RAW versus JPG

This is a question I received via email some time ago – and my response. I know – I’m getting into dangerous territory with a post on RAW versus JPG… so try not to freak out if you happen to disagree with me. I’m ok with that. Really. YOU can shoot whatever format you want. I’ll stick with RAW.

Flood on Fire - Varina Patel

“If your images are shot in RAW, have they been adjusted for sharpness, density, saturation and the like?

My wife keeps telling me (she shoots jpeg on a G6) that my final images are not ‘real’ because they were ‘done’ in Photoshop.

I say they are very real because the finished image once it goes thru the RAW processor is what I saw in my mind’s eye when I took the shot in the first place…

…Do you have an opinion on this?

We are on the cusp of sleeping in different bedrooms, sharing parts of the dog and so on.

– A

Here’s my response…

So, let’s start by looking at this analytically.

What is the difference between a JPG and a RAW file? In order to create a raw file, the following steps take place in your camera:

1. Photons reach the pixels on the sensor
2. An electrical charge is created on each pixel
3. The charge is converted to voltage
4. The voltage is amplified
5. The Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) measures the volts and assigns discrete values
6. The ADC converts this information into binary

That’s it. That’s a RAW file. Now… to create a JPG file, the camera does all that too… and then it does the following:

7. Uses a Bayer Interpolation to create color information (remember – your camera can’t see… so it is using a mathematical equation to make a decent guess at the correct colors. Sometimes it is correct – but not always.)
8. White balance adjustments are made (again – the camera is blind, so it uses a complicated mathematical equation to guess at a neutral tone)
9. Makes a series of tonal adjustments including contrast enhancements, etc… in fact… all those things you can do for yourself in the RAW converter are just done automatically in a JPG file
10. Sharpens the image (another algorithm… sharpening is applied indiscriminately across the entire image. Whether it needs it or not.)
11. And last… but certainly not least. The camera compresses the data. Which means it throws away any data it didn’t use. If it guessed wrong about the correct color balance – that’s too bad. The correct data has been thrown out. If the contrast is too high, or the sharpening is too extreme… you are out of luck. The data is gone and it cannot be recovered. Ever.


If you shoot RAW, those last five steps are up to you. Luckily, you aren’t blind. (At least, I’m assuming you aren’t.) You know how the scene looked in reality. So, rather than relying on a series of blind mathematical equations, you can rely on your own vision. Is it perfect? Will you get it right every time? Nope. But it’s a whole heck of a lot more reliable than the camera.

How does processing a raw file compare to developing an image in a darkroom? Well – Photoshop (or whatever software you use) is your digital darkroom. You use it the way a film photographer would use a darkroom… to brighten or darken areas of the image, to adjust contrast and luminosity in specific areas of the image, to adjust color and so on. Developing an image in a darkroom is completely different from processing an image in Photoshop… but it accomplishes the same purpose. Would you say that a photographer who shoots film and develops his own film in the darkroom isn’t a photographer? And would you say that a film photographer who takes his film from the camera and sends it off to have the developing and printing done by someone else is superior to the one who does it himself? It’s a strange argument, really. In the past, a photographer who didn’t do his own development was considered “less than” by those who did all the work themselves. Those who did their own developing thought that those who didn’t weren’t “real” photographers. But now, with the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, the photographer who actually goes beyond the release of the shutter to handle the processing of the image himself is in question. 🙂

And finally – does it really matter? It’s art. Photoshop is a tool. Just as a brush is a tool for a painter, and the kiln is a tool for a potter. So in the end, does it really matter? Just enjoy photography for what it is. Art and pleasure. An expression of what you love and who you are. Love it. Don’t fight it. 😉 RAW or JPG… in the end, it’s the reaction of the viewer that makes a difference. And the pleasure the photographer gets from the process of creating. Certainly not the file type.

So yes. My photographs are shot in RAW and adjusted in the Adobe RAW converter and Photoshop. The colors are as close to the reality of the scene as I can make them (most of the time). I’m not perfect – but I do try. 🙂 But it doesn’t matter to me which file type other photographers choose. It’s their art I’m interested in seeing.

