Shooting sports: JPEG images or raw format – which should you use?

Shooting sports: JPEG images or raw format - which should you use?

We all know the benefits of shooting raw format. In most situations you’ll find yourself, it will be more beneficial to shoot raw files. But when shooting sports, JPEG images offer a significant advantage. In our latest photography cheat sheet we explain how.

Your camera uses an internal memory ‘buffer’ to store images taken in continuous shooting mode, and RAW files, which are large, fill it up much more quickly. This means that if you’re shooting sports, JPEG images will allow you to capture a sequence lasting many seconds.

But if you shoot raw format your camera might stop after just a second or so, and you could miss the key moments.

For example, a Nikon D7100 can shoot at 6fps and capture 100 Large JPEG images at Normal quality before the buffer fills up, which is a burst of around 16 seconds. But if you switch to raw it can only save nine raw files, a burst of just 1.5 seconds.

For great action shots when shooting sports, JPEG images allow your camera to provide both speed and stamina. In our cheat sheet below we’ve illustrated the difference, showing how much of an action sequence you might capture shooting JPEG images vs raw files.

Simply click on the infographic to see the larger version, or drag and drop it to do your desktop to download.

Shooting sports: JPEG images or raw format - which should you use? Free photography cheat sheet

So there are two key points to remember when choosing which file format for photographing action.

01 When shooting sports, JPEG images let you shoot for longer

As we know, raw files give the greatest image quality and flexibility, but they’re slow to process and save. In fact, even the pros will switch to JPEGs for extended bursts, especially for sports where the action is unpredictable and they don’t know exactly when the key moment is going to take place.

02 Raw files give you quality but only for a short burst

Raw files take up much more space in the camera’s buffer, which means the camera can only shoot them in short bursts. It’s no good getting great quality if you miss the shot! The difference in burst length is much greater than you might imagine, as our D7100 example demonstrates.


Free action photography cheat sheet
10 quick action photography tips
Raw images: 10 tips every beginner must know before ditching JPEGs
Raw format vs JPEG: how much can you REALLY recover in raw?
Shoot sharper sports photography: pro techniques and the settings they use

  • LightsOut85

    It’s a little misleading to say the 7100 can shoot 100 JPEGs. I haven’t tested it, but that must be at the lowest settings (low quality, and size-priority file-size (rather than optimal-quality priority)). It’s menu-settings just “technically allow” for 100 continuous photos. The 7100 has a pretty small buffer (intentional, from what I’m led to believe, to validate the increased price in the 7200, which other than buffer, isn’t much better), and I’ve found you only get 11-12 at 6fps when using the best-quality JPEG settings.

    And RAW (14-bit lossless) you only get 6 images. Maximizing RAW burst-total was actually of interest to me, so I tested (on my 7100) every combination of 14/12, lossless/compressed, & DX (full 6000×4000 pixel) or 1.3x crop mode, and found that you get 9 on 12/lossless/1.3xcrop. (For anyone reading, 1.3x is basically an in-camera crop that gives the look of a larger focal length – useful if you’re zoomed as far as you can go & still have unneeded space around the subject). 10 if you go 12-compressed. If you don’t want to do the crop mode or compressed, you’re not getting more than 7 in a burst.

    edit: While I’m sure there have to be some pros who shoot in JPEG, there are pro-end cameras with huge buffers, allowing them to shoot in RAW (& sports photographers usually use more than 6fps).