When you make the jump to a digital SLR or mirrorless camera, you’re faced with the choice of whether to snap your photos as JPEGs or switch to RAW files instead. But which one is best to use?

What is RAW file?

You can think of a RAW file as a digital negative, a digital version of what you had before you took your photos into the darkroom. RAW files contain all the data in an image for you to process later.

Straight out of camera, they can lack some of the vibrancy of JPEGs. This is because RAW files give you the freedom to process them yourself.

The first picture below was taken as a jpeg.

The second image was captured in Raw format, and is shown here as it appeared straight out of camera without any manual processing.

RAW files do not come in a standard format. The closest is Adobe’s DNG format, which typical cameras and smartphones capable of shooting RAW files embrace.

This is not the format used by your Nikon, Canon, or Sony camera. Some cameras shoot in a format known as RAW, but the overwhelming majority do not.

Special programs are required to view or edit RAW files. The two Adobe programs, Lightroom and Photoshop, are the best-known examples.

Darktable and RawTherapee are two free options that anyone can use without any restrictions or subscriptions. The latter two options also have public source code, so anyone can see how the apps were built and make their own modifications.

Why photographers love RAW

Many people swear by RAW. Some would even say outright that you should also shoot in RAW. Here are some of the big reasons why there are so many supporters of the RAW format.

RAW files preserve more data

RAW files store all the data your camera captured when you took a picture. These files are considered lossless, as are WAV or FLAC audio files. When you shoot in Raw, you preserve all the detail that your camera was able to capture.

RAW files give you more control

Since RAW files are unprocessed, it’s your job to process them. You can take all the data collected by your camera and see what the image becomes.

RAW files do not have unwanted processing effects

When your camera processes a JPEG, a RAW image doesn’t apply sharpening, noise reduction, or visual compression.

keep you original image

Image editors that manipulate RAW files are also known as non-destructive image editors. This is because they do not make changes to the original file. They save any changes you make to a separate file, and when you’re done, you export your image to another format (most likely a JPEG). Here’s how to convert your RAW files to JPEG in Lightroom.

That said, these non-destructive editors can preserve your original JPEG as well, but other image manipulation programs will not.

RAW files capture more color

RAW image format contains 12-14 bits of information per channel (4096 – 16,384 shades). JPEG provides 8-bits (256 shades).

RAW files have high dynamic range

Dynamic range determines whether an image is usable. This range allows you to restore details from bright or dark areas of the photo where nothing is visible. You can save images that you would otherwise delete.

Downsides of RAW Files

As large as RAW files are, they also have drawbacks.

RAW files have slow workflow

You must convert RAW files to another format before you can send them to a printer, email them to family members, or share them with followers on social media. This means sitting in front of a computer, waiting for images to be imported, editing those images, and then waiting for them to be exported in another format.

You must know how to process RAW images

To take full advantage of RAW formats, you need to know how to process the image using a program like Darktable. This means having an understanding of various photography concepts such as exposure, white balance, and dynamic range.

Your chosen image editor may automatically adjust aspects of the image for you, but if you’re not going to make your own adjustments, you’re better off with processing designed and tested by your camera manufacturer. .

RAW files require more storage space

RAW files save all the data your camera captured, so using them is the same as saving all your images as JPEGs at the highest resolution and image quality setting, except for slightly larger stills.

If you choose the RAW + JPEG setting to save your photos in both formats at once, you’re going to use up even more space on your memory card, computer, or cloud storage account.

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