If you've been around the photography community for any length of time you will probably have heard many times that you should be shooting in RAW instead of JPEG format, but still the myth of inconvenience puts people off. Here, we'll dispel those myths and go through exactly why you should ditch the JPEGs in favour of RAW.
Most modern cameras allow you to shoot in RAW format, including pretty much every DSLR camera along with their mirrorless equivalent. Even my smartphone now lets me shoot RAW, so it's definitely a growing trend.
What is RAW?
I'll try to stay away from the technical jargon and just get straight to the point. An image shot in RAW contains all of the data that the camera sensor picked up during the exposure. JPEGs, however, are files that the camera has compressed in order to save storage space. That's the essence of it, and it's here where all the benefits of shooting RAW lie.
I've touched upon one of the reasons many photographers stay away from RAW - The storage space quandary. A JPEG image is a lot smaller than a RAW file (my Nikon D800 RAW files clock in at almost 40 megabytes!) In addition, most RAW files come out of the camera looking rather flat compared to their JPEG counterparts, which is another reason the format is avoided.
However, that additional data in a RAW file comes with huge advantages.
Dispelling the Myths of RAW
So far the picture (excuse the pun) is looking pretty bleak for RAW files. They take up more space and look worse straight out of camera. Why on Earth would you want to use them?
This is one of the main issues people raise, but really it's a null issue in this day in age. Storage space is ludicrously cheap now, so those extra megabytes in a RAW file really aren't a problem any more. Most of our laptops these days come with a terabyte or more storage, which equates to around 25,000 of my D800 RAW files. That's a lot of shooting.
Yes, a RAW file does look flat compared to the straight out of camera JPEG, but did we get into photography for the convenience factor? Of course not.
When we shoot JPEG we already know that we lose data, but what you might not know is that the camera actually edits your image in the process. When that photograph is compressed the camera adjusts contrast, saturation, and sharpening as it sees fit, but don't we want to keep full control over that? We want to do all our own post processing, rather than allow the camera to decide what our vision was.
Think of it this way: If you've spent hours slaving away in the kitchen to produce a fine gourmet meal do you really want a stranger coming in at the last minute to present the dish?
We spend all that time getting on location, planning the shoot, fine-tuning our exposure, lighting, and working on our composition. Don't we want to be the ones adding those finishing touches?
The All Important Data
So that's the myths of RAW shooting dealt with, but the data is where the magic lies. Simply put. in the right hands a RAW file will always out perform a JPEG in terms of quality, dynamic range, and flexibility.
To produce a JPEG's lower file size the image is compressed to an 8-bit file, compared to RAW's 12-bit or 14-bit output. This vastly reduces the number of colour tones in the image and limits your manoeuvrability in post-processing. It's not just the colours that are effected either; you also end up losing a lot of dynamic range with a JPEG.
In practise this means that if you're dealing with high contrast scenes, or if you simply make a mistake during the exposure, a RAW file is a lot more forgiving when trying to recover highlight and shadow detail.
Another technical benefit that is often overlooked is white balance. Because all the data is in tact in a RAW file you can forget about your white balance while shooting, because you have the full range of colour temperatures available to you in post-processing. JPEGs, on the other hand, have the preset white balance ingrained into the file and offer very limited flexibility after the shutter is pressed.
A Final Benefit and Closing Thoughts
That's enough of the technicalities, and it's already clear that RAW shooting wins out over JPEGs. There is one final psychological benefit to shooting RAW though - It encourages you to make the best images possible.
How often have you been tempted to just throw an image up on Facebook because you can't be bothered processing it? With RAW files that's impossible due to their format, but also inadvisable due to their lack of contrast and colour. Instead, you are encouraged to head into post processing to sort it out, and while you're there you may as well make it perfect right?
My number one reason for shooting RAW is because I want to be in full control over the image I've just worked for. I don't want a piece of electronic equipment deciding how much contrast my image should have - I want to make those choices for myself. Ultimately, this results in me publishing work that reflects what my eye saw, rather than what a camera thinks I should have seen.