JPEG Revisited

JPEG Revisit 1JPEG Revisit 2Quick, which one of these two butterfly photos is JPEG and which is RAW?

Like most of you, I have been working with RAW files for quite a while. I really started using them all the time when Lightroom came out, because with Lightroom, working with RAW files is so easy to do.

Recently though I found I have a reason to check out JPEG files again. I was working on my course, The Art of Choice, and I was getting frustrated. I was using so many photos that they were taking me a long time to work on. RAW Files have to be processed because that's what they are designed for. They are not designed to be used straight from the camera. In fact, you will not be getting your optimum image if you do use them straight from the camera.

Now I have been shooting RAW plus JPEG for quite a while. There are advantages to doing this; for me, it was mainly that you could always access the JPEG files, anywhere, with any device that recognizes photos, even if you were making some quick prints at Target. Okay, I had drunk the Kool-Aid, too, that you always had to use raw files.

JPEG files are processed in the camera. I decided to find out how good that processing was. If the JPEG files looked good, they might save me some time.

And in fact they did! I was actually very surprised, pleasantly surprised at how good the JPEG files looked. (Okay, I should not have been surprised. Camera manufacturers put a lot of effort into the processing of the JPEG files so that they do look good. That helps them sell more cameras!)

JPEG Revisit 3 JPEG Revisit 4Not much difference! And this is a very small part of the image. If you look really, really closely, you will see a slight difference, but it is too small to be really seen by a viewer of the whole image. The top image was recorded as JPEG, the bottom, RAW.

Needing to only do minimal processing on them, I sped up my workflow by quite a lot in Lightroom. Lightroom works the same on JPEG files as on RAW files, i.e., no actual processing is done to the images until they are exported from the program. That means you can make adjustments and readjust as much as you want without any image quality loss due to your changes.

(There is a thing you have to know about using JPEG files with Lightroom. You have to tell Lightroom to recognize JPEG files along with the RAW files when you import your files, otherwise it will only import the RAW files. You do this in the General tab of Preferences.)

JPEG as RAW LightroomDoes this mean that I am giving up on RAW files? Of course not. But knowing that I can count on JPEG files for certain things, means that I have an additional tool that is very valuable to my workflow. JPEG files are great when the image is very close to what you want it to be. In other words, you're not doing a lot of processing on it. RAW files, on the other hand, are important when you have to do a lot of processing, especially bringing out detail in the dark or bright areas.

That said, I am really quite impressed with how my cameras process JPEG files. In many cases, I like the color better than what I could get if I processed the image in RAW. And in spite of what you might hear, there is no arbitrary quality difference between a good JPEG file and a RAW file. The difference between the two is a difference in capability, not quality. JPEG files simply have limitations on how much you can do to them once they're in the computer. RAW files, on the other hand, offer much more capability in this area.

JPEG Revisit 5 JPEG Revisit 6JPEG Revisit 7 JPEG Revisit 8Top is JPEG, bottom is RAW.

One place that you will see this RAW capability quickly is if you do a lot of processing of skies. Digital files often have trouble with sky because of the infinite variation of tonalities. JPEG skies can quickly come apart when you are doing any amount of processing on them. Raw files will take quite a bit more processing without showing those problems.

JPEG Revisit 9 JPEG Revisit 10

It is a little hard to see, but the sky in the lower image, the RAW file, is smoother and the brightest clouds look better. Look at the right half of the upper JPEG image, and you will start to see some streaking in the sky due to the limitations of the JPEG file.

So for me, I intend to now always import both my RAW and JPEG files. Yes, this makes more of an effort for sorting through the images in Lightroom, but it offers me a tool that is so beneficial in speeding up my work and sometimes in getting better looking images. I can use the JPEG files when they don't need much processing and when I like the colors better there. Plus I have the raw files available whenever I need them for stronger needed processing. (A quick tip for dealing with this double amount of files – tell Lightroom in the Library module to sort the images by file type so you can go through either just the JPEG or just the raw files, mark them appropriately, then go back and sort them by the time they were shot.)

About Rob

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at; my blogs are at and
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