In general shooting in RAW format uses a lot more file storage than JPEG. What am I gaining when shooting RAW? Besides file size are there any downsides to shooting RAW?
I expect pro-RAW answers will dominate here, so I'll offer a pro-JPEG view.
I was shooting RAW from the start when I started using digital cameras. However, after a few years, when looking into my workflow, I realize that I very rarely use what RAW offers (post exposure white balance changes, exposure corrections and so on). My typical adjustments to the image is a slight increase of contrast, and perhaps adjust brightness a bit (yes, I try to be thorough with white balance and exposure when shooting). Given that, I really could not justify my image using 3-4 times the storage space required by RAW, so a year and a half ago I stopped shooting RAW out of habit, and instead default to JPEG.
It still happens that I switch to RAW, if the subject is of a nature where I expect to need extra post processing (tricky high-contrast light situations for instance), but more than 99% of my images are JPEG in the camera, and I have not yet felt that it limits me.
- Great color
- More post-processing options
- Large File size
- More storage needed
- Slower capture time
- More complicated workflow for processing
- Fast capture (so higher burst speed)
- Simplified viewing/sharing
- Finalized (editing degrades the image more)
- Smaller range of color/contrast options.
The biggest upside for RAW is color depth. Most RAW formats capture color information in 12 bit format. This means that color intensities can vary from 0 to 4095. In contrast JPG can only capture 8 bit in color depth (0 to 255). Therefore a RAW file can be tweaked much more extensively without the whites being washed out. The only two downsides I can think of are storage space and a more complex workflow.
I always consider a RAW file like a traditional negative -- The biggest benefit of shooting in RAW is the ability to tweak things like white balance and exposure with greater accuracy and ease back when you're "developing" them. However, shooting in RAW consumes memory card space faster, and some cameras perform faster when shooting in JPEG
One nice feature of some cameras is the ability to save both raw and jpeg. This gives you almost all of the advantages of both (you have the option of post processing or not depending on your requirements), at the cost of even worse filesize than raw alone (but not that much more if you're already shooting raw). Memory cards are cheap, and this might be a good option until you decide whether you prefer raw or jpeg.
Raw vs jpeg is choosing processing software. Raw is not a specific file format like jpeg or tiff or psd. Most manufacturers have their own raw file format. Raw just means the data from the sensor in the most unprocessed form available. If the camera is set to jpeg then the processing is done by the manufacturer's in-camera processing software. If the camera is set to raw it saves the unprocessed data for processing with the photographer's choice of software. There are several potential advantages to doing the processing yourself with out-of-camera software.
There are many choices of out-of-camera processing software, and most of them offer more features, controls, and precision than what is currently installed in digital cameras. For instance the in-camera processing software for my Canon DSLRs is mainly controlled by several slider bars with a few setting options each. Photoshop on the other hand offers almost unlimited options, many more features, and increased precision in comparison.
If I'm using the in-camera software I need to process by prediction. Meaning I need to adjust the processing settings before I make the exposure. I previsualize the finished photograph, and set the processing to achieve it. If I don't achieve what I wanted I can't go back and reprocess the jpeg. Information that has been discarded is irretrievable. Using out-of-camera software I am processing by inspection. I look at the photo on a calibrated monitor, and can see my processing adjustments as I make them. As long as I am using non-destructive processing methods I can go back to any step or the beginning and start again. I'm pretty good at processing by prediction. I used the Zone System in my BW darkroom for many years. Even so my eyes and mind can assess image aspects in a split second. There is a huge advantage to using vision when creating visual art.
It is similar to drop-off, automated, uniform film development and printing compared to doing it yourself in the darkroom. As long as you are getting the results you want either is fine, but most photographers find that with a little practice they can do a better job and have more options doing the processing themselves than when they rely on the machine for processing. The machine is fast, but the human offers more options and control. It's up to the photographer as to whether those advantages outweigh the extra time and effort required to DIY. I prefer the results I get doing the processing myself. I think they are significant enough to warrant the extra effort.
In the future I expect that we will be able to install the processing software of our choice in digital cameras. When I can load up my favorite Adobe Camera Raw presets into my DSLRs I might start shooting jpeg more often.
RAW definitely takes more work. If you want to go straight to Facebook with an album of 50+ photos, you may want to consider using JPG. Using RAW allows you to customize white balance, exposure, etc. This takes more time, but can yield a better photo. If you have the time, this is the route to take.
If you are going for the HDR effect, you can sometimes achieve it with a single RAW file, and use exposure adjustments to create 5 differently exposed JPGs for merge. It's harder to accomplish that with a single JPG as source.
Finally, if you have enough memory cards, some cameras allow you to record both RAW and JPG for every shot — this is what I do, and may be a good option for you.
The file size is because of the raw data, which the camera normally discards when outputting a JPEG.
