What are RAW files, JPEG files and why are they fighting?

Back to some basic computer stuff for a minute or two.  When a computer stores information, it assigns the type of file with a three letter ending called a file extension. Depending on your computer settings, you may or may not be able to see these extensions.  Some of the more common settings are “.doc” for a Word Document File; “.mp3” or “.wav” for an audio file; or “.jpg”, “”.png”, “.gif”, or “.bmp” for a picture file.  These extensions tell your computer which programs are able to use these particular files, and what kinds of details are in the files, (what you do with them).  These files are associated with the programs best suited to make them work.

JPEG files are picture files that were created so they could be easily smashed down into smaller files so they could be stored easier, and processed faster by your computer or camera.  A digital camera is just like a computer.  When it captures an image, it has to record that image to some form of media (a memory card), and then move on to the next picture.  The short-term memory on a camera is called a “buffer”.  The buffer has a specific amount of memory to hold the image after it has been taken, until the card writer inside of the camera can catch up with all of the pictures that have been taken.  Without getting too technical, if you are buying memory cards, the only real difference is the “write-speed” of the cards.  The newer ones have the fastest write-speeds.

JPEG files save some memory by taking every single little dot that makes up an image, “pixels”, and groups them into squares and averages these squares into the color that fits best for that particular group of dots.  So, instead of remembering the color for each tiny little dot, the picture only has to keep track of the colors for this little bunch of dots, it does this by making all of those dots the same color.  So, when working with JPEGs your colors will be close, but not always precise.  Also, when dealing with JPEGs you have “artifacts”., or leftovers.  Have you ever taken a picture off of your computer and tried to blow it up to a size you could print only to find a bunch of little tiny, blurry squares where your nice edges used to be.  These are JPEG artifacts.

JPEGS are much more compact and easy for your camera to work with, but they have limitations when it comes to color and making them bigger.

Now, we move on to the hero of the digital camera movement, the RAW file.  A RAW file (.CR2 for Canon, .NEF for Nikon) does not group these little tiny dots into squares.  Every single tiny dot has its own color information and location.  This can make the RAW files huge.  But, the beauty of the RAW file is you can use a photo-editing program equipped for RAW files, (more and more common), and change over twenty different components of the picture.  If your exposure was off while taking the picture, you can salvage the picture if it’s within one or two levels of exposure in either direction (too dark or too light).  If your camera color settings are off just a bit, you can correct this with the color settings.  If your White Balance is off, you can change this with just a click of a button.  I will get into the beauty of RAW files a little later, what is important is that you have tons more control over the image if you shoot a RAW file.

Tip for experienced photographers and beginners:  Windows does not recognize any type of RAW file, you will never see a thumbnail preview of any RAW image until it is converted into a format that Windows will recognize.

If you’re thinking “WOW, this is a real headache”.  Please don’t.  The benefits of a RAW file far outweigh any small learning hurdles in the beginning.

RAW files allow you to edit your original picture by starting out raw.  All of the essential image information is there, what should be dark, what should be light, which colors should be where.  When you edit the image, your image editing program will add extra information to the file, to give it just the right special touches you need to make the image “sparkle”.  When you save this information, it is added as a companion to the picture you have already, (just as good as the JPEG file).  But here’s the magic part, your original image remains UNTOUCHED by any editing you may have done to the RAW file.  You changed your picture and you didn’t hurt a thing.  You can blow it up to much bigger sizes, within reason, and not have to worry about looking at little tiny box squares on the side of some one’s face.

**So, because of their file size, JPEGs should be used when you’re taking a lot of pictures at fast speeds, or when you’re taking a lot of pictures and need the memory space.  But every other occasion when those two items aren’t critical, I use RAW, you have more control over the image, you have better (unclipped)  colors and you maintain the integrity of your original image.

Everyone has their own cooking analogy for Camera RAW from soup to cookies to brownies.  Just figure a RAW file as having everything you need for the picture already there, now you can go in and change a thing or two to your specific taste.

Last, but not least, no amount of image editing will save a bad picture from the camera, but it will let you do some interesting things to use them in other places.  More on that later.

