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I'm curious to see some real examples of where simply capturing the same photo in RAW (and being processed by someone who can do it justice) has significantly improved the photo at the end of the process.

I understand what RAW is and why you might want to use it over JPEG, however, I'd like to actually see some examples where it has allowed for a better result. More control over tone, conversion from the more detailed data to 8-bit RGB etc.

Does anyone have or know of some processed RAW+JPEG shots for exact comparison?

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11  
Just a note to other potential answerers. Please don't look at my answer as reason not to post your own examples. Like Nick, I think it would be very useful to see more visual examples of the benefits of RAW over JPEG. So, if you have an example comparison to offer, please post it! –  jrista Aug 19 '10 at 4:18
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I agree. Also, it might be worthwhile capturing in RAW if just for the information that I, for one, thought might have been lost altogether due to the exposure. As a new photographer I wouldn't have even thought about RAW when trying to deal with something like that. –  Nick Bedford Aug 19 '10 at 4:55
4  
See also: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/15/… –  Rowland Shaw Aug 19 '10 at 8:00

11 Answers 11

up vote 219 down vote accepted
+150

The Value of RAW:

I think you may be misunderstanding the value of RAW. In the grand scheme of things, from seeing a scene with your eye to printing it, the best you get is what the printer you printed with is capable of, and that tends to be considerably less than what you see, or your camera or your computer is capable of representing.

The value of RAW is not really in the end result, although it is possible for the end result created with a RAW image to be better than that created with a JPEG. The reason for this has to do with the workflow between snapping a shot and saving or printing a final image. RAW gives you headroom that JPEG can't come close to offering. You have the ability to recover highlights and shadows, apply alternative tone curves, rework old RAW images with newer RAW processing algorithms to get better results, etc.

You are basically asking what is the value of an original film negative or slide, over a final scanned JPEG copy of that film negative/slide. With the original film, you have plenty of capability to rework and improve, use different printing techniques, etc...where as with the final JPEG, you got what you got, and not a whole lot more.

Example:

An original JPEG of Lower Yellowstone Falls. The sky was completely blown out, as this was one of the very first few photos I took over a year ago when I first got into photography. I had researched RAW, along with most other camera theory, long before I ever purchased a camera, so I had RAW+JPEG enabled at the time:

Lower Falls JPEG

Below is the reworked version from a RAW file. Because of RAW's considerable headroom, I was able to nearly fully recover the horrendously blown out sky, retone the whole image, and generate three alternative exposures (-1.5 EV, Original EV, +1.5 EV) using Lightroom to create a far sharper, clearer, and richer HDR image:

Lower Falls RAW Corrected

It was largely because of the radical improvements I was able to make to this image that I rarely ever shoot in JPEG anymore. I opt for RAW the vast majority of the time, and as I am still a student of the artistic aspects of photography, I appreciate the headroom that RAW offers. Most of the time, the final image saved from a RAW file is very similar to that of a JPEG...its the times when you botched it big and need to massively rework an image that RAW's advantages over JPEG really start to shine. Its all in the workflow, rather than the destination. ;)

JPEG Example:

Mark took the time to rework the JPEG sample I posted, to demonstrate what can be done with a JPEG. I think its important to note that a JPEG is not completely unworkable once it is taken...I may have lead to that belief in my comments above. JPEG images do have some room to be reworked, if needed, however it is more limited than RAW. Marks reworked copy of the JPEG sample is here:

Retouched JPEG Example

A couple things should be noted. For one, he was able to retone the image decently, and it looks similar to the retoned RAW example I posted. The retoning, caused the unrecoverable parts of the sky to become yellowed, which I would consider an undesirable outcome. Depending on the software used, that may or may not happen. Something also not visible in the very small JPEG examples are compression artifacts, which have a tendency to become more pronounced as you rework an image, limiting your options.

Detailed Example:

Something else that I was able to recover from was a severe degree of softness, caused by the 18mm extreme of the cheap EF-S 18-55mm lens I used when I took this shot. I have some crops below that demonstrate the original image, a sharpened copy of the JPEG using a technique explained by @Guffa here on Photo-SE, and an HDR version that was only possible because with RAW, I could use Lightroom to export two additional alternative exposures 1.5EV from the original. Even using Guffa's excellent sharpening technique, the JPEG can't compare to the ability to create an HDR image from a single poorly-shot RAW image (these images are about 1/3 of their full resolution):

OriginalShrpenedHDR

And another example:

OriginalSharpenedHDR

The HDR examples were not sharpened using any normal sharpening technique; the added sharpness was the result of Photoshop's image alignment during Merge to HDR.