Shooting RAW involves more post-production work. That can be a little, or a lot, or whatever you need. But you get much more capability to tweak your light balance, colour settings, and more. Plus the changes are reversible, and can be edited further.
The obvious downside is the file size. That's up front. But there is the extra cost of time in post-production.
In short: RAW has more room to fix photography-errors later on.
If you make the perfect picture happen in camera, JPG is all you need. But if you used the wrong white balance, over- or underexposed a bit, had some color problems you have more headroom in RAW to fix these things than in JPG.
Thats not to say you can't fix them in JPG, but in RAW you probably get better results.
The biggest pro for JPG is size, because size is speed. Burst rates might be higher, you get more pictures on one card, backup and transfer times is faster. For sports shooter this can be very helpful.
I shoot in raw+JPEG mode.
This gives the key benefits of JPEG - simple portable images - whilst not losing the extra flexibility that a raw format provides.
In response to the reasons some give for using JPEG only:
Shooting raw does not mean slow capture times, unless you fill up the buffer quicker than it can empty.
For the majority of photographers, the buffer is big enough that you don't need to worry.
If you need a continuous burst of more than 20-30 images*, use JPEG, movie mode, or a dedicated video camera.
If you never take more than a handful* of images at once, you'll almost certainly be fine using raw. (*Exact limit depends on camera, settings, and card. I've not seen a modern DSLR that can't do at least 5 frames before slowing down.)
Similarly, using raw does not result in a slower workflow, (unless you want it to).
Any decent photo management software will let you select all images and hit auto, or apply a pre-defined set of adjustments, and all images are addressed in one go.
Storage space is not a big issue these days, since you can get decent cards with plenty of space.
I have a 12.3MP camera and shoot 14-bit NEF + JPEG images, and I can get 500-800 images on a single card. That's more than enough for one card.
Hard-drives and backup storage is also cheap these days - just £80 ($125) for 1.5TB gives plenty of space.
So, for me, even when I don't need to do much post-processing, there is no reason not to record the raw data.
Just to be the devil's advocate for a moment, please note that raw formats are proprietary and "closed" specifications. These file formats are defined per camera manufacturer and often differ between camera models from the same manufacturer.
It has been mentioned in this thread that raw format is more like a traditional photo negative. i beg to differ - 20-ish years from now in 2031, when no one remembers the details of the whacky Nikon D70 raw specification (I don't know if it's really whacky, it's just an example), and no software can decode your raw file, you're in trouble. on the other hand, i'd be willing to bet you'll find something the can decode a JPG file.
it's just a thought, but it can become more immediate if the post processing software you use has support for a specific camera and two versions from now they screw it up, or maybe explicitly drop support for that camera. while this is not likely, it's possible.
I think the most important reason you would choose one over the other is what is required of you. I think the only real reason you would choose raw is simply if you need to post process or not. The thing about most DSLRs is that you can choose styles (or custom styles) which do boost contrast, saturation, treat in black and white and the like. It's perfectly capable of achieving a fantastic result in camera by manipulating the camera style settings. The problem is that when you have done this in camera, there is no option to go back and change it.
This is the primary reason many photographers shoot in raw (I'm one of them). Raw allows the photographer to retain the "digital negative" and manipulate it to their liking time and time again. Shoot a photograph in raw and you can, at a whim, create a striking black and white treatment. Don't like it? Just go back to your editing suite and whip up a classic retro feel, or a full colour, vibrant contrasting treatment.
What about dynamic range? Is the dynamic range so large that you need to bring back the highlights and bring out the shadows to "compress" the dynamic range into the final image and create a detailed lifelike result?
Here is one photo I took where I had to use Lightroom. The highlights were too bright and the shadows were too dark. Using Lightroom I was able to compress the dynamic range into a smooth, highly detailed looking photo.
Shooting Jpeg youre letting the camera decide what's relevant in your photo. The camera takes that information, makes it look good, and the forgets about the rest.
RAW comes in handy in conditions like where you want to recover information from dark areas where the camera thought no relevant information really exists.
You can always let the same process take place outside the camera but you're adding a step before you get a finished image. Chances are if you're a pro you're going to want go further than the cameras judgement of what makes a good photo. But if you're just a casual shooter, you can get away with shooting raw as long as you're not shooting in challenging lighting or conditions in general.
In the context of RAW vs JPG I do not think that there are any "cons" to shooting RAW instead of JPG. I think the cons to shooting JPG only is that you are giving away your creative control of the image and thus it is not just your image but a collaboration between you and your cameras software ( or the person who wrote the code.) If you are comfortable with that then so be it but do not think that your decisions are the only factors in creating the JPG photo. I shoot black & white film and i want to develop it and print it to my aesthetic and artistic standards. If let someone else do that it would not be me making those decisions. I want to be in complete control of MY images.