RAW vs JPEG in Motorsport Photography: Which to Choose?

by Dec 30, 2023

RAW or JPEG? This is probably the most hotly debated topic in photography amongst amateurs and professionals alike.

While RAW is usually the consensus general photography, the reality is that motorsport photography has its own nuances, making it important to weigh all the factors before you make a choice.

Let’s dive into the difference between the two image formats as well as some of the advantages and disadvantages of using either. Then I’ll share what I personally use for my motorsport photography and why.

RAW Photo Files

The RAW photo file format is exactly that: raw. It’s all the unprocessed information that is collected by the sensor of your camera when you press the shutter button.

In fact, it’s not really a photo file because only specialised photo editing software can open RAW image files, and each camera manufacturer has their own unique RAW format:

  • Canon DSLR – CR2
  • Canon Mirrorless (R Series) – CR3
  • Nikon – NEF
  • Sony A Series – ARW

Just to name a few. So you really need to think of a RAW file as a digital container with information that can be turned into a picture.

Additionally, RAW files are typically huge (especially on high-resolution camera models), so you have to make sure you’ve got plenty of space on your memory cards and drives.

Advantages of RAW

Capturing your photos in your camera’s native RAW format has plenty of benefits when it comes to post-processing images. Because the file contains all the information captured by your camera’s sensor, you have more flexibility to manipulate it to better showcase what you saw at the time—especially the highlights and shadows.

That said, RAW images straight out of the camera typically look flat compared to what you would have seen with your own eye because the camera hasn’t processed the image file in any way.

For some photographers, this can allow them to incorporate a range of different editing techniques to give the photo a more stylised look. In my case, as a motorsport photographer, it makes it easier for me to adjust the photo to look exactly how I saw it with my own eyes.

It’s well known that the dynamic range (seeing the details in both the highlights and shadows) of the human eye is much greater than what even the best and most expensive camera sensor can capture. But the RAW image format will give you the best chance to use the information that the sensor can capture to get the photo as true to life as possible and help you create some truly spectacular images.

Disadvantages of RAW

The main downside with RAW image files is that they’re very large, taking up a significant amount of digital storage in comparison to other compressed file formats.

Obviously, this makes your memory cards fill up faster (and hold fewer photos). It also means that transferring photos to your computer and even backing them up takes much longer.

As a motorsport photographer, this can be a significant limitation in trying to get photos out to clients quickly in between sessions.

It’s also worth noting that when taking a burst of shots (holding the shutter button to capture multiple shots during high-action moments), your camera will likely hit its internal memory buffer, trying to write so many photos to the memory cards – known as buffering.

JPEG Photo Files

JPEG is a file format that most of us are familiar with, even if you haven’t been into photography for very long. Not only is it the standard format that all modern digital cameras use to capture, process, and store their photos, regardless of manufacturer. It’s also the image standard that the majority of photos and images are displayed on the internet.

Advantages of JPEG

One of the key advantages of this format is that JPEG image is a smaller, compressed file format in comparison to RAW images. Significantly reducing the amount of digital storage required for the same number of images but also reducing the likelihood of running into issues like buffering.

Another key benefit of JPEG is that the camera has already processed the file for you, which means that from the moment you capture the photo, it can be used immediately.

To do this, your camera takes the information captured by your sensor when you press the shutter button, applies one of the inbuilt picture profiles (like a preset filter) to that information and records it as a JPEG—discarding the rest of the information that would otherwise be recorded in the RAW file.

The exact nature of the picture profiles available to you varies between different camera manufacturers, as does their level of customisation. But that’s, in short, what’s happening inside your camera to create JPEG images.

Disadvantages of JPEG

The key disadvantage of using a compressed file format like JPEG really only applies to professional photographers – the lack of digital information in the image file.

A JPEG discards a lot of extra information, particularly in the highlights and shadows, that is otherwise contained in a RAW file. This seriously limits the amount of data you have to work with when editing your image files, especially if you under or overexpose the photo in camera when taking the shot.

What Do I Use – RAW or JPEG?

As a professional motorsport photographer, which format do I use? Well, as it turns out, I use both RAW and JPEG.

Leaning on the benefits of both file formats, I’ve actually got my cameras configured to record both RAW and JPEG files for each photo I capture.

Sure, this means that I need a lot more storage, but I can leverage all of the advantages of both to ensure a timely yet professional delivery of photos to my clients throughout a race weekend.

When it comes to editing my photos, obviously RAW as my preferred file format. The versatility that it offers once I get my images onto my computer to deliver the best quality image to my clients is key. Once a race has been run, I’ve got what I’ve got – I can’t go back and re-shoot it. So, the data captured in a RAW format image gives me more bandwidth to process the photo, especially if I’ve slightly underexposed or overexposed the image in changeable conditions.

However, utilising the JPEG images straight out of the camera also allows me to get images out to customers almost instantly. Be it a competitor’s need to update social media or a news outlet’s requirement for photos to support breaking stories, the speed of delivery often outweighs the need for a perfectly edited photo.

Everything with photography is a balancing act, but taking advantage of the benefits of both RAW and JPEG allows me to meet my client’s immediate need to have instant access to images while also being able to deliver a much more polished, higher-resolution photo with less time pressure.

That said, I can understand, with limitations in file storage, that capturing both might not be the ideal solution for everyone.

Neither RAW nor JPEG is the perfect format for all situations. You’ll have to experiment with both image formats to find which suits your particular workflow best. However. as you progress in your journey to become a motorsport photographer, you will discover which works best for you in different situations.

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Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.

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