If you're new to photography and have just bought your camera or maybe you're relatively experienced but haven't yet managed to take full advantage of everything your camera has to offer you may be unaware of the differences between JPEG files and RAW files.
The two files are very different from one another and there's a common misconception that RAW files are of a much higher quality than JPEG. It's true that you can get a lot more out of a RAW file than a JPEG and produce a better looking and more dynamic shot at the end of it all, but, this is only true after the RAW files have been run through a number of processes in post production.
The reason you can get more out of your RAW files is because it's actually a file containing the complete lossless data from your cameras sensor (the RAW data). Therefore in post, you're able to adjust your highlights, shadows and colour much more affectively and without the loss of quality that might find you'd get with a JPEG where the same adjustments have been made.
It's important to note that a RAW file is not a suitable final image format. You can't print from directly from RAW files without processing the image first. Not every application is able to view a RAW file which can be an issue when sharing or showing your images if no processing has taken place. Your RAW images are also softer and flatter looking then your JPEGs may look at right after shooting. This is because the camera has captured the RAW data and is expecting to be tweaked in post in order for you to get the most out of the file. In order to process you RAW files you'll need to download RAW processing software which is pretty easy to get a hold of these days. Photoshop users will have access to Camera RAW and most likely Lightroom as well. I'd recommend both of these programs for their reliability and support.
JPEGs are ready for print from the moment they're taken and post processing is an optional extra in instances where you do edit the file. As a result the colour at first glance is a little more vibrant and contrasty and will also appear sharper, your camera is treating these as a final image format. You won't be able to adjust your shadows and highlights anywhere close to what you'd be able to do with your RAW file, and where you can you will begin to lose quality depending on how extreme your adjustments are. JPEGS are