Imagine you’re in a bar and order a strong mixed drink. Let’s say a Moscow Mule.

It’s the Bartender’s recipe. She cuts a slice of lime, squeezes the juice into a lovely Collins glass, grabs two or three ice cubes from the ice bucket, pulls down a bottle of Vodka from the top shelf, dribbles a few ounces into the glass, adds exotic ginger beer, mixes it with a bright red stirring stick and tosses a slice of lime on top.

Mmmmm. Now that’s a good Mule.

Too much in one glassNow (don’t forget we’re still imagining here), if you hold your glass and don’t put it down, only the ice cubes have diluted the drink, just a little, but not much. However, if you put your glass down to save your drink for later, the bartender will come over and add water, filling your glass back up to the top and diluting it way more. Keep putting your drink down, the bartender will keep filling it up with water. Eventually there’s very little left of your original drink; it’s mostly water.

That’s kind of how a JPEG works – A JPEG image straight out of your camera will look good, but every time you save it, it will loose quality. Save it too much, and it will fall apart.

It’s a strong mixed drink with melting ice that can further loose its qualities under certain circumstances. You may call it a Moscow Mule, however it’s going to taste pretty damn watered down.

Here’s what’s happening.

The color engineers at (put your camera manufacturer’s name here) decided how to mix all the colors for you – plus the contrast and saturation and anything else they think looks good in every JPEG you shoot.

This isn’t to say all JPEGs are bad. They’re not bad.

It’s just that someone else, (put your camera manufacturer’s name here), is doing all your creative thinking, not you. On certain camera settings, even the photos straight out of your camera may start out watered down and they can get more diluted as you work on them and save them. JPEGs aren’t called a Lossy file format for nothing. They loose things like quality.

But maybe you’d like to take control and start adjusting your own colors, contrast and saturation. And perhaps you’d like being a little more creative by making the sky darker and grass lighter and your Uncle Herman’s eyes a little brighter. And, yes, you could do that with a JPEG in Adobe Lightroom but that would be like taking that Moscow Mule and pouring a different mixed drink into the same glass before drinking it. Chances are, two drinks will be too much to fit into one glass and the results will be unpredictable, not to mention messy.

Emtpy GlassNow let’s say you have all the ingredients you need to make any kind of recipe you can imagine, not just drinks but appetizers, entrees and desserts from around the world. That’s kind of like Camera Raw. When you set your camera to shoot in Raw you get photographs that are the highest quality your camera can make, and each photo is empty vessel, so to speak. The camera adds a color recipe you can start with and Lightroom provides you with all the other ingredients you need to cook up your own creative recipes. In addition to concocting your own, Lightroom has built-in recipes you can choose from and plenty of free download recipes (recipes in the tech world are called pre-sets).* And, if you don’t like what you’ve done, Lightroom let’s you start over with a clean slate. Camera Raw files are known as a lossless format. No explanation needed.

It is true that you can’t use Camera Raw with those nifty Automatic settings like Portrait, Landscape, and Fireworks because the camera will automatically give you a JPEG.  That’s just the way it is. But, now that you know all of this Raw and JPEG stuff, you can smartly use the Automatic settings when you need to, knowing you’ll get nice snapshots with someone else’s color adjustments.

* The link below will get you to some quality, free Lightroom presets. Enjoy!