Shooting RAW: What it means and when to do it

Jun 13, 1985

If you’ve ever been asked before if you prefer shooting RAW or JPEG, but had no idea what those terms meant, this blog is for you.

When your camera is shooting in RAW it means the picture file will come out in RAW format and as such will contain all the raw (unprocessed) image information captured on your camera’s sensor. It will be saved in a proprietary file format specific to your camera’s manufacturer. A RAW file is much larger than a JPEG file because of this.

Shooting in RAW versus Shooting JPEG

When shooting RAW, the camera does not do any interpolation of the metadata, allowing the photographer to do that in post processing. When a camera converts a RAW file to a JPEG it compresses the file size and uses a predetermined algorithm to read and change information on such things as white balance, color space, sharpness, and bit depth. RAW photos must be edited before they can be shared, but because each file contains more information you can do more modifications and add more layers without losing image quality and as a result obtain finer and higher quality images.

Shooting in JPEG means you’ll be getting a much more simplistic picture file. Much of the information encoded in a JPEG file is baked in, so most edits will result in a slight deterioration of image quality. JPEGs are more convenient. As they are universal, they can be read by all smartphones, tablets and computers without the need for any specialized software.

Most professional photographers prefer shooting RAW because image quality, as opposed to ease of use, is the more important factor. The extra editing time is justified by the final product.

Why RAW Image Quality is Better than JPEG

Explaining precisely why RAW images are higher quality than JPEG requires a bit of math. A JPEG is an 8-bit file. Each channel (blue, green and red) in a pixel can register a maximum of 256 levels of luminosity. Multiply the channels together and you have 16,777,216. Translation? An 8-bit file can show over 16 million color tones at each pixel.

Sounds like a lot right? Well not when you compare it to RAW images, which can be shot as 12- or 14-bit files, putting well over 1 billion color tones in each pixel.

What do those extra color tones give you in terms of an image?

Let’s say you take a picture of the blue sky in JPEG, or any other surface with a smooth gradient. If you edit that image, you’re likely to experience color banding, the appearance of lines where they shouldn’t be. That’s because your tonal range is too narrow to replicate all the subtle shifts in color, so the colors in the image will appear like blocks.

Shooting RAW you won’t have that problem. More tonal gradation in RAW means you can have a more smooth transition between the colors and a greater depth of color and tonality.

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