One of the hottest debates in the world of photography, probably on par, it not even more debated than Canon vs Nikon, is the one between RAW and JPEG. The former is a lossless, direct output of the camera’s sensor data while the latter is a lossy compressed version of an already “cooked” photograph.
While most photographers recommend shooting RAW for any serious work due to its format retaining all information, there are tons of misinformation and preconceptions about this topic on the web. Instead of making a direct comparison in this article, I’ll let you judge by yourself the difference between RAW and JPEG using actual photographs.
All of the following pictures were either shot using a Nikon D5100 or a Fujifilm X-Pro1 using a variety of lenses. You may want to click on the pictures to open up the lightbox for better viewing.
Images © Photograph IO | Wei Xi Luo. No reproduction without permission beforehand. All rights reserved.
Our first set of three examples will consist of something of a “typical picture”. It will be a nature scene with no major problems in exposure, white balance or whatsoever and low dynamic range. It was shot using a Fuji X-Pro1 with a 35mm f/1.4 lens, 1/2500 sec @ f/4, ISO 200, in Waterloo, Belgium.
In the first example, the image on the left was a flat RAW (i.e. imported directly into Lightroom without any further adjustments) while the image on the right is a JPEG of the exact same scene, without any further adjustments in Lightroom either (although the camera itself gave some adjustments in the form of a picture style).
In this case, the Jpeg was shot using the Velvia “film simulation” (Fuji’s own term for picture style/control).
You may notice that the RAW image is flatter (has less contrast) and has less reds (seen by the bluer sky) compared to the JPEG produced in-camera. Otherwise, both images are quite similar.
The difference between these two pair of images and the example above is that the RAW picture here was matched to resemble the JPEG shot instead of being untouched. I used Lightroom’s camera calibration panel to set the RAW profile to “Camera Velvia/VIVID” in order to match Fuji’s in-camera picture style.
Camera calibration profiles were made so that photographers could make their RAW files look like their JPEG files, so they are, at least theoretically, supposed to match extremely closely the rendition of in-camera JPEGS, therefore no further edits were made.
As a reminder, use the lightbox to compare more precisely between each pair of shots.
Although the tonal differences between RAW and JPEG are nearly inexistent now, there is still a quite big difference between the blues in the pictures, with the JPEG having a slight reddish tint.
While we don’t know for sure where this comes from, the most likely explanation is that the Fuji X-Pro1 tends to have a slight bias towards reds in their in-camera JPEG engine due to its X-Trans sensor. Or maybe Lightroom/Camera Raw is the one too greenish here 😉
On a more positive note, the contrast and saturation levels in both pictures are about the same now, which the camera calibration corrected well.
In this example, the RAW file was first calibrated using the camera calibration profile (similar to the example above), and then both images were heavily pushed in Lightroom using the exact same settings :
+75 contrast, -90 highlights, +75 shadows, +50 whites, +25 blacks, +100 clarity (!!!), +20 vibrance
One noticeable difference between the two images is that the JPEG file has noticeably darker greens and almost too much contrast in the bottom half of the picture. This is not mainly due to the inherent lack of information (i.e. compression) in the JPEG file, but rather because JPEGs tend to have a higher contrast (even when compared to calibrated RAW files). Fixing this is very easy by simply lowering the contrast of the JPEG file in Lightroom.
However, are there other, more subtle differences between the two pictures? The answer is yes. If you observe carefully, there is a lot more haloes around the lion statue in the JPEG file than the RAW file.
Although both pictures have white edges because of the excessive amount of clarify applied, the JPEG file also has noticeable dark haloes. The explanation? Lightroom applies the clarity adjustment (and pretty much all other adjustments) to the RAW sensor data before demosaicing (e.g. converting the individual RGB pixels into color pixels) the whole picture. However, when working with JPEGs, Lightroom has no choice but to apply the adjustment to an already demosaiced (done in-camera) JPEG file.
- We learned from the first example that JPEG files will have higher contrast and saturation compared to equivalent, untouched, RAW files. (For those who wonder, sharpening is automatically applied, though not usually in full amount, in most RAW converters such as Lightroom)
- As we saw in the second example, you can use camera calibration profiles in Adobe Lightroom to try to closely RAW files to JPEG files. Or you could use your original camera software for perfect results…
- As shown in the third example, it is true that RAW files have higher tolerances to post-processing compared to their JPEG counterparts. It is not only due to lossy compression (the obvious stuff), but also due to the fact that JPEG files have demosaicing applied in-camera, thus discarding further data. People rarely mention this when it comes to RAW vs Jpeg. But it’s pretty important.
This series is to be continued with further examples. Stay tuned to Photograph IO!