RAW vs JPEG — A Technical Explanation
Do you shoot RAW, or do you shoot JPEG? Do you fully understand the advantages of one over the other? Let’s clear that up here!
At its most basic, RAW is a bigger file with more flexibility than a JPEG. The RAW file has more data (actual raw data, as the name infers), is more forgiving of creative and corrective adjustments, and is (literally) open to interpretation. JPEG is smaller, faster to work with and visually consistent, but inflexible and with very limited adjustability.
But let’s get into the weeds…
Here’s a technical explanation of what each format is. This discussion starts with the camera itself — specifically, the camera sensor.
Light coming from a light source (i.e. the sun) bounces off an object and through the camera lens, coming to focus on the digital sensor. In a brief moment of time, that light is recorded. However unlike film where an actual photochemical reaction happens and converts the film into something we can visually see (after processing, of course), in digital, it’s all data. Just ones and zeroes.
At the moment of exposure, the camera can do one of two things. It can either store that data (the “raw” data) into a RAW file, or it can convert that data into color pixels and save that in a JPEG file. (OK yes color pixels are also just data, but that’s beside the point. The colors have been decided).
When a camera converts the raw data to color information, it has to decide for every single pixel (with millions and millions of them in a single photo) what its color value should be. In an 8-bit JPEG file (which is a universal standard and has been for over 25 years), every single pixel has to be one of 16.78 million colors, made up of three primary colors — red, green and blue. There are 256 possible values for each color in an 8-bit color space. That’s 2 to the 8th power (2^8=256), then 256 cubed (for each of the three colors; 256^3 = 16.78 million).
That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. It’s actually quite limited. Let’s compare to the RAW file… (continued…)