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Raw vs JPEG For Photo Editing


Written by Steve Patterson. In this tutorial, the first in a series on editing and retouching images with Adobe Camera Raw, we’ll take a quick look at the main difference between the two most popular file formats used by digital cameras today – raw and JPEG – and learn why one of them has a major advantage over the other when it comes to image editing and retouching. Many digital cameras today, including both DSLRs and higher end compact cameras, give us the option of saving our images as either raw files or JPEG files. The JPEG format has been around for over 20 years and remains to this day the most widely used file format for saving and sharing digital photos. The raw format, on the other hand, is a much more recent development, but if you’re thinking "Well, obviously newer is better, right?", it’s not quite that simple. While JPEG is an industry standard file format, it may surprise you to learn that raw isn’t really a file format at all. At least, not in the traditional sense.

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You may have noticed that I’ve been writing "raw" in small letters and "JPEG" in caps, and there’s a reason for it. With most file formats, the letters in the format’s name actually stand for something. In this case, the term "JPEG" is short for Joint Photographic Experts Group, the name of the organization that created the standard (just like "GIF" stands for Graphics Interchange Format and "TIFF" is the Tagged Image File Format). "Raw", on the other hand, doesn’t stand for anything. It’s just a normal word, and what it means (in the case of digital images at least) is that the file contains the raw image information that was captured by your camera’s sensor when you pressed the shutter button.

What does that mean, and how is that different from JPEG? In many ways, shooting your photos as JPEGs is like sending a roll of film off to a photo lab to develop your images for you, and what you end up with is, well, whatever you end up with. When shooting JPEGs, your camera becomes the photo lab, processing the image in a series of steps that include setting the white balance, adjusting the contrast and color saturation, applying sharpening, and then compressing the image to reduce its file size (a process known as "lossy compression" because it results in a loss of image quality). Yes, you can edit and retouch the photo yourself afterwards in Photoshop, but you’re starting with an image that’s already been processed, with permanent changes already made to its pixels (and a lot of the original image information already discarded). Wouldn’t it be better if you could somehow grab the image information straight from the camera’s sensor before your camera’s little internal photo lab gets its high tech hands on it and makes decisions on what it thinks your photo should look like?

That’s where raw comes in. A raw file is like taking the original film negative into the dark room and developing the photo yourself, with complete control and creative freedom over the final result. In fact, raw files are often referred to as digital negatives, and we use a program like Adobe’s Camera Raw as a digital darkroom to process the raw files (many people use the terms "raw" and "Camera Raw" as if they’re the same thing, but "raw" refers specifically to the file type itself, while Camera Raw is an application created by Adobe that we can use to process raw files). Every bit of image information captured by your camera’s sensor is saved and stored in the raw file, with no processing of any kind. In fact, the files are so "raw" that we can’t even open them normally on a computer like we can with JPEGs and other file types. They can only be opened in a program like Camera Raw where we can then process the photos in any way we choose before opening them in Photoshop for further refinement or saving them out as a JPEGs or some other traditional file type.

The main benefit to capturing our images as raw files as opposed to JPEGs is that we have a lot more image information to work with, including a much wider dynamic range (the number of brightness levels in the image) and a larger color space, and this means we can push the images a lot further than we could with JPEGs, bringing out and rescuing hidden detail in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights, detail that often gets tossed away and lost forever by a camera’s JPEG conversion process.

To show you what I mean, let’s take a quick look at an example of how, just by working with raw files instead of JPEGs, we can get much better results with our images. Here, I’ve used Adobe Bridge (CS6, in this case) to navigate to a folder on my desktop containing two images. At first glance, just by looking at the thumbnails, it may seem like both images are the same, but there’s one important difference. The version on the left is a raw file and the one on the right is a JPEG file. The raw file has a ".CR2" extension at the end of its name, which is Canon’s raw file extension (other camera manufacturers use different extensions for their raw files) while the JPEG has a traditional ".jpg" extension:

A raw and JPEG version of the same photo in Adobe Bridge. Image © 2013 Photoshop Essentials.comYou must Sign up as a member of Effecthub to view the content.

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