First and foremost, if you have to ask yourself which format then shoot JPEG! However, for those that need more information, hopefully this post will help explain some of the differences and you can choose from there.
RAW format is often a proprietary format of a particular camera make (Nikon will be different than Canon, which will be different from Sony, etc.). RAW files hold all the RAW data captured by the camera. RAW digital files contain raw data that is uninterpreted and unaltered. RAW files can be thought of as digital negatives and are a pre-production starting point.
The JPEG format compresses image data into a smaller file size. In theory, a JPEG file contains less data as it discards whatever picture information it deems as “not needed” (how much depends on the specified size and the compression/quality settings) than an equivalent RAW file. JPEG is able to closely reproduce an image once fully loaded.
So in determining whether you should use JPEG or RAW as your preferred format of choice, you need to ask yourself two key questions.
1. What are your goals as a photographer? Essentially, you’ll need to select the right file format to match the following: your output goals (i.e., are you printing your photographs or do they stay online), your available computer storage space, your computer and software capabilities, the amount of time you are willing to spend with each photograph you take, and your technical comfort level.
2. How comfortable are you with editing your images on a computer? Assessing your technical skill level behind the camera and behind a computer is a key factor in deciding your format. Many professional photographers are technically excellent and rarely need to make any edits to their photographs, while many new photographers will need to ability to correct exposure, white balance.
So what are the benefits vs. disadvantages of using either format?
Camera RAW file holds all the data captured by the camera thereby providing more data in which to apply any edits without sacrificing quality. RAW software allows you to make (some) adjustments to the images such as exposure, white balance, contrast, saturation, noise reduction (limited). And RAW can easily be output to various sizes without sacrificing image quality. However, RAW files take up much more space on your memory card and hard-drives. RAW files always require some post-processing in photo editing software. RAW files must be converted to a printable or acceptable on-line viewing format. RAW software takes effort to learn how to use. And finally, computer processing time is much longer with RAW than with other formats.
The alternative to RAW format is JPEG (JPG).
JPEG is a widely used format and is used in a wide variety of programs (including the ability to view online). JPEG’s take up much less space on your hard-drives and memory cards (thereby allowing for more pictures on a card than one that contains RAW files). JPEG’s don’t need to be converted and are easily loaded into all image editing programs. And yet, despite those benefits JPEG has some drawbacks. First, JPEG is a compressed format and thus certain data is lost when the image is captured (data lost can include color saturation, range, sharpness). JPEG’s are a one-time interpretation of the subject based on the current settings of the camera; it is not possible to change the settings and create a new file based on those as you can with RAW.Â Creating larger prints than current settings allow for can create less than ideal results. Artifacting can be present in images because of compression.
So which format is better for me to use? Well, that comes down to a personal choice for you, even though some photographers may feel strongly towards using one format over another.Â Personally, I use both depending on the circumstances and the camera I am using. For all my professional shoots where I use a DSLR, I always shoot RAW as it gives me some latitude in making adjustments and creative edits. For my daily snapshots, where I am using a point-and-shoot camera, even though I have the ability to shoot RAW I choose JPEG.
I hope that this helps you understand the difference between the two formats a little and helps you make a wise choice. If you are shooting JPEG, give RAW a chance provided that you have the software to process your images. And if you are shooting RAW and really don’t need to, switch back to JPEG and save yourself a little bit of time and money.