Camera RAW or JPG – What’s the Difference?

When you take photos with some cameras, you can save the photos in either Camera RAW format or JPG format.  

So what is the difference between these two file formats and when would you choose to use each one? Some of the features of each format are shown in the following table.

Compare Camera RAW JPG
File Format NEF, CR2, ARW, DNG
Proprietary to camera manufacturer
JPG or JPEG
Common format across cameras
Compression Uncompressed Compressed
File Size Large Smaller than RAW
Processing Unprocessed, looks dull Processed in camera, looks colorful
Sharing and
Printing
Must be processed before sharing on web, social media, email, texting Ready to share or print straight out of camera
Editing Must be edited in a Camera RAW editor before sharing or printing Ready to share or print, but can be edited in standard editing programs

Selecting a File Format

JPG is the most common file format used by all cameras. You can easily share JPG files on web sites, social media, email and text messages without editing. For example, you can take a photo on your phone and instantly share it in a text or email. With most compact cameras and smartphones, you don’t have a choice – your camera will always capture photos as JPGs.

Camera RAW is the most preferred format on high-end cameras. Not every camera can save photos in Camera RAW. All DSLRs can save files in Camera RAW. Some high-end compact cameras and smartphones can also save files in Camera RAW. Camera RAW files can’t be shared directly. They must be edited first. 

Some cameras can save two copies of your photo: one in Camera RAW and one in JPG.  If you have a choice, you can tell your camera which file format to use in your camera’s Settings.

The file extension for Camera RAW files will be specific to the manufacturer of your camera. For example, a Nikon camera will save Camera RAW files with a  NEF file extension. is the Nikon RAW format. A Canon camera  will save Camera RAW files with a CRW, CR2, and CR3 file extension. Every camera manufacturer has its own proprietary extension name. 

Note: Adobe has created a special Camera RAW format with an extension of DNG. When  Photoshop® Elements saves a proprietary Camera RAW file, it converts it to DNG.

Compression and Size

Camera RAW files are uncompressed. All the color, light and tone data that your camera sensor sees is recorded in the Camera RAW file. No information is lost. When you edit a Camera RAW file, you are seeing exactly what your camera recorded and you have the full range of colors available to you. Because a Camera RAW file is uncompressed, its file size will be larger than a JPG file.

JPG files are compressed.  When your camera saves a JPG file, some color, light and tone data is discarded. You lose some of the whole range of information that the camera sensor captures. Because a JPG file is compressed, its file size is smaller than a Camera RAW file.

Processing

JPG files are pre-processed in your camera when they are compressed and saved. Your camera may have several picture styles to choose from in the camera’s Settings. Picture styles tell the camera how to apply sharpness, contrast, saturation and color tone to the photo in the camera. 

Camera RAW files are completely unprocessed. No pre-processing is applied in camera. When you open a Camera RAW file in an editor, it may look dull compared the preview you saw in your camera’s LCD screen. That is because the picture styles also tell the camera how to display the preview of a photo that you see in the camera’s LCD screen. 

Sharing and Printing

You can share JPG files directly to the web, social media, email and text messages without further processing. You can also print JPG files without further processing.

You can’t share or print Camera RAW files directly. You must first process a Camera RAW file in a Camera RAW Editor and save it as a JPG file before you can share or print it.

Editing

You can edit JPG files directly in editing programs such as Photoshop® Elements, Lightroom®, Photoshop® and many other photo editors. 

Camera RAW files require a special Camera RAW Editor, like the Camera RAW Editor found in Photoshop® Elements, Lightroom® and Photoshop®. In Lightroom®, the Camera RAW Editor is the heart of the program. In Photoshop® and Photoshop® Elements, the Camera RAW Editor is a separate program that opens when you open a Camera RAW file. 

When to Use Camera RAW vs. JPG

Both file formats can produce photos and prints with excellent colors and tones. Some photographers shoot in Camera RAW only and some use JPG only. The following table shows when you might want to choose one format over the other.

I generally use Camera RAW for most photos. I use JPG for sports events when I want to capture several photos in rapid succession, capturing fast moving subjects like butterflies and children, and travel photos when I want to share photos from my iPad while I’m on the road.

Choose Camera RAW JPG
High quality photos
Use full range of color data
Recover more details in highlights and shadows
Share or print photos instantly
Capture fast moving subjects (sports, butterflies, children)
Shoot in low light settings
Store more images on your camera card
Preserve excellent quality after multiple edits

 

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