Image Quality: Shooting in RAW vs. JPEG

Understanding the file types your cameras can shoot is important when you first start using your digital camera.  Not only will it determine the quality of your photos, but also the flexibility you have with editing those photos down the road.  Here, we'll walk you through each file type (RAW & JPEG), the benefits and drawbacks, and suggestions on what you should use.

To navigate to the Image Quality setting in your menu it depends on the type of camera you have.  For Canon it's the very first option on the first menu, for Nikon, you'll want to find the shooting menu, and it should be somewhere at the top.  (For any other camera, just double check your manual if you can't find it)  

Most DSLR and Mirrorless cameras have the ability to shoot in 2 different file types to choose from -- RAW and JPEG.  Along with that you can choose "qualities" of each file type.  For example, if I choose JPEG, I can choose a high, medium, or low quality JPEG.  Each quality is designated by the symbols pictured here.  Most of the time it's suggested shooting in the highest quality of whatever you choose, unless you have a reason to shoot a lower quality. 

So, what's the difference between RAW and JPEG?  

Advantages - JPEG files are the global standard for image files meaning they are compatible with literally anything you could ever use a photo for.  It can be used for printing, social media, blogs, stock photography, image preview software......the list goes on.  If you send a JPEG photo to grandma, it's a guarantee she can open it (probably with your help though).  Also, JPEG images are small in file size.  That means you can fit lots of them on a single memory card

Disadvantages - JPEGs are what's known as "compressed" files.  That means that in order to save storage space on your memory card, it reduces the file size.  Unfortunately, in order to do that it throws out most of the photo data (like pixels) you captured when you took the shot.  So what you end up with is a very low quality photo.  

Advantages - RAW files are what we like to refer to as "open file types".  This means after you take the photo, you can edit it almost as if you were changing the settings in your camera before you took the photo.  So, it offers a lot of flexibility in editing.  The other advantage is the file isn't compressed, meaning all of the photo data you captured when you took the photo is saved.  

Disadvantages - There's 2 main disadvantages to RAW files.  The first, they take up more space.  If you shoot in RAW they take up about 5X-10X more space!  Now memory is cheap but you have to make sure you have a card big enough to take the number of pictures you like.  If your card can hold 1000 JPEGs right now, it will only hold about 100 RAW.  The other disadvantage is that it isn't  compatible with anything other than editing software.  That means don't email it to Grandma because she most likely won't even be able to open the file.  And if you upload to Facebook, it will give you an error. RAW is meant for editing, and editing only.

So what's right for you?

This is a tough choice, but we broke it down into 3 categories to hopefully make it easier.  All of these are based on how you plan to use your pictures after you take them.  So find what sounds like you and that's our suggestion.

1. If you don't ever plan to learn editing software like Photoshop, shoot JPEG.  If you enjoy photography but it's just a simple hobby.  You don't plan to become a professional, or want to mess with your pictures beyond printing a few out and sending them to family and friends.  If you also, don't ever plan to learn Photoshop/Lightroom than there is no reason for you to shoot in RAW.  We would suggest shooting in the highest quality JPEG to get the most out of your camera, but RAW would be an unnecessary waste of time and storage space.

2. If you already know and use Photoshop, shoot RAW.  Even if you aren't trying to be a professional but you know how to edit photos and enjoy touching them up RAW is a much better option for you.  The quality you end up with using a JPEG file is to low for editing to improve your photos.  You'll be much happier with the results shooting in RAW.  If you don't have a lot of storage space, go buy an external hard drive.  Storage is cheap these days, and it's worth the extra quality in your shots.

3. If you don't know Photoshop yet, but you plan to, shoot RAW+JPEG.  That's right, you can shoot both!  It does the same thing as shooting one or the other, except it just saves both files instead of only one.  The downside to this method is the amount of space it takes up.  Remember RAW takes up a lot of space, so RAW plus an additional JPEG takes up even more.  However the upside is for the time being, since you won't be editing you can continue to use the JPEG as normal.  But let's say you get that one amazing shot on a trip you went on.  Well, now once you learn how to edit, you can go back and edit the RAW instead of being stuck with a low quality JPEG.  

Take it from me.  I have first hand experience with this when I got my first DSLR back in 2004.  I shot in JPEG because I didn't understand what RAW was, and even got some great shots.  But now that I know how to edit, I can't really go back and use them because the quality is just too poor, and if I had the RAWs I might be able to do something with them.  

So there it is.  Hopefully that technical mumbo-jumbo makes a little more sense now!