So you've learned the photography basics and now you're a whiz at taking perfect pictures... What's that? Your pictures are not turning out perfect every time!?! Well, it's time to let you in on a little secret. Nobody's pictures turn out perfect 100% of the time. But as you get more and more practice, your ratio of "wow" pictures to "ooppps" pictures will keep getting better all the time!
I thought it would be a good idea to address a question I get asked all the time. What is the difference between a Jpeg file and a RAW file? Is one better than the other, and which should I use?
RAW files are very large because they hold a lot of information without losing any details or quality. A RAW file is basically the pure image taken directly from the camera's sensor before any settings are applied such as exposure and white balance (in-camera settings are still applied when you view your picture, but they are not set in stone and you can adjust them later). Jpegs files are condensed by your camera so they are not as large as RAW files. They take up relatively little space on your memory card and on your computer. But they have already lost some detail and quality right at the start. So later when you go to alter that image, you are altering something that has already been altered and you lose even more quality. It's kind of like when you make a copy of a copy and the quality is not so great.
Here is an example illustrating their differences... I took a photo that was too overexposed, and is especially bright in the highlighted areas of the subject's face. In a Jpeg image, the camera sees the very bright areas and thinks, "well, these areas are pretty much like a super light yellowish color, so I'm just going to record them as yellow (very light)". With a RAW image on the other hand, would retain the correct color information which would be a very light flesh color. So later if you darken the Jpeg image, what happens? It darkened to the incorrect yellowish color instead of the proper skin tone. But if you shot the image in RAW, it would still retain the proper light skin color and allow you to darken it with a much more natural look. (click on image to enlarge)
Keep in mind that RAW files are not compatible with all versions of Photoshop, so it may be necessary to upgrade and/or download additional software in order to process them. And this may be different from camera to camera as well. When I purchased my current camera, I had to upgrade to the next version of Photoshop because my old version couldn't handle the RAW files from my new camera.
If you don't have a lot of space on your memory cards or your computer, you don't plan to make any enlargements greater than 8x10, and you don't do a lot of post-processing, then you can shoot in Jpeg mode without any problems.
If you have the space and the proper software, I would shoot in RAW.
Either way, make sure you always save your original files so you can go back to them if you need to! In other words, always choose "save as" instead of "save" after you've done your post-processing (and then save your finished product as a jpeg since RAW files cannot be printed).
Hopefully all this information will help you decide if you want to shoot in RAW or Jpeg! Now go take some pictures!!