Take a look at what a RAW file is and how it compares to an ordinary JPEG file. Which one should you choose when taking photos and why?

What is RAW?

RAW is an image format that is used in many D-SLR cameras. There is no standard file extension, every camera developer (and some software tools) have their own extension — but the backbone is the same.
The RAW format captures what the camera sees and stores it together with the metadata information in the file. In fact, every camera shoots in “RAW”, but if not set up properly (or if not capable) will compress the RAW files to JPEG’s. In this article, I’ll show you the ups and downs to using RAW in photography.

Hack your Camera to Support RAW

Even if you own a simple point-and-shoot camera that doesn’t support RAW format, there is a possibility that you can grab developer tools that will allow you to get by! Lifehacker put together a nice post describing how to enable RAW and other features on a large selection of Canon Digital Cameras.

The Positive Sides of Using RAW

Unlike JPEG files that are compressed, the RAW files remain uncompressed (or uses a lossless compression in some cases) which doesn’t affect the image quality.
In post-production, the photography has the ability to set the white balance without affecting the image quality, allowing for greater accuracy — such as being able to select a specific point to set the white balance at AFTER the photo is taken, instead of settling for a default setting like “indoors”. Even if you have your camera set to “Auto W/B” you will still have full control over it if you shoot in RAW during post-production.
The RAW format also gives you the ability to set color saturation, contrast and sharpness to greater extent than you can in other formats. If you shoot in JPEG these settings will be compressed into the file when photographing and changing then later will decrease the image quality. If you shoot in RAW you can decide whether you want to use the cameras settings or select your own.
The ability to bring back shadows and change highlights is greatly increased. This is mostly due to the fact that RAW is either 12 or 14 bits, while JPEGs are only 8 bits and are severely lacking the detail in shadows/highlights.

The Negative Sides of Using RAW

Unfortunately, this powerful set of tools that are RAW does come with some negative aspects as well.
RAW files are much larger in size than JPEG, but with the low prices on both hard drives and flash cards this issue is becoming less important. RAW files takes longer for the camera to write, which will decrease the frames per seconds or need to buffer longer — this can be a problem for sport photographers that want rapid series of shots.
RAW is for photographers that intend to do some sort of post-production, if you want to print/upload your photos directly from your camera this is not the format for you.
So far there is no standard RAW format, every developer have their own format; sometimes different formats for different cameras in the same series even. This has led to some uncertainty on what’s going to happen in the future, will there be a standard format or will this “madness” continue?
Due to these several different formats most post-production software needs to be updated to support the latest format/cameras.

Final thoughts

If you find yourself rarely doing any post-production work on your photographs you should probably not use the RAW format. The same thing goes for people that just photograph snapshots or the like, when the details aren’t visible.
For post-production use there are several different software solutions. Each camera company has their own software, and in most cases I would stay away from these simply because there are better tools out there. A commonly used software is the Camera Raw in Adobe Photoshop (CS and later versions), which gives you a great set of tools, although I find it a bit bulky.
Adobe also has a dedicated workspace for photographers called Lightroom that’s a good tool with great workflow. Capture One from Phase One is yet another alternative, with both pro and consumer versions. Last but not least is Apple’s Aperture, which is a Mac only software, provides great workflow and powerful tools, but is the most hardware demanding of the ones listed here.
I personally always shoot in RAW, I choose to do so because I want to have the ability to set the white balance and bring back shadows among other things without loosing quality. The extra ability that the RAW format gives me as a photographer is very welcome from my part, it’s like a darkroom in itself.