Visual Differences between RAW and JPEG Files

2008-2010 Ron Day


To see if there were any notable differences between the RAW and JPEG formats when processing underexposed and overexposed images, the following test was conducted.  In a series of images, the test subject was underexposed one exposure value (-1 EV), -2 EV, and -3 EV, and then overexposed +1 EV, in both the RAW (.NEF) and JPEG file formats.

Next, in processing the requisite exposure value (+/- EV) necessary to bring each image back to correct exposure was made.  For example, if an image was exposed -1 EV during capture, then it was processed at +1 EV.  The RAW files were processed in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), and the JPEG images were processed in Photoshop.  

A Nikon D70 camera, and a Nikkor AF 20-35mm EDIF F/2.8 lens (at 35mm) were used for the test.  The aperture was f/16 and the ISO rating was 400 on all shots.  The images were captured in Aperture Priority mode, with Matrix metering.  The camera and lens were mounted on a Gitzo tripod, and the lighting on the test subject was natural directional lighting from the left side.   The JPEGs were taken at the largest file size (same size as the .NEFs) with the detail setting at "normal".  

The only variable in the compared images at any given exposure value (EV) was the format:  one was RAW (.NEF) and the other was JPEG.   After the test images were processed, they were viewed in Photoshop at 100%.  Four different areas of the subject were sampled and compared.  The table below, Figure 1, reveals the increase or decrease in exposure value (EV) each sample received during  capture and during processing.






          +1 EV RAW

           -1 EV RAW


          +1 EV JPG

           -1 EV JPG


          +1 EV RAW S

           -1 EV RAW S


          +1 EV JPG S

           -1 EV JPG S


          +2 EV RAW

           -2 EV RAW


          +2 EV JPG            -2 EV JPG


          +2 EV RAW S            -2 EV RAW S


          +2 EV JPG S            -2 EV JPG S


          +3 EV RAW            -3 EV RAW


          +3 EV JPG            -3 EV JPG


          +3 EV RAW S            -3 EV RAW S


          +3 EV JPG S            -3 EV JPG S


          -1 EV RAW A            +1 EV RAW A


          -1 EV JPG A            +1 EV JPG A


          -1 EV RAW B            +1 EV RAW B


          -1 EV JPG B            +1 EV JPG B

Figure 1. Exposure Values

The test subject was the Quaker Oatmeal box in Figure 2, below. Samples +1, +2, and +3 EV were selected for midtone comparison.  Samples  +1, +2, and +3 EV S were selected for shadow comparison.  And, samples -1 EV A and -1 EV B were selected for highlight comparison.   


Test Subject,  Quaker Oatmeal Box


Figure 2. Test Subject



The Results:  Samples of Test Images at 100%

(Exposure Value During Processing)



   (+1 EV RAW)  Sample 1

(+1 EV JPG)  Sample 2

Sample 1  (+1EV RAW)

Sample 2  (+1EV JPG)



(+1 EV RAW S)  Sample 3

  (+1 EV JPG S)  Sample 4

Sample 3  (+1EV RAW S)

Sample 4  (+1EV JPG S)



(+2 EV RAW)  Sample 5 

(+2 EV JPG)  Sample

Sample 5  (+2EV RAW)

Sample 6  (+2EV JPG)



(+2 EV RAW S)  Sample 7 

(+2 EV JPG S)  Sample

Sample 7  (+2EV RAW S)

Sample 8  (+2EV JPG S)



(+3 EV RAW)  Sample 9  

(+3 EV JPG)   Sample 10

Sample 9  (+3EV RAW)

Sample 10  (+3EV JPG)



(+3 EV RAW S)   Sample 11 

(+3 EV JPG S)  Sample 12

Sample 11  (+3EV RAW S)

Sample 12  (+3EV JPG S)



(-1 EV RAW A)  Sample 13   

(-1 EV JPG A)  Sample 14  

Sample 13  (-1EV RAW A)

Sample 14  (-1EV JPG A)



(-1 EV RAW B)  Sample 15 

(-1 EV JPG B)  Sample 16  

Sample 15  (-1EV RAW B)

Sample 16  (-1EV JPG B)




1.  The processed underexposed RAW and JPEG files each reveal different levels of noise directly proportional to the degree of their respective underexposure. However, at any given level of underexposure, the noise was more noticeable and pronounced in the 8 bit JPEG files, than it was in the 12 bit RAW files.  

2.  In both formats, at any given level of underexposure, noise was more noticeable and pronounced in the shadows, than it was elsewhere in the image.

3.  When the 8 bit JPEG test image was overexposed +1 EV, lost highlights could not be recovered during processing.  See, Samples 14, 16.  When the 12 bit RAW test image was overexposed +1 EV, at least some of the highlights were recovered during RAW conversion.  See, Samples 13,15.  

< back to article >