File formats and how to choose between them

Updated: Jun 10, 2018


Before you start shooting, it’s important to think about what you want to do with your photographs, and how you will store your images once they come off your camera.

The most common file format for photographs is the humble JPEG (which stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group). Cameras generally shoot in JPEGs, which are a compressed format, and RAW, which are uncompressed.


Let’s explore the pros and cons of the JPEG.


Benefits of .jpeg

  • Small file size. A memory card will hold five times as many photographs than if you were to use a RAW file format.

  • Can be easily opened by pretty much every computer.

  • Higher burst capacity because each photograph is saved much quicker than a RAW format.

  • Instant results. Shooting in a RAW file format means you need to do some post processing before you can put your photos out there in the world. JPEGs, on the other hand, are ready straight from the camera if you don’t intend to edit them in any way.

Drawbacks of .jpeg

  • The depth of colour is fairly poor because of the way JPEGs are saved in-camera. JPEGs can only record 256 tones in each RGB channel, whereas RAW formats can record at least 4096 colours. Shooting the JPEG format gives you very little creative control if you intend to edit your photographs.

  • You lose detail in the highlights and shadows, again, due to the data discarded during the in-camera saving process.

  • The way JPEGs are saved in camera means that your in-camera decisions are ‘baked in’ to the photograph and cannot be reversed, such as sharpening and saturation profiles.

It’s fairly clear that if you want to do anything creative with your images, then shooting in a RAW file format is important. Luckily, most cameras will allow you to shoot both formats alongside each other, giving you the best of both worlds. Look in your cameras ‘Image Quality’ menu and you should find this option.


I’ve been referring to RAW as though it is one specific file format like JPEG, but this isn’t the case. Each camera manufacturer has developed their own RAW format. Canon calls their CR2 or CRW, Nikon calls theirs NEF, and Fuji calls theirs RAF. This highlights a key drawback of RAW, in that these files are not as readily shared as the ubiquitous JPEG.


Once you are familiar with the RAW workflow though, the benefit is enormous. RAW file formats preserve every shred of data that your camera’s sensor is capable of picking up, giving you absolute creative control over the process.


Personally, I shoot in JPEG + RAW for two main reasons.


First, I am able to use the JPEG as a review format, as RAW takes much longer to load on my computer. Once I’ve reviewed my photos, I then take the RAW into Photoshop and get down to some editing.


Second, JPEG will always be supported by every computer and device, so I can be sure I will always be able to use my photographs wherever I need to, even if my particular RAW format stopped being supported.


I would always recommend shooting in RAW, even if you don’t currently edit your photographs. Editing is a rewarding art in and of itself, and if you decide to try your hand at it, you may regret not having that RAW format. You can really elevate your photographs to the next level with a few simple tweaks that are made possible by RAW.


What to read next: Take a look here to see the magic of RAW in action, and how I rescued a forgotten photo.

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