UPDATE: Two years forward

It has been over two years since I originally posted this answer. Cameras have changed, tools have changed, and the power of RAW only becomes more evident as time continues to march on. With the advent of Sony Exmor sensors, low-ISO dynamic range in the shadows has become legendary. The Nikon D800 allows unparalleled shadow recovery that exhibits barely any noise at all and good color fidelity. Not owning a D800 myself, I can't provide any of my own samples. Fred Miranda, fame of fredmiranda.com, has provided one of the best examples of the power of RAW in the form of shadow recovery, comparing the D800 and the 5D III. The results in his examples are stunning to say the least.

For all the bad rap it tends to get these days in light of the D800, Canon shouldn't be forgotten. Before shadow recovery became a "thing", RAW was all about highlight recovery. Far more levels are allocated to highlights in a RAW image to start with, and the recovery power when dealing with overexposed highlights has always been pretty impressive. I encountered a series of photographs I'd taken of a dragonfly today that were terribly overexposed. I was sure they were all gonners, as I'm sure almost anyone would:

OVEREXPOSED!

Just about everything in the shot above appears blown. The background, which was roughly an even midtone in real life, looks completely white. Imagine my surprise when I decided to at least give some exposure and highlight recovery a try. After -4 EV of exposure recovery and about 60% highlight recovery, I was shocked to see this:

Mind blowing recovery!

I've heard of such highlight recovery before, although generally only in discussions regarding medium format digital cameras (particularly Hasselblads, which have legendary highlight recovery.) Even the specular highlights in the dragonfly's wings seem to have retained considerable detail (100% highlight recovery detail below):

Recovery Detail

Since the photo was overexposed by about 4 stops, the shadows have full color fidelity, zero color noise, and hardly any random noise. With my previous examples, one of the commenters to this answer was able to do some recovery with a JPEG version of the image. With the original overexposed copy of this new sample, its highly doubtful that any amount of "recovery" could be performed on a JPEG. RAW is simply pure, unadulterated post-processing power...and it keeps getting better.

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68  
+1 nailed it on the head. JPEG is the end, RAW is the beginning, and if you shoot JPEG, you just gave up your control of the end to the decisions of a programmer who may just have a different view. –  John Cavan Aug 19 '10 at 2:47
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And fantastic photo too :D –  Nick Bedford Aug 19 '10 at 3:24
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The added examples improve an already excellent answer - thanks for incorporating my meager efforts. +1 –  Mark Ransom Aug 20 '10 at 4:28
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+1 but only after I finally found "the times when you botched it big ... that RAW's advantages ... start to shine". One thing that always bothers me is the argument, that one can "recover shadows/highlights" - this is only possible if they were removed by the In-Camera-JPG-processing, which mostly happens in situations with extreme lightings. If you "botched" the photo (e.g.: used a flash to fill in sinlight out but neglected to adjust aperture) RAW won't save you: the corresponding regions are whitened/blackened out on the sensor. –  Leonidas Nov 29 '10 at 16:12
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The dragonfly example is stunning! Thanks for the update. –  mattdm Sep 26 '12 at 3:26

To give you a short tip, When you shoot in jpeg, the camera automatically edit the image and adjust the settings according to the settings that you have set on it (ISO, White Balance, etc).

But when you shoot in RAW, the camera is just simply capturing the lights and all the editing is left for you for post processing. Editing is not cheating. You just allow yourself to fully control the image that you shoot. It allows you to add effects without damaging the image. Editing a jpeg picture is just merely damaging it, it is supposed to be the final state.

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+1, but note that ISO is usually implemented at a lower level and will affect RAW as well. –  mattdm Apr 4 '13 at 11:29

I will add my own input. Doing this specifically isn't the reason to shoot RAW, it's just the primary reason why shooting RAW gives you fundamentally more headroom to work with when pushing pixels around.

I took this shot at a show a mate of mine was playing at (in this actual band). 1/60th ISO 1600 f/2.8 on a Canon 50D with EF-S 17-55mm F2.8 lens.

