for any purpose you need.

Image of young girl with long hair holding flowers. Photography by N. Lalor Photography. Studio in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The truth is, a lot of work goes into creating the final images you see on photographer’s websites. Learning how to work with RAW files is part of the journey an aspiring photographer goes through when they take this on as a hobby or start their own photography business. It can be as quick and simple as batch processing with Lightroom or as time-intensive as hand-editing every photograph.. but in whichever way it’s done, that individual process is what creates the vastly different photography styles you see out there.

Working with RAW images is absolutely wonderful. It allows photographers to create something truly special, whether it’s for a personal project or for a client. It’s that work that we need to recognize and respect, and understanding a bit more about the process is one of the best ways to do it.