A lot could be written on Raw and JPEG (and I have done a bit myself in several books). I get enough Raw vs JPEG questions that I thought it would be helpful to write down some thoughts. My ideas about photographers using Raw have changed, not because the files have changed, but because computers, software and memory cards have changed.
In the past, memory cards were expensive and computers struggled with RAM. That meant the bigger Raw files could be a liability and a pain to work with. In addition, the Raw conversion programs were not always very intuitive and added steps to workflow. I have always been more interested in encouraging photographers than discouraging them. Raw files discouraged people. This has changed today and Raw can be as easy to work with as JPEG.
First, it is important to consider what Raw and JPEG are. A Raw file is an image file that takes a maximum amount of data from the image sensor (it is not, as some people think, an unprocessed file as it is processed for color and noise as it comes from the sensor and converted to digital bits in the A/D or analog digital converter). A JPEG file is an image that is processed from the Raw file while still inside your camera. You can consider it an automated Raw conversion. It is also a smartly compressed file that keeps the file size smaller.
However, and this is very important, the size of a Raw and JPEG image from a given camera are identical — the file sizes are different because of the amount of compression of the file, but the image sizes are the same.
Another misconception is that Raw files are somehow inherently of higher quality than a JPEG file. That is not true. If you opened a Raw file directly without processing and compared it to a JPEG file at high quality (i.e., high quality set on the camera), you would probably prefer the JPEG file (most people do), and you will not see any sharpness or other quality problems with JPEG compared to Raw. However, that "without processing" qualification is very important. Because the Raw file holds more original data from the sensor, it has much more flexibility in processing.
There is a lot more you can do with it whether you are using Camera Raw, Lightroom or another program. It is sort of like boxes of Crayola crayons. JPEG is like a 12-color box, while Raw is like a 48-color box (actually the difference is much higher). Can you color a great image with 12 crayon colors? Of course. Can you gain more flexibility in your coloring with 48 colors? Absolutely. Can you also screw up the photo with those extra colors? Also true.
So a Raw file gives you flexibility and control. This is especially true in the dark and light parts of your photo. You can always get more detail there from a Raw file than a JPEG file. When would you use them? If you need images quickly, including direct printing from your camera or memory card, such as putting a memory card in a printer or getting prints from that card at a store such as Target, then only JPEG will do.
If you need to shoot a lot of images onto a memory card and you are worried about space, JPEG will be better. If you shoot sports or other action, you may find that shooting JPEG means you can shoot continuously without stopping, while shooting with Raw will cause your camera to stop shooting when the digital camera buffer is filled with image data waiting in line to be transferred to the memory card. If you want to keep things simple, JPEG is easy because you can set up the camera to give certain looks to the photo without going into the computer.
If you want the best control over your digital image, then you need Raw. If you frequently photograph subjects with challenging dynamic ranges, such as landscapes with bright clouds, Raw will work better. If you consistently shoot images with problem bright areas or dark areas, Raw will work better. If you really pay attention to how your image is processed and you want the richest tonalities and colors, Raw is better.
Shooting Raw used to be a pain because of the added digital photography workflow steps it required. However, today, that is no longer true with Lightroom. Lightroom allows you to process any image file equally. It does not force you to a different program to deal with Raw. It was designed specifically for photographers, compared to Photoshop which was not. The result is that photographers can deal with their photos faster, easier and more efficiently in Lightroom. Raw or JPEG work the same in Lightroom.
Many photographers shoot Raw + JPEG (including me). This gives them a JPEG file that can be quickly and easily used anywhere and any time, especially for making quick prints. This also gives them a Raw file that can be finessed into the optimum interpretation of the image file as needed.
Rob Sheppard is an Outdoor Photographer magazine columnist, author of many photography books, and a professional photographer. In addition, Rob teaches a number of outstanding online photography courses at the BetterPhoto digital photography school, including:
This article was adapted from Rob's excellent digital photography blog titled PhotoDigitary.
To learn more about photography, explore the photography classes offered here at BetterPhoto.