Here is a JPEG version with 100% fill light and 100% recovery and even some negative tone curving applied.

alt text

And here is the RAW version. There is mountains more accurate data available to use to adjust exposure, contrast and everything else.

alt text

For reference, here is the actual edit I did on this for the shoot.

alt text

For a final comparison. This is one reason why capturing in raw is so important. You can create seemingly HDR images out of a single raw file. The high contrast version is what Lightroom automatically applied and would be similar to what the camera would have produced.

Landscape

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Do you have your JPEG and RAW examples back to front? The second example looks like an overdriven JPEG. –  ddri Apr 16 '12 at 2:19
    
The second is the RAW file in black and white with shadows boosted and contrast lowered to show the detail captured, whilst the first image is the same application but to an already processed JPEG file. You can see that the raw version still has all the detail left to use, even if you don't recover details from it (like in my final result). –  Nick Bedford Apr 16 '12 at 5:58
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+1 like the gif image –  akram Apr 26 '12 at 18:36
    
I like the examples shown of the band. The end result is beautiful with the clean black background and the lighting on the band people. Thanks for the demonstration using the original RAW that has that amount of captured data to manipulate. –  Jason TEPOORTEN Nov 2 '12 at 22:39
    
Ack. Did you just use a reduced color GIF to demonstrate what a JPEG looks like? –  Octopus Apr 25 '13 at 21:23

I was a beginner at the time, took this picture of a very nice sunset. I was pretty disapointed by the picture...

enter image description here

Once I learned how to properly use Lightroom, I was able to get most of the details back from the original RAW file to get it to what I was really seeing in real life. enter image description here

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Great example! Thanks. The depth of raw captures continuously surprise me to this day. –  Nick Bedford Feb 28 '12 at 22:06
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Awesome example... I like your point on getting it what you were really seeing in real life. –  Jason TEPOORTEN Nov 2 '12 at 22:44

Ok, I'll just update my example a bit as it seems to be of the pixel-peeping and ambigous kind.


CHDK-RAW has been discovered by me for my Canon compact camera a while ago. Did shoot some High-ISO (400 is max for the used A610). Blown out highlights in JPG, croppedcrop jpg edts.

In the RAW there are some more details preserved (on my monitor I can still see the outlines of the drawn line on the parquet) but the color noise is not smoothed out and still present too: caveat 1 (CameraRAW does not like .CRW).

Later edit: dcraw does produce nice 48-bit-TIFF from the .CRW, but they do not have more details.

crop raw edts


I seem to love blown out pictures. Next one is from a wedding (D90), where I managed to take a photo of someone elses flash.

crop jpg wedding

Ok, this photo was truly lost ... but the brides face was nice. I took a look at the NEF with CameraRaw and really managed to squeeze out some more details. But it did not save the day, as you can see (the face was still comical enough to preserve in the end, but only as an oversaturated joke).

crop raw wedding


Now for the miracle of the many stops that can be recovered. Here I aimed for the silhouette and the shot was great. Of course, no detail in the face, I can see a tiny bit of the scarf in the JPG, but that is all.

crop jpg icehotel

As I preserved the NEF (D90), I did tinker around a bit. And you can really make out some outlines of the face. But the color noise was horrible, so I had to soft out all detail with denoising.

crop raw icehotel


My conclusion? I wanted to show ambigous examples, because RAW is no miracle-worker and additionally costs money for a decent converter and time. RAW can save a picture, if the in-camera-JPG-conversion seriously misjudged the picture, as sometimes the case with extremes. But these extremes - in my mind - better should be noticed and compensated in-camera beforehand, even the best case of RAW-application: wrong white balance. jristas example of retoning his picture does remind me of the colour-differences with a CPL turned by 90° on a sunny day:

crop GC1crop GC2

I myself shoot JPG+RAW, because the one worthy picture in hundreds of bad that might be saved this way does cost me ... today nothing really (fast card+camera). But I look at the RAW only after all the good JPG are sorted and edited and ready for the "customers" (amateur) ... and only if I have the time left to play around.

