If you’ve ever scrolled through your camera’s menu, or flipped through your manual, you may have come across the words RAW and JPEG. But what are these mysterious clusters of capital letters, and what do they have to do with photography?
Put simply, a RAW file is an uncompressed file, and a JPEG is a compressed file. You might already be familiar with JPEG files, as this extension is commonly seen on images that have been downloaded from the internet, or in picture files being sent by email. But what is a RAW file, and what is its purpose?
At first glance, RAW and JPEG versions of the same photo may look quite similar, but there are many differences between the two, as well as benefits and disadvantages to each one. A RAW file is the biggest file that your camera is capable of capturing, and a JPEG is a compacted version of that same file.
A RAW file is not an image per se, but a bundle of information waiting to be turned into an image. You need specific software to view a RAW file, that can read this bundle of information. Most cameras will come with a CD or DVD containing the software to view and process your RAW files; or you can download licensed programs from the internet, such as Adobe Bridge or Adobe Lightroom. For a free option, Google’s Picasa will do the job. The purpose of this software is to enable you to view the RAW file, and then convert it into a viewing or printing file such as a TIFF or a JPEG.
Unlike RAW files, JPEG files are already in a viewing format, so they are immediately ready to printed or shared. These files are recognised across all types of technology, and you don't need special software to open or view them.
So what use is this RAW file to us, when JPEG is available? In fact, because RAW files hold much more information than their smaller JPEG counterparts, they can be better processed on the computer, after the photos are taken. Because of all the information stored in a RAW file, we are able to freely play with the contrast in our images, push and pull highlight and shadow tones around, and adjust the colours and white balance easily. As a result, we can really enhance our photographs.
This edited version of a RAW file has a lot more detail across the highlights, midtones and shadows compared to a JPEG file that's been edited in the same way.
If we tried to do the same with a JPEG file, the results would be less than desirable. JPEG files can still be manipulated, but data (and therefore, quality) is lost each time an adjustment is made. With RAW files, no data is compromised. Capturing RAW files also allows us to ‘fix up’ some mistakes we may have made during the shooting process, such as lightening underexposed images, or changing the colour temperature if the colours are looking a bit off. Not every mistake can be corrected, but we are able to recover and amend a lot more with RAW files than we can with JPEG files.
So why would anyone bother shooting JPEG then? Actually, JPEG files do have their place, and can come in useful at times too. Because they are compressed, they don’t take up as much room on a memory card, and you can usually capture 2-3 times more images when shooting in JPEG mode, compared to RAW. For this reason, shooting in JPEG might be convenient if you are travelling and want to pack as many images onto your memory card as possible, or if you're shooting something where you won’t have to do any retouching. You are able to print, email, or post your images online without having to do anything to the files at all.
This little analogy might help to make sense of the two file types. Shooting in JPEG is like cooking dinner using only five ingredients. You can still get a decent result, but you don’t have many options in terms of what you can create. Because of your limited ingredients, it probably won’t take you long to whip up a meal. Shooting in RAW, however, is like having access to an entire pantry full of ingredients; you have a lot more options and elements to play with, even though it might take a little longer to produce your final dish.
Don't panic if you notice different file extensions appearing in your file names when you view your RAW files on the computer. These extensions are telling you which ‘brand’ of RAW file they are. For example, a Canon RAW file may end in .CR2, whilst a Nikon may end in .NEF, and an Olympus in .ORF. They're all RAW files, but the endings just dictate which type of camera they have come from.
Which file type is best for you? This depends entirely on your shooting style, and what you are going to do with your images. Most professionals will shoot in RAW, as this allows them much more freedom in post production. So if you’re interested in adjusting your images on the computer, or doing digital manipulations, this will probably be your preferred file type.
However if you're someone who is never going to do any editing to your images, or if you only want to get your shots printed, then JPEG might be the way to go. There’s no right or wrong - just select the shooting mode that works for you.
If you're unsure, try shooting in RAW/JPEG, where the camera will capture one of each type of file, every time you press the shutter. Then you can compare the differences between the images, and see which one you feel most comfortable using. Just remember that this will eat up lots of space on your memory card, so have several cards to use if you're going to be taking lots of photos.
If you’ve already forked out wads of hard-earned cash on your new DSLR, there's no harm in trying RAW and playing around with some editing software. You could be pleasantly surprised with the results!