Still shooting in JPEG format? Here’s why switching to RAW will expand your options.

Technically, all cameras shoot in RAW format. Your camera then processes this information to create a JPEG image. But in order to create that JPEG, a lot of the information that was originally captured is compressed and lost. With a RAW file, all the information is maintained, giving you more scope to edit the shot later.

Compare them side-by-side and a JPEG will often look brighter and show more contrast than the identical RAW file. This is because your camera applies an image profile to the data, performing certain adjustments that create the JPEG. With a RAW file, you’re starting with a blank canvas and these adjustments have yet to be made.

While JPEGs are a universal format, RAW files are unique to each camera. That’s why each camera manufacturer has their own naming conventions – Nikon’s RAW files have the extension .NEF, while Canon uses .CR2.

You don’t need a DSLR to shoot in RAW format, either. Any high-end compact should be able to shoot in RAW. But if yours doesn’t, here’s why it’s worth thinking about upgrading.

Brightness levels

One of the main reasons to switch to RAW format is the effect it has on colour and brightness levels. JPEGs capture images in an 8-bit format, while RAW uses either 12- or 14-bit image files. That means a JPEG can store images with up to 16 million shades of colour. Sounds impressive? Compare that to RAW, which can store anything from 68 billion to 4.3 trillion shades of colour, depending on whether your camera supports 12- or 14-bit RAW files. But all those extra colours don’t make a great deal of difference until you realise that much of that data relates to extra detail in the shadows and highlights, detail that is lost when you shoot in JPEG.

If you’re editing your shots in Adobe’s Lightroom or Photoshop (or even using the RAW conversion software that came with your camera), it means you can brighten up the shadows or dial down the highlights to prevent parts of the photo from being under- or over-exposed. It also means that when you’re photographing broad expanses of the same colour (such as blue sky), you can achieve smooth gradations of colour rather than the unprofessional banding you sometimes see in JPEGs.

White balance

Another easy change you can make with RAW files that you can’t make with JPEGs is white balance. White balance is a topic all of its own, but basically if you took a sheet of white paper and held it under different types of lighting, it would show up as different colours, even though you know it’s actually white. By affecting the white balance you can make sure that white actually shows up as white. This is what enables you to make cloudy days look more orange or compensate for the orange glow you get from streetlights. When you shoot in JPEG format you select the white balance and then have no option to change it later, but shoot in RAW and you can change the white balance however you want at a later point.

When it comes to sharpening and noise reduction, while your camera is capable of performing its own tricks, these can’t compare to the sharpening and noise reduction algorithms available in post-production software such as Lightroom. As they are being continually updated, you can be sure you’re getting the best for the job, too.

JPEGs will always be compressed files but if you use the RAW format to shoot, you can ultimately save your images in a TIFF format instead. With no compression applied, this format maintains the most detail. You can easily change the colour space you use, too. If you’re shooting images that work best on screen, you’ll want to save your files in sRGB format for the total browser compatibility. But if you’re printing, you might prefer the wider colour space of Adobe RGB or even ProPhoto RGB, which offers the widest colour space of all. Shoot RAW and you can output your files in whatever colour space you choose.

The downsides

There are also downsides to shooting in RAW format, too, the main one being file size. Depending on your sensor size, RAW files will be considerably bigger than JPEGs, which will eat into storage space. You may find you need a bigger memory card to shoot in RAW, and you’ll need more hard drive space to store those images.

The other reason you may prefer to shoot in JPEG is also down to file size. If you’re taking burst shots and want to write images to your memory card or camera buffer as fast as possible, then the smaller file sizes of JPEGs will come in handy here, too.

To get the most out of RAW files, you’ll want to think about some post-processing software to manipulate those images. If your camera supports RAW format, it will have come with software that does the conversion job, but nothing compares to Adobe’s Lightroom and Photoshop for the way you can manipulate RAW image files. If you haven’t tried them and want to give them a go, demos are available from Apple.

If you’re interested in showing off your photos at their very best, then RAW is the way to go. Once you get started, you’ll soon realise it’s worth it.

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