Have a great day. And my best regards to your wife.
Please don’t try dividing the dog. I hear that gets messy.


About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.

  • Bruce Thomas

    As a 26 year press veteran I’m going to wade in and share something an old friend said to me about a year ago: “Raw is for those photographers that don’t have the guts to shoot jpegs” and to a certain extent I believe him. We started shooting in a time when what you saw was what you had to get in the camera…and deliver it with no excuses. Shooting jpegs today teaches you to ‘get it right’ first time like low latitude transparency film used to be. Shooting raw allows you the luxury of moving your white values and black values to places they never were…and every other color in between. Shooting raw allows you to create colors and tonal values that were never in the original and as such the final results can be more paintings than photographs. Yes they are nice ‘images’ and admirers scream ‘great capture’ but they aren’t. A truly great capture is a brilliant image straight from the camera. Too many photographers today have built their reputations on what they do to an image after they have taken it rather than what they have taken.

    • Thanks for the perspective, Bruce. I understand your point – but we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. 🙂 In the days of film photography, photographers manipulated their images in the darkroom. Ansel Adams himself was very accomplished in the darkroom – and he wasn’t afraid to manipulate his images. I think we take ourselves entirely too seriously if we aren’t willing to let photography be the art form that it is. Of course, there are limits to what I believe is acceptable. First and foremost – I believe in honesty. If I adjusted an image in Photoshop, I believe it’s important to be honest about the changes I’ve made. And if I am presenting an image for documentary purposes – newspapers etc – then I need to make sure my photograph is true to the reality of the original scene.

      Additionally, it’s important to remember that a JPG image is also manipulated… it’s just manipulated according to the settings you select in-camera, and the algorithms that the software developers choose.

      Film was very different… there were no built-in algorithms. No JPG or RAW or PSD… and yet, photographers used colored filters to produce effects that are similar to what we can achieve in PS. They dodged and burned and cropped and rotated. They chose Velvia film to produce saturated colors. They used circular polarizers to enhance colors and reduce reflections. They used kaleidoscopic lenses to create bizarre manipulations, and fish-eye lenses to create extreme distortion, and wide-angle lenses to mess with perspective, and long lenses to get close to faraway objects, and macro lenses to make little things look big. They created double exposures. They used soft focus, or a long exposure, or a narrow depth of field to change the look of the scene they were photographing. And they even used masks – carefully cut or even created with the help of a microscope – to build images that were nothing less than what we can do with Photoshop today. If photography is art – then what does it matter?

  • I have always looked at this in that JPEG is essentially outsoucing. RAW is wanting to keep those creative steps in-house.

    Both have pluses and minuses, it just depends on what is more important to the individual. I never developed my own film, simply because I didn’t see much variation in E6 slide processing from place to place. There wasn’t much creativity going on there. It was then more about film selection, where today it happens in RAW file processing. As you point out, the decision points are much the same today, just with different tools and terms to use.

    Good post, I admire your willingness to venture into a contentious topic! 🙂

    • Thanks, Mark. 🙂 I’ve tightened up security around the house – you know, just simple stuff… bars on all the windows, a steel door with vault locks, six Rottweilers trained to attack first and think later… 🙂

      Actually, the discussion has remained pretty civil overall. And people have had some pretty good comments. Over on Google+, my post pointing to this blog post gathered 78 comments and was shared 13 times in just a couple of days – which is a pretty clear indication that the topic is something that interests people. It’s good to discuss the topic – I think there are a few more people who really understand the difference between RAW files and JPG files. Which is great!

      And I like your “outsourcing” versus “in house” analogy. Excellent.

  • Excellent post, I very much share your point of view. I take the liberty to refer to a post I made on G+ discussing some of these issues, adding yet a different viewpoint, but essentially reaching the same conclusion as you…

  • Thank you for writing this.

