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If you have ever shared a photo by email, or posted one online, you might have seen a three or four-letter extension at the end of the file name that looked like “.jpg” or “.jpeg”. Almost every camera – from cell phones to point and shoots to expensive DSLRs takes pictures in this format – with good reason. You can fit thousands of JPG photos on a memory card, and they are generally good quality and easy to view on a computer or mobile device. You don’t need any special software to open a JPG file, and if you do want to edit one, almost any application from iPhoto to Photoshop can do it. However, all DSLRs, and even some point-and-shoot cameras, are able to shoot in another format called RAW which has some incredible benefits for you. Some people swear by the RAW format, others use JPG, and some use both. There is no correct answer in terms of which one is better, instead it’s important to find a solution that works for you.
To illustrate why you might want to show in RAW format, here are a few reasons I use it instead of JPG.
Different types of light (such as sunlight, fluorescent bulbs, or a camera flash) affect how colors show up in real life. Our brains are aware of these differences and adjust our perception of the colors accordingly, but your camera doesn’t always know what to do in these various situations. To fix this, it has something called a White Balance setting, which usually contains values like Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten, and Flash. Unless you set the White Balance properly, your photos will often have a yellow or blue tint that is not always easy to fix. This is an important limitation of the JPG format, which tosses most of the data it deems unnecessary for a given photo and can make fixing the White Balanc a little tricky. Fortunately, in RAW the White Balance can be easily adjusted to suit the photograph because all the color data is saved.
When you snap a photo in RAW mode, the camera uses one of its White Balance settings as a starting point, but you are free to adjust it however you wish on your computer. Programs such as Lightroom, Photoshop, and Aperture have simple controls for adjusting the White Balance, and even though modern cameras are much better at getting it right on their own I still find myself tweaking the white balance quite often. For example, my camera calculated a White Balance for this photo of a child’s lamp at a value that I thought was far too yellow. Shooting in RAW gives me the flexibility to fix this, and with a few adjustments, I was able to get an image that was much more pleasing to me than the one my camera originally produced.
Shooting in RAW not only gives me the freedom to adjust the colors you see, but also to adjust the colors you don’t see. When a JPG photo is too bright or too dark (i.e. overexposed or underexposed), there is not much that can be done to save it because much of the data that was captured by the image sensor no longer exists. Cameras have all sorts of ways to help us get the right exposure when we take a picture, but sometimes things just don’t work out, and you might find that some of your most precious memories were either too dark or washed out. Since RAW keeps all the data when an image is captured, you have much more leeway in adjusting images after the fact.
When I shot this picture of some flowers on a tree, I noticed after I got home that it was far too dark to be usable. If this was a JPG I would have been mostly stuck with the results. But, because I shot in RAW I was able to brighten the dark areas and produce a much better image. In JPG, the data from the dark areas would have been just that, dark. The same can be done for overexposed images too; if a picture is too bright or washed out, it can often be saved if it was shot in RAW.
A third reason I shoot in RAW is that I often like to make adjustments to specific colors in a photo. JPG stores 8 bits of information per color for Red, Green, and Blue–each of the three primary colors of light that make up every pixel in a given photo. Don’t get too caught up in the math here–all you need to know is that those 8 bits (2 to the power of 8, or 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2) really mean that a JPG stores information for 256 individual shades of each of the primary colors. RAW, on the other hand, stores 4096 or 16384 shades of information per color, depending on whether your camera supports 12 or 14-bit files. These numbers might not mean a lot, but it’s easy to see that either of the latter numbers is far greater than 256. This means that since RAW gives us so much more information to work with, we have a lot more flexibility when editing the colors of our image.
This photo of a family friend (below) turned out fairly well, but I was not happy with a few elements. Her eyes were too dark and and the colors were not as vibrant as I would have preferred. Thankfully, RAW gave me the freedom to edit the picture in order to create an image that was not only more pleasing to look at, but more accurately reflected what I saw when I captured it. This is much more than simply throwing a filter over an existing image; RAW gives you access to the original color data, which allows for far greater control over the finished product.
Of course shooting in RAW has downsides too, most notably the file size. RAW files can easily take up 10 times as much space on your memory card as JPG files, which seems like a lot of wasted space if you don’t do a lot of editing or post-processing. To be honest, if you are just shooting pictures of a nature hike or your kids in the park, RAW might be overkill. It’s not that JPG files can’t be edited–they certainly can, as anyone who has ever used an Instagram filter will attest. They can be manipulated in Photoshop and other image editing programs as well, and there is enough color information in most JPG files for some editing wiggle room. But RAW gives you much more freedom to work, and even though the file sizes are much greater, the tradeoff is worth it, in my opinion.
You will have to make the decision for yourself, but whatever you decide, try to resist getting drawn into a RAW versus JPG debate–neither format is objectively better. The important thing is that you find a workflow that fits your shooting style and goals. At the end of the day, as long as you are taking pictures you like, that’s all that really matters.
You might be just fine with shooting in JPG, and if that suits you, then don’t let me or anyone else tell you different. But if you have ever wanted to experiment with more advanced editing techniques or just coax a little more out of your photos than you might otherwise be used to, RAW might be just the ticket to a whole new world of photography awesomeness.
Further Reading: RAW vs JPEG: Which Should I Shoot in?