RAW vs JPEG images: what's the difference?

Canon camera menu with image quality options
(Image credit: Future)

When it comes to setting the image quality on a digital camera, you'll typically be given two options: RAW or JPEG. Here, we'll look at the difference between both file types, and when you should ideally use them for the best results.

The standard, straight-out-of-the-box image setting is JPEG. It’s a universally supported file format that doesn’t require specialist photo editing software to open, can be shared and displayed online, and be used to produce prints. JPEG is an acronym for the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the committee of experts that developed the JPEG coding standard.

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Header Cell - Column 0 What RAW can and can’t do
The extra dynamic range in a RAW file will enable us to pull back some blown highlights, for example in the sky.
With a RAW file we can experiment later, instead of having to commit to a setting on the spot.
With a RAW file we can export a 16-bit TIFF, which will stand up much better to tonal manipulation later on.
RAW files won’t help you with physical settings like the shutter speed, aperture, or focus point – you have to get these right at the start.
You can’t change the ISO later because this is applied to the analogue light values before the RAW file is even created.
A RAW file won’t automatically give you better colours and tones than a JPEG. In fact, you will almost certainly have to carry out some editing work.

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Lauren Scott
Freelance contributor/former Managing Editor

Lauren is a writer, reviewer, and photographer with ten years of experience in the camera industry. She's the former Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, and previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer magazine, Technique editor for PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine, and Deputy Editor of our sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine. An experienced journalist and freelance photographer, Lauren also has bylines at Tech Radar, Space.com, Canon Europe, PCGamesN, T3, Stuff, and British Airways' in-flight magazine (among others). When she's not testing gear for DCW, she's probably in the kitchen testing yet another new curry recipe or walking in the Cotswolds with her Flat-coated Retriever.

With contributions from