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How does the new one look better? It looks almost exactly the same except with a lot more noise? –  Nick Bedford Dec 26 '10 at 23:08
    
Are these all shot on your compact? Because shooting RAW on a compact is a little pointless. –  Nick Bedford Dec 29 '10 at 22:13
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No, only the first, the rest is D90. And as RAW from a compact too is neither compressed nor colourspace-compressed I wonder why you believe in a bigger difference for non-compact-cameras. –  Leonidas Jan 4 '11 at 12:04

Here is a picture that I shot at Christmas of my 2 girlies and my nephew. In the original, the image was overexposed and the glare from the window made it hard to look at without being blinded! The first picture is the JPEG and the second is the edited RAW picture. I was able to decrease the exposure and increase the highlight recovery to bring my daughter's face out of the glare, and the white balance made the whole thing a little less glowy. Trying the same on the JPEG made everything have an odd color and didn't do much of anything about the glow.

I should add that I'm pretty new to Lightroom, so someone with quite a bit of experience may have been able to do more with the JPEG. But, that makes me even more convinced that shooting in RAW is the way to go, as even with just a few tweaks I am able to salvage a picture that otherwise would have gotten trashed.

JPEG Edited RAW

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I capture everything both raw and jpeg, it gives you the best of both worlds.

Take this original jpeg:

original jpeg

Normally you would probably junk this shot, its totally overexposed. Correcting it in photoshop is not going to give you more detail: corrected in photoshop

Contrast this with the RAW shot, which was underexposed 1 and a half stops during post: RAW

You get significantly better texture and details. Using RAW saved a perfectly good shot from finding its way into the bin.

In particular notice the detail on the overexposed floor it is totally missing in the jpeg.

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In fact, by "over exposing" you may have actually optimised the amount of information you captured in the raw file by exposing to the right. Did the histogram clip in the whites at all? –  Nick Bedford Jan 9 '11 at 23:04
    
@Nick I think only a tiny bit around the shoulder area. The ability of the 5d mark 2 to capture rich RAW information is amazing. I don't remember being able to push a full stop on my old 450d, without side effects. –  Sam Saffron Jan 10 '11 at 5:33
    
Indeed. One day I'll own a full frame, I hope. –  Nick Bedford Jan 10 '11 at 5:44
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you may say it's overexposed, but I actually prefer the first one :) –  Udo G Dec 1 '11 at 22:57
    
@UdoG - +1, completely agree that the first is better, exposure- and WB-wise. Sam - If the exposure of the third was pushed and had more neutral white-balance, it should surpass the first. –  bill weaver Feb 23 '12 at 17:16

Here's a concrete example of the advantages of shooting raw from a recent wedding. I always shoot raw+jpeg and use the jpegs to quickly sort through the photos afterwards. Here's a jpeg of the first dance that would have gone straight in the bin, except for the fact that I had very few shots of the first dance due to some very difficult conditions:

alt text

I decided to have a look at what could be recovered from the raw, and this shot went from almost being deleted to making it into the album. The image below shows the best I could do with the jpeg in photoshop on the left, and what could be produced easily from the raw file on the right:

alt text

I think that pretty much sums it up, for anyone shooting weddings I would strongly advise shooting raw as memory cards are cheap and you can't go back and reshoot if you get it wrong.

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It's the hard disk space that can get expensive. And disks are cheap, too, arguably... but it does add up. Note: I'm fully in support of shooting all RAW, all the time. Just pointing out that there is a cost to that. :) –  lindes Dec 1 '10 at 2:06

A take from a novice :

RAW is magic - I use it in iPhoto and it does wonders within seconds, I don't even have PhotoShop on my Mac! Adding Shadows, adding lighting, hues,...

JPEG is, well nothing compared to RAw if you are serious about the end result of your photos.

RAW takes a whole lot of room than JPEGs but in this day and age when a 16GB SDCard (10X or more) can be had for less than $30, RAw is a clear winner!

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Which RAW formats does iPhoto have? I have one but I haven't really explored iPhoto's features. –  Jason TEPOORTEN Nov 2 '12 at 22:48
    
I am not aware of multiple RAW formats. I know for sure that iPhoto handles RAW photos like a champ. I switched to Aperture in the last year. Take a sample RAW photo and import into iPhoto, you can then make all kinds of changes since RAW has a lot more info than jpegs. –  ThinkCode Nov 5 '12 at 14:40
    
I'll give it a go :). Again, thanks for making me aware of iPhoto's capability to handle RAW. I just use iPhoto to store all my photos by event and make adjustments. I've only been using JPEG. –  Jason TEPOORTEN Nov 5 '12 at 19:43
    
No problem! Ask away if you have any questions - we have such a wonderful community here! –  ThinkCode Nov 5 '12 at 19:46

Much of it is that I just find it easier to achieve the sort of look I prefer with Adobe software than the software in my Canon cameras. Trying to achieve what I like with the limited in-camera control I'm allowed is harder than getting it done in Adobe Camera Raw.