Digital Photography Basics , , , , ,


  1. With the IMC I am learning so much. I know there is alot of functions for cameras and computers with your post it is helping understand the working of both.

  2. I had no idea the difference. I would rather work with RAW and not the JPEG.
    Interesting post, thanks!

  3. Hi Dewayne,

    oh my goodness, the reminds me of my early C:// prompt computer days meet George Seurat. Thank you for this explanation. Do you like to save all your photos onto a photo sharing site for backup? Or do you prefer utilizing an external hard drive?

    Happy Dating and Relationships,

    April Braswell
    Cyberdating Expert and Online Dating Coach

  4. Gary Malin

    Good stuff, I must confess I’ve been shooting in jpeg due to being lazy, I will go back to raw. I believe (I sound like an evangelist). Thanks D.

  5. Learning a tremendous lot about taking pics just in time for my next vacation!!!!
    Sonya Lenzo

  6. I am very familiar with .jpeg and the other picture formats but not RAW files. Thanks for the tutorial. Hopefully my photoshop will be able to work with it.

    Steve Chambers
    Body Language Expert

  7. Aren’t RAW files much larger and use more strorage space? Would you recommend storing RAW on an external device then copy the one’s you want to work with onto the computer? What programs do you use to work with RAW files if they are not recognized by Windows?

    Direct Selling Advice, Leveraging Relationships for Long-term Profit

    • Hey Mark,

      RAW files are huge compared to JPEGs. I tend to do all of my processing on my laptop and hardly ever keep any images on there except what I’m currently working on. Any new camera you purchase will come with proprietary software to allow you to process, do limited manipulation and store your images. (Canon provides Digital Photo Professional for example. These will allow you to convert the images to a format recognized by windows or other photo editing programs.

  8. It sounds like if you have any understanding or skill of the art of photography then you are going to use the RAW file versus a jpg…Guess I’m still using the latter of the two!

    Jen B
    The Harwood Group – Tinnitus, Chronic Illness, Fears, and Anxiety

  9. My 1 terabyte external hard drive is ready for lots of RAW files. Even the regular JPEGs at 5 MB each are so much larger than what I am used to… What is the best compression for just normal shots you don’t want to manipulate or blow up to poster size?

    Seize the Day,

    Simple Family Survival Tips For Disasters and Emergencies

  10. Great post, Dewayne, on the benes of RAW vs jpeg et al! With the other commenters I am also interested in learning: What photo editing software do you use and your storage recommendations.

    Mixing Romance, Feet & ESL lessons
    Enjoy Being Online here!

  11. This is great, easy to understand info about the advantages & disadvantages of
    saving photographs in raw format or jpeg format.

    I do have one question about this. If you were doing freelance work & needed
    to send the raw file to an editor of a magazine for them to publish, would raw files be too large for us to send via email?

    The Success Secrets

    • I haven’t checked magazine industry standards on emailing photo sizes, but what I do know is the image isn’t actually required to be that resolution intensive for for printing. Most magazine spreads from what I’ve heard print at about 150 dots per inch. Most cameras on the market today cover 240 to 300 dots per inch. I will get into printing resolution and capture resolution this week, I promise. As far as emailing RAW files. Never a good idea. Your end-user will have problems opening them, could easily manipulate the image, intentionally or otherwise, etc. For end result, always use a high quality JPEG. You maintain creative control over your product. Pictures have different resolutions for display in print vs. display on monitor, (and different color schemes).

  12. Ok, I’m naive. Windows doesn’t recognize RAW files. You use an image editing program for RAW files. So does an image editing program go on my computer that uses Windows? I’m confused.

    Sounds like using RAW files is the way to go for editing pictures but I don’t get how it works.

    Peggy Larson
    Quilting – Colors and Fun!