    If post processing makes it fake, then are all the prints done in a dark room also fake? That’s the kind of stuff that I use Photoshop for.

    I do wish that the cameras used PNG, because it’s lossless, but we get JPG instead. Maybe JPEG processing uses less clock cycles, or requires less RAM, or can be processed within a stream. I don’t know.

    Bayer interpolation needs to occur in ever case; Foveon sensors being the exception. Maybe the software that reads the RAW does it? I don’t know. Without Bayer interpolation each pixel can only be one of three colors with varying brightness-es.

    • You are more than welcome, Paul. 🙂 Thanks for the comment! The camera uses JPG because lossy files are much smaller than lossless ones. The bayer interpolation (along with other algorithms) produces the image we see on screen – but with RAW, we can choose the variables so that the results meet our own idea of how the image should look. We don’t want the camera to choose those variables for us.

  • Very well described! I shoot raw and will never shoot jpeg again. In my photographs management pipeline, I convert my raw files to DNG (Digital Negative) which I then import in my favorite “darkroom” software: Adobe Lightroom. I started doing this when I realized that the DNG format supports some metadata to save the final image after being “adjusted” by Lightroom. So when I backup my photographs, I also backup the final version of the file, not loosing all my work done in Lightroom when I recover a lost file. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    • It sounds like you are working with sound logic, Sébastien. I can save the changes I’ve made to RAW files without converting them to DNG format, so I don’t bother with Adobe’s proprietary file format. But if this is working for you, there’s no need to change what you are doing. 🙂

      • Mario

        The problem with the original manufacturer’s file format is (at least as far as I encountered it with Canon’s CR2) that Photoshop saves the adjustments in a second sidecar file (XMP), which is prone to get lost or not be handled with in a different software. Renaming for example can be very dangerous. With DNG everything stays in one file, nothing beats the simplicity of that.

        And besides – CR2 and NEF are even more proprietary than DNG. 😉

      • Now there’s something I didn’t know! Thanks, Mario! I did know about the XMP files – but I didn’t realize that DNG didn’t use them! I might just change what I’m doing based upon that handy little nugget of information! And you are right, of course – Canon and Nikon file types are also proprietary. I didn’t mean to suggest that they weren’t… I simply didn’t see a good reason to go from one proprietary file type to another. Now, I do. I’ll look into the details and see where that takes me.

  • The simple answer: RAW is a negative, JPEG is a print. Or, maybe, RAW is a neg and JPEG is a transparency. The reality of each digital file – JPEG or RAW – is down to interpretation: one through a compression algorithm, one more via the user. Same as it always was in film days: I shoot negs, I go print them myself. Different result from shooting them and handing them to my local lab.

    • This is how I see it too. In film terms JPEG is a polaroid, that comes out of the camera complete and ready to go. RAW is a negative that sill needs to be developed and is usually developed by hand.

      As for whether hand processing RAW is “real” or not I think Ansel Adams said it best:
      “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways”

  • Mark Gutowski

    Great article Varina.I really noticed the difference in the jpg format when I recently bought a new camera. My new Nikon D5100 processes images much differently than my older Sony.

    The Nikon has the ability to save in both raw and jpg formats simultaneously. What are your thoughts on that?

    • Thanks Mark. 🙂 When I first started shooting RAW, I did set my camera to save both file formats just in case. But now, I shoot only RAW. I do think that it’s great for those who aren’t comfortable with the idea of RAW files. You can have both versions of the file – and it’s great for comparing your RAW processing to in-camera processing. Generally, we find that manual processing produces a much better finished product than the in-camera JPG settings. Being able to compare might convince you that shooting RAW is the right thing to do! 😉

  • Carlo Didier

    As an additional note you could say that a camera generated jpeg isn’t real either because the camera does basically the same things we (raw shooters) do in post-processing. A firmware update of your camera may lead to different jpegs from the exact same scene. So which one is “real”?

    • Exactly. Very well said, Carlo. And an excellent point.