Answer to this one is fairly straight forward... RAW... always RAW..
But... let’s begin by defining each of these:
a RAW file is not an image file in and of itself... it is a file that contains all of the image data from a camera’s sensor and is typically in a proprietary format.. that is to say.. a Canon RAW file will be different from a Nikon one.. different from a Minolta one...etc..etc.. and will thus need special software to view. Most camera makes provide their own software which comes on one of the cd’s in your camera’s packaging, but you can also get 3rd party software such as Adobe’s Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture through which you can not only view your images but also archive, catalogue, process, caption, keyword and edit.
RAW files are uncompressed.. which is to say that a 12 megapixel camera will create a 12MB raw file.. they have a much higher dynamic range (making it easier to recover details in blown highlights or under exposed shadows) and very importantly they are “read only” files.. which means no matter what adjustments you make to them in your chosen software.. the original information is never lost.. all new information (adjustments) is saved as a “sidecar” file attached to the original RAW file.
In addition most modern DSLRs produce RAW files which record typically 12 bits or more (Canon is 14 bits) per colour (Red, Green, Blue) per location.. ie.. 36 bits per location.
In order to print a RAW file.. you must first convert it to one of the standard type image files.. jpeg, TIFF etc.. though this is easy to do through one of the software options described above.
a jpeg is a standard format image file readable by any image program... it is a compressed file so that a 12 megapixel camera will usually produce a 4 - 8 MB jpeg.. it does this by stripping out any information deemed by the camera to be unnecessary.. it has a lower dynamic range and is higher in contrast than a RAW file and any manipulation of the file in photo processing software will result in data loss from the original... but... it is sharper straight out of the camera, it is a smaller file size so you can fit more on a flashcard, it can be printed directly and it is processed by your camera.. so you need do nothing in post-production if you don’t want to.
That’s all the info.. but what does it mean to me as a photographer..?
I think to begin with amongst photographers both amateur and professional, there seems to be a bit of a phobia when it comes to RAW because of the perceived extra work involved in processing RAW files and also because of the extra storage space required for the larger files generated.
Neither of these reasons have any real foundation though.. in terms of storage space.. yes the files are larger.. so you can fit fewer on your flashcard in the first instance when shooting, and they take more space in terms of permanent storage and back-up... BUT... flashcards are getting cheaper all the time.. a ProSpec16GB CF card from Calumet only costs £31.00 which on a Canon 1D IV at 400 ISO gives 672 RAW images and on a Canon 5D II gives 559 RAW images.. plenty enough..
In terms of permanent storage and back-up... I have to concede that this is more expensive.. especially when your archive starts getting into the tens of thousands of images which have to be both stored accessibly and backed up regularly... however.. I think it also presents an opportunity for us photographers to become a whole lot tougher when editing our shoots... probably 95% of most photographers archives are filled with images that will never be used for anything... and yet for some reason we are loathe to bin them.. we know the shots are either no good or duplicated and yet chucking them does not seem to be a choice we entertain... I can understand this when it concerns photos of family and friends.. but when it comes to our professional or hobby shoots we should learn to be much much tougher on our edits...
In terms of processing RAW files.. it’s a lot simpler than people might otherwise think and the majority of photographers already use software that can do this simply.. be it Adobe’s Photoshop or your own camera make’s proprietary software... i’ll go more into RAW processing in a future post.. but for now please trust me when I say.. do not be put off by post-processing of RAW.. the quality of your pictures will vastly improve and the process itself is as simple as.. choosing an image.. selecting “export” from the menu.. and telling the computer where to put it.. done.!
The only people who should be shooting jpegs are firstly folks who use their camera only to record their family and friends, for whom photography is not in itself a hobby, passion or profession, and secondly agency and news photographers working to such tight deadlines that they cannot do otherwise.. shots from live events such as the 100m final at the Olympics could be from camera to picture desk within 2 minutes of the race end... and there’s no way you’re going to meet that kind of deadline if shooting RAW.
The main reason I would advocate shooting in RAW is that the quality of the image that you can create from the RAW file far exceeds anything that the camera can produce as a jpeg.. don’t forget, when shooting jpegs.. you are giving the camera the task of processing that image according to the parameters you have given it.. in the first instance, the colour profile you have set.. Adobe RGB, sRGB etc... and in the second.. the exposure settings you have made for the image itself. The result is very strict with no leeway for parts of your photo that might be slightly over or under exposed.. and recovery of these is minimal at best from a jpeg.
The adjustments you can make to your raw files.. from colour balance, to hue and saturation to sharpness and contrast is infinite.. and it is all reversible with no risk to your original image file..
So if you haven’t tried it before... give it a go.. you have nothing to lose and you might be amazed at the difference in your own photos.
In future posts I will go into more detail about post-photography workflows, image management and raw conversions.. so stay in touch and hopefully I will help make the whole process a lot simpler for you..