If you spend any amount of time reading digital photography forums, you are bound to come across an an article (or 10) about which output mode is better, Raw or Jpg. Now if you are new to digital photography, or all you have is a camera phone or small point and shoot camera you shouldn’t worry about these articles, as they probably don’t apply to you.
So what exactly is Raw and Jpg? The short answer is Raw and Jpg are how your camera stores and processes the pictures it takes. The big difference to remember is that Jpg (or JPEG which stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group) is an ISO standard, and is a “lossy compression” used for images. While RAW is a “minimally processed data (file) from the image sensor of… a digital camera…” (Wikipedia).Got that, No? Ok think of the difference between Raw and Jpg as a car wash. The end image you get would be the car, the Jpg would be the short $5 wash, and the Raw file would be the longer, more involved $15 wash. At the end of the wash you still have a clean car, but the $15 wash used more soap to get the car clean. (Bear with me on the analogy, I’ll try to explain it a bit more)
To build a little more on my car wash analogy, think of the camera’s memory card as your bank account. The memory card has limited space, and your bank account (presumably) has a limited amount of funds that can be used on car washes. If you want to get the most car washes for your set amount of funds you’ll always get the $5 wash, while if you always want more stuff to be done on your wash, you’ll settle for getting less washes in for the same amount of limited funds. The simple translation here is that Raw files are almost always going to be larger than Jpegs.
Now back to the “wash” itself. Earlier I mentioned that Jpg was a “lossy compression” when comparing it to a $5 car wash it makes sense, as the $5 wash will do what it needs to do, to get the car clean and nothing else. With a Jpg the camera will save just the information it needs to make the picture appear. With a Raw file, there is much more information saved about the image so in my mind its like the $15 car wash which adds more “stuff” to the car along the way.
“But whenever I try to buy the $15 wash the carwash is closed, why is that?” (Translation: I shot pictures in Raw but now I can’t open them on my computer.) Computers, and probably more importantly, web sites know how to open and display jpg files it goes back to that little bit earlier about the jpg format being an ISO standard. However, with Raw files there is no standard, each camera manufacturer has developed its own proprietary standard, and associated file name for its Raw files. For example, if you shoot Raw on a Cannon camera, you’ll get a .crw file and if you shoot with a Nikon, you’ll get a .nef file. Now without some sort of software that knows how to open these file types your computer won’t know what to do with them and there is a good chance it won’t open the file.
“So if I have to use special software to open my pictures, I won’t be able to save as many on a memory card, and I’m going to have to convert them to jpg anyway, why would I ever want to shoot Raw?” Remember the $15 car wash, and that it “did more stuff”, when you shoot Raw the camera takes most of the information from the image sensor and saves it, while the Jpg only saves the stuff thats needed to make the image. I know this dosen’t sound overly important, especially when you consider that a lot of the information saved in a Raw file isn’t visible to the eye. However, where Raw files come into their own, is when you realize that since the file has all of that extra information in it, you can change things like exposure and white balance in editing software. If you’ve ever shot images that seem too dark, too light, or that have funky colors due to florescent lights, I’m willing to bet that if you had shot the image as a Raw file, you could have fixed these things. At the bottom of the post, I’ll attach two images, one will be the jpg straight out of the camera, and the other will be a jpg that was edited from a Raw file.
So back to the original question. Raw or Jpg? Really, there are no “right” answers to this question. It’s simply a matter of personal preference. If you are happy with your images the way they come out of the camera, and only want to do a little bit of editing it is perfectly fine to shoot jpg. If you like to tinker with your images, then you might want to shoot in Raw. The same goes for storage, if you are planning on taking thousands of images (getting your car washed a whole lot) before you off load them to your computer, Jpg may be the way to go, but if you don’t mind only taking a few hundred pictures, and editing the ones you want before posting them online or getting them printed, you might enjoy shooting Raw.
Here are the examples I mentioned. This is the same shot of the parking deck. One is the JPG straight out of the camera, and the other has been processed from the Raw file.
Here is the JPG file. As it says in the caption, notice the lack of detail in the bright and dark areas.
And here is the JPG that has been processed from the Raw file. You should note that the overall exposure is different and there is much more detail in the shot, especially in the bright and dark areas.
I certainly hope this helps with the decision between shooting JPG or Raw, just remember, at the end of the day it boils down to personal preference as both have their place in the world of digital photography. Finally I’d like to add, that if the ONE reason why you are afraid to shoot raw is that you are worried about your ability to edit a raw file, my suggestion is to take a few pictures in Raw, plop them onto your computer, and play around with the software, you will be amazed at what moving a few sliders can do for an image.