Where I notice a big difference is with my compact digital camera. Below is a snapshot from my Canon G7. I've installed CHDK so I can get raw. I have as much of the in-camera sharpening and noise reduction turned off as I can, and yet it's obvious that there is some serious detail destroying processing going on in-camera. Yeah, my version has more noise, but in all but the largest prints that will show as increased detail, while the NR and sharpening artifacts from the jpeg will show as nasty digital haze in prints.

G7 jpeg processed by camera

alt text


G7 raw processed by me

alt text


jpeg crop at 100% magnification

alt text


raw crop at 100% magnification

alt text

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Maybe it's just my cheap uncalibrated monitor, but the raw image seems to have colors that are too bright (specifically the magenta dress), and is significantly more noisy/grainy than the JPG. –  davr Aug 19 '10 at 18:34
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It does look a bit vibrant, however there also appears to be more detail in the RAW version. The vibrancy can be adjusted with the RAW image, to better approximate what the JPEG delivers, without losing the extra detail. As for the noise, a slight adjustment to luminence noise in Lightroom 3 will clear that right up without eliminating useful detail. –  jrista Aug 19 '10 at 18:41
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The vibrancy is different. As has been said it can be adjusted to taste, even with the jpeg. This is a family snapshot for the grandparents, and they like bright color. In these examples what I am mostly concerned with is the smearing and artifacts in the fine detail such as the hair. The in-camera jpeg had all NR turned off, yet there is obviously some still going on. If I were concerned with the noise (it won't be noticeable at all in 8"x10"s) I could use NR from the out-of-camera software I own and achieve much better results than the in-camera processing. –  Henry Peach Aug 23 '10 at 13:14
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Methinks it is horribly oversaturated in comparison to the JPG. The JPG lost detail mostly because of the noise-removal, which you left out which leaves you with ... more noise. –  Leonidas Nov 29 '10 at 16:04

jrista pretty much summed up the whole difference, but just to clarify on the point of RAW headroom: JPEG is 8 bits, meaning 256 discrete levels per channel (RGB) which creates quite a wide range of color (16,777,216 discrete colors to be exact), but that pales in comparison to what RAW can potentially offer. The actual number of bits that a dSLR sensor captures varies, but the average hangs out around 12 bits, or 4096 discrete levels per channel which translates into 68,719,476,736 discrete colors. That's likely far and away beyond what the human eye can detect, but having pure volume gives you control over the final image that is way beyond anything you can do with a JPEG that comes out of the camera. Heck, even if your camera adds a mere bit to the capture, it still results in 134,217,728 colours, almost 10 times that of JPEG.

Anyways, once you realize what RAW gives you, the question of JPEG vs RAW becomes pretty simple to decide. Having said that, the trade-off is that you have to do the work yourself.

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I understand the range of detail in a higher bit image. I also understand what RAW provides. @jrista provided a great example (what I was after) of what you really can do with the RAW data over a pre-baked JPEG. –  Nick Bedford Aug 19 '10 at 3:20
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I realize, but others may view the question as well and wonder what the headroom is about, so sometimes the numbers can help explain what is seen. –  John Cavan Aug 19 '10 at 3:26
    
@John: Thanks for explaining headroom...I probably should have done that. Great explanation. :) –  jrista Aug 19 '10 at 4:15
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@Alan, I was careful to note that the bits are levels per channel and that, ultimately, translates to more color range. When shooting JPEG, the camera will reduce the 4096 (say, as typical) levels that is captured down to 256, so I do think it's basically down to that. –  John Cavan Aug 19 '10 at 17:29
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The conversion from RAW to JPEG not only reduces the number of bits but it changes from linear to logarithmic representation. Since our visual response in the eye is also logarithmic, you lose less from this process than the numbers suggest. –  Mark Ransom Aug 20 '10 at 4:39

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