So, how many times have you heard that you should make the switch to RAW? Probably a few times I bet! But perhaps you are not yet convinced, or don't really know what this means for your images, so today I'm breaking down the reasons why I believe you should shoot in RAW, and why it's a great thing for your images!
Before we kick off, let's start back at the beginning with what RAW is.
RAW is simply a file format, in the same way that JPEG is a file format. All cameras, regardless of type, will shoot in RAW - it hows the camera stores all the data that is recorded by the sensor when you take an image. When you shoot in JPEG, the camera takes this RAW file, throws out any information it doesn't need, processes it a little bit in camera (by adding sharpening, noise reduction, some saturation and so on) and then compresses the file in the smaller JPEG format, tossing out the larger file. So you get an image that has been slightly edited, and in a format that is ready for sharing with the world.
Shooting in JPEG is like AUTO for editing - you are allowing the camera to do the editing for you in camera. As you may have heard me rant about once or twice before (!!) when you leave the camera to make decisions for you, you are relying on luck to make a good image! Never a good idea :)
Here's 5 reasons why I think it's best to shoot in the RAW format, especially when you are starting out, and therefore maybe a bit more prone to making in-camera mistakes!
1. Easily Correct White Balance
This is a biggie! When you shoot JPEG whatever white balance you had set in camera is now applied to the image, and "burnt" in. This means you cannot easily change this in processing. However if you shoot in RAW, the white balance you set is still recorded, but it's not fixed - you can easily change it in your editing software (Like Lightroom, ACR or Aperture)
To give you an analogy of how this works, think about needing to paint over a blue wall to make it yellow. With JPEG, you are painting over the blue color with your yellow paint, and in doing so, the yellow is not quite yellow - perhaps you end up with a little green tinge to it because you have a little bit of that blue still peeking through. That's like fixing your white balance on a JPEG - you are "painting" over one white balance with another, not really changing it, only trying to cover it. With RAW however, you are not painting over anything - you are taking that blue color, removing it completely, and replacing it with yellow. So your yellow looks exactly as it was meant to. (Maybe not my best ever analogy, but you get the idea)
As great white balance is an essential to a great image, it makes total sense to be able to change it as required in processing.
2. Easily Correct Over or Under Exposed Images
Without a doubt you want to try to get your exposure spot in in camera, but if for any reason you don't (for example, you are shooting in Manual Mode and things are just happening a little too fast for your to keep up with!) you may end up with an image that is over or under exposed.
With JPEG, your ability to "fix" this is limited. That's because JPEG records a lesser range of tones than in RAW. JPEG records just 256 levels of brightness, where RAW records into the thousands! This has a huge affect on how much you are able to save images in processing, since you simply have more data to work with in RAW. So you'll be able to rescue blown highlights, bring back clipped blacks, and just make general overall changes to the brightness without a loss of image quality. With JPEG, you can only make small changes since you simply don't have the information there to bring back.
I do want to add in a little caveat here - you should always aim to get it right in camera. Although RAW is much better at allowing you to 'save" images, it is definitely not infallible.
3. You can Edit Non-Destructively
Those two reasons alone should have you running to make the switch to RAW but another one is that your editing is non-destructive. Unlike editing a JPEG, where any changes made to the image can be permanent, when you edit a RAW file, you are not actually doing anything to the original data. All you are actually doing is creating a set of instructions as how the file should be saved. This means you can go back into your original RAW file at any time, and re-process it, from the original file.
JPEG files lose quality every single time you open them, make adjustments, and then save it again (that's why it's called a "lossy" format) The other issue is you can easily overwrite the image and make a mistake, and since you have saved it, you cannot then go back and change it. So for example you may crop to 8x10 ratio, save the file, and then realise you want a 8x12 ratio instead, but there is no way to get back that original file. Or you processed the file and then later on you realise that the white balance is actually off, well, there's no way to go back and change it since you have had to save it into the file.
Of course, there is a way around this (and if you work in JPEG then I suggest you start to do so!) by making sure that you always work on a copy of the original file - that way you can go back to the start at any time. One big plus point to working with Lightroom is that it is a non-destructive way of editing, even with JPEG's, so if you use Lightroom you don't need to worry about saving copies and so on, since the edits aren't applied until you export the image.
4. The Resulting Images are Better Quality
I think of shooting in RAW as the editing equivalent of shooting in Manual on your camera, and in JPEG as shooting on AUTO. (And we all know which gives you better results!) So even if you nail your white balance and exposure in camera, you will still get a better quality of image if you process it yourself.
Remember, when you shoot in JPEG, your camera is taking that RAW image and processing for you automatically. It applies contrast, sharpening, saturation and noise reduction as standard at pre-set amounts - in other words it's not unique to each individual photograph. As you can imagine, when YOU make the decisions about how the image should look, you'll get a much better result. That's because you can really fine-tune things like contrast or shadows, to make each individual image shine.
Furthermore, editing software on your computer is a far more powerful editing tool than your camera! You can be pretty sure that Lightroom, or the software that came with your camera, will do a much better job of being able to edit your image - the noise and sharpening tools alone are much more sophisticated. Add to that the additional tools you get in a image processor, and it makes total sense to your editing there, rather than in camera.
Essentially, when YOU start to make decisions about your images, and not leave to a camera that doesn't actually have a brain, regardless of how smart it is, you'll get much better images.
5. Select Color Space on Output
Perhaps not as much as a deal breaker as the other four, but useful nonetheless. In JPEG, you need to select the color space in camera, so that it can be applied to the image. This will largely be sRGB since that is the easiest color space to work in. However, there may be times when you want to shoot in a larger color space, such as ProPhoto RGB. Instead of having this saved into the files themselves, like you would with JPEG, if you shoot in RAW you can simply apply this color space to the files for output, so you could have 3 different versions of the same file, all optimised for their final output.
Yeah, alright, I'm convinced. What's the catch?
It's true, there is no such thing as a free lunch :)
In order to take advantage of the awesome capabilities of shooting in RAW, you will need to spend a little bit more time processing your image files. However, I would argue that in order for your images to look their best you are going to do some processing to them anyway, regardless of the file format you shot in. So, there's not really that much additional editing time for shooting in RAW.
Plus, with the sync features in ACR and Lightroom (and probably in other processing software too) you can simply edit one image, "sync" the files, and have the edits applied to all the images you want in the touch of a button. So, for literally a few extra seconds worth of editing (I can get a RAW file to a JPEG equivalent in well under a minute!) it's so worth the extra control you get.
The second downside in the file size. As RAW contains so much more information than it's JPEG counterpart, the file sizes are larger, and therefore take up a lot of space both on your memory card and your computer. This is a little bit of extra cost due to the fact you are going to need bigger storage sizes, but the price of external hard drives and larger memory cards has really come down in recent years, and they will last you for years, so the additional cost per image actually works out pretty small.
If you are ready to make the switch to RAW, have a read of this post on how to make the switch from JPEG to RAW, which details everything you need to make the change!