Cooking in the JPEG Kitchen: Cookies and Cakes

by | Apr 16, 2020

Today’s Post by Barry Staver with Joe Farace

For the most part, digital imaging is more convenient than film photography. When it comes to the ability to choose the appropriate white balance, I suggest that you select an ISO setting and view images on the fly, as Joe did in the below image. What’s left is the inevitable question: Should you shoot JPEG or RAW?

The JPEG standard (Joint Photographic Experts Group) was created in 1986 and defines how an image is compressed and decompressed. To save an image in JPEG format, your camera eliminates colors the eye can’t see and then compresses the image. JPEG is referred to as a lossy (not lousy) format because this process discards what it decides is redundant but when the file is opened lost data is, mostly, rebuilt.

How Joe made this shot: The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is the second oldest cathedral in the Americas having started construction in 1521. The camera Joe used to capture this image was an Olympus E-3 Four-thirds system camera with 12-60mm f/2.8-4 lens at 12mm. The camera’s real-time preview in Live View mode allowed him to try different white balance settings before clicking the shutter. JPEG exposure was 1/13 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 1600

Unlike JPEG, RAW requires little or no internal processing from the camera. These files contain more color information, more data but that all that data now requires external processing. Perhaps these food analogies will help explain the difference between a RAW and compressed JPEG capture:

  • Cakes. You can purchase a ready-to-eat cake in a bakery or make one at home from scratch. A store bought cake is like a JPEG image file, since most of the choices were already made for you. The bakery decides what ingredients to use and in what quantity. JPEG photographs are processed and compressed in-camera and you take them as they come. On the other hand a scratch-made cake allows you to choose all of the ingredients, altering the quantities of ingredients to suit your personal taste. The same thing goes for RAW image files. You decide how to process them in post-production.
  • Chocolate chip cookies. Off-the-shelf brands have chips that are already baked into each one, the softness of the cookie is predetermined and all the cookies are uniform in size. This is the JPEG version. Cookies baked at home offers more choices: You pick the kind of chips, milk, dark, or white chocolate, the number of chips to fold into the batter and the size of the cookies that get baked. That’s the RAW version.

\When should you use RAW and when should you use JPEG? For another take on this same subject you might want to a look at Joe’s post, ‘Why I (Mostly) Shoot Using JPEG.’ 

Update from Joe: My thoughts on the whole JPEG vs. RAW controversy have changed dramatically since I originally wrote that post on February 9, 2016 for my old blog. These days all my portrait shoots are made in RAW+JPEG mode for reasons I have beaten to death here and on my car photography blog. BUT when shooting other subject matter, I tend to shoot mostly JPEG, with the exception of infrared, where I shoot RAW+JPEG and use the in-camera JPEG image just as a preview and only process/display the RAW files.

If you enjoyed today’s blog post and would like to buy Joe a cup of Earl Grey tea ($2.50), click here. And if you do, thanks so very much.


Barry Staver and Joe Farace are co-authors of Better Available Light Digital Photography with new copies available from Amazon for $21.88 or used copies at giveaway prices, starting at only $6.40, as I write this. Kindle copies, for some reason, are really expensive.