    • Hey Peggy,

      If you have a camera that uses RAW files, it will come with software that will allow you to change those RAW files on your Windows computer. It will also allow for you to change those images to a JPEG so Windows can see these images when you’re finished updating, or tweaking them. There are so many types of RAW images available, (each company has their own), Windows can’t even keep track, so they rely on the manufacturers to provide the means to view and convert the images. All of the reputable manufacturers know that Windows is the dominant player in the computer world, so all of the software they provide will typically be Windows compatible. When you use image editing software, also on your Windows computer, It will recognize the the image you have converted the RAW file from. I look at it like this, a guy goes into a restaurant as a guest of a world-famous hockey player VIP, straight from spectating at one of the VIPs hockey games. He’s casually dressed, but isn’t wearing a jacket and tie. This is a problem, because the restaurant dress code requires a suit and tie, management will not bend on the dress code. So the hockey player/VIP says, “Wait just a minute, I’ve got an extra jacket and tie I just picked up at the dry-cleaners.” The host retrieves the jacket and tie, the guest is comfortable and complying with the dress code, and everyone in the story hopefully enjoys the upcoming meal, (of course they do, it’s my story). The RAW file is the guest, The RAW file conversion/image-editing software is the hockey player, and Windows is the restaurant owner. So the answer to your question, sure the image editing software goes on your Windows computer, and is recognized by your Windows computer, just like the hockey player VIP in the story also gets to sit down and enjoy his meal.

  13. Wow. I don’t know much about the computer end of photography. Thanks for explaining the difference.

    Fun and Free Activities

  14. When I download the images to my computer, it automatically stores them as .jpg images. Is there a way around this?

    Tim Van Milligan, helping you Make Money Online, God’s Way!

  15. I have never heard of RAW but I have two new cameras. I wonder if they have the RAW capability.

    I’m not sure I understand how the RAW edited image is saved without you saving it manually. Could you please explain this?

    Sabrina Peterson, NASM CPT,CES
    Corrective Exercise for Every Body

    • Hey Sabrina,
      When you adjust the image the way you want it. You will click a “Done” button, or something equivalent. Then, your image editing program will attach an EXIF tag to the file. What this means is it will save anther file in the same folder with your personal preferences for that particular picture. So, the next time you open the picture it will load the “Raw” image first, and then it will realize, “Hey, there’s some settings for this file already in here.” It will open that file too, and your personal preferences will be loaded for that particular picture. That is why if you edit a RAW image and save the settings, if you ever move that file to another directory, you will have to move the file with your personal settings in it, too. This file will have the same name as the picture you modified, but it will have a different suffix. Sometimes, it gets tricky and hides these files, so you should make sure the folder your working in doesn’t contain any hidden files. Those hidden files are usually the settings you applied to your RAW image. This is also why Raw images do not get modified, because they attach the image settings in another file that is saved seperate from the file you are changing.

  16. Hey Tim,
    If your camera has a RAW setting or is capable of shooting RAW photos, it will be in the camera. If you are shooting in RAW, and the image is converting as part of the download process, this is a setting that’s somewhere in the RAW processing software. There are also advanced processes that allow you to edit JPEG images in RAW software, ADOBE Photoshop full versions allow this. So RAW processes can be applied to JPEG images, with a little more limited result.

  17. This is a lot to learn about cameras. I like the last sentence. No amount of editing will fix a bad picture.

    Safety Is Everyones Business

  18. I’ve never heard of RAW. How does this file type affect opening a website? For instance, I use Dreamweaver for my website. If I want to put a picture on a page that is too large, Dreamweaver allows me to shink it to fit BUT if I do it that way, it may make my page open slowly. Therefore I always need to resize in photoshop first.

    Lisa McLellan
    Babysitting Services, Nanny Services, and Nanny agencies

    • Hey Lisa,
      RAW files should never be sent or posted. They are only the photographer’s file to edit, and then finally compress to a web-friendly format when finished editing.

  19. Great advice on your post again..I believe that raw maybe scary for the novice?

  20. Another thing that I didn’t know thing I didn’t know about photography that is helpful to know. All of those settings on the camera and a huge thick book usually mean that the setting stay automatic and never get changed.
    Scott Sylvan Bell

  21. For those of us who like to do post work on photos that is the way to go.

    Hypnosis – Change Your Thoughts and Change Your Life –

  22. great information.

    i always used RAW on my digital SLR but really didin’t know whay.

    thanks for filling me in.