A common question of many photographers is the difference between shooting RAW and shooting JPEG. It's a common misconception that the only benefit of shooting RAW is the ability to "rescue" an image. This, however, is just the beginning. There are several interesting benefits to shooting RAW that are less known, as described below.
To understand the concept, it is helpful to understand both RAW and JPEG files themselves. A RAW file is a file containing all of the information recorded by your camera's sensor during exposure. In contrast, a JPEG file is a file that has been compressed by your camera, and does not contain all of the information recorded by your camera's sensor during exposure. Rather, your camera has chosen information to discard.
Now, as many know, the information contained in RAW files grants the ability to easily correct under or overexposed images without a drastic loss in quality, adjust white balance, and achieve greater levels of details and sharpness than is feasible when using JPEG files, as explained below.
When using a JPEG file, information in the brightest and darkest areas of your image has been lost and in a case of under or overexposure, the detail in these areas is not recoverable. This is not the case with RAW files and many issues can be easily corrected. While it is ideal to achieve the best image in camera, there is a likely a time when every photographer will take an under or overexposed image.
The white balance of RAW files is easily adjusted. This not only allows for the correction of an undesirable white balance, but also allows for a multitude of creative options in post processing. In contrast, a JPEG file has a set white balance, and is difficult to adjust. This means less control over the colors seen in your image.
However, another benefit worth considering is the wide range of artistic freedom RAW files grant to the photographer. Consider this: A JPEG file records less than 300 levels of brightness. A RAW file, on the other hand, has the capacity to record anywhere from 4000 to over a whopping 16,000 levels of brightness! The levels of brightness recorded have a direct effect on the adjustments you will or will not be able to make in post processing. The multitude of brightness levels recorded in a RAW file grant creative control to the photographer, namely you or me! For instance, because my images are bold, colorful and creatively edited, shooting in RAW is very important to my workflow.
Another noted feature of a JPEG file is the appearance of sharpness. While JPEG files appear sharper than RAW files, this is not necessarily the case.
The sharpness seen in a JPEG file is the result of your camera's processing system. The processing systems available for a computer are far more advanced than the system your camera is utilizing. The greatest detail and sharpness is achieved by processing RAW files using a system such as Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop.
Finally, one of the greatest benefits of shooting in RAW format is the ability to edit non-destructively. When processing a JPEG file, you will experience a loss of quality during the process. This loss of quality occurs each time a JPEG file is opened, edited, or saved. In contrast, when processing a RAW file, the original file is not directly affected. Essentially, the file you are editing is a reference file, with the edit being a set of directions that will be applied upon export of your image.
Is shooting in RAW format right for you? Only you can say what works best for you and your workflow, but this information is well worth considering and hopefully, answers a few of your questions concerning RAW and JPEG files.
My name is Jesse Blake and I am a photographer in Billings, Montana. I believe life as a photographer is about finding and celebrating the good in the world, in ourselves, and in others.