Raw format vs JPEG: how much can you REALLY recover in raw?


Raw format vs JPEG is a question that has long-haunted many photographers. We know the obvious benefits of shooting in raw format, but JPEGs also have their benefits.

It’s well known that raw files retain a wider dynamic range than JPEGs, and photographers often rely on raw format to hold shadow and highlight detail in high-contrast scenes which they can then recover later on with their photo editing software on their computer.

But how much leeway do you really have?

In our latest photography cheat sheet below we performed an exposure test of original JPEGs and processed raw files, which reveals just what raw can do… and what it can’t.

Click on the infographic to see the large version, or drag and drop it to your desktop to download.

Raw format vs JPEG: how much can you REALLY recover in raw?

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Raw files enable you to change certain key camera settings after you’ve taken the picture… but which ones?

The fact is that digital SLRs are not completely digital after all. The image is formed using a mixture of optical and mechanical machinery that does its work even before the image even reaches the sensor.

So while raw files do give you extra flexibility, there are still plenty of settings you have to get right when at the moment you take the picture. The secret here, then, is to know what you can change and what you can’t.

SEE MORE: Best photo editing tips for beginners: 18 quick fixes to common image problems

Raw format vs JPEG: what you can change in raw

Picture Controls: these are simply different ways to ‘process’ the raw image

File type: from a raw file you can create any file type you like, from JPEG to TIFF or even DNG (Adobe’s universal file format)

Colour space: there’s no need to choose sRGB or Adobe RGB on the camera – you can do it later

Exposure (latitude): raw files retain more detail in shadows and highlights

White Balance: the raw file contains all the colour data captured by the sensor, so you’re free to re-interpret the White Balance on the computer

SEE MORE: Photoshop Levels Tool: 6 tricks all the pros use

Raw format vs JPEG: what you can’t change in raw

Shutter speed: the duration of the exposure is fixed the moment you press the shutter – you can’t change that later!

Lens aperture: lens aperture and depth of field are also fixed at the moment the shot is taken

Zoom setting: you can crop your pictures later, but you can’t alter the physical zoom setting you chose on the lens

Focus distance: the focus point is another optical property that can’t be changed later. Like shutter speed and aperture, this is the ‘analogue’ part of photography – the ‘digital’ part comes later

ISO: the ISO is applied using electronic amplification before the raw image is created – surprisingly, this is not a raw option either so it’s something else you have to get right when you shoot


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  • Simon

    should have then compared the processed jpegs to see how far they would go against raw

  • Nicolas

    I do the same +-3EV analysis with a Nikon D800 Raw File and it’s completely different of what you showed in your infographic jpeg vs raw comparison. Seems like you did the chart with a Canon.

  • Lasse V. Karlsen

    The last part, “what you can’t change in raw” has a rather nonsensical title. You can’t change any of that stuff in a jpeg either, so while this is a “heads up, you can’t do this after taking the shot”, it has nothing to do with RAW vs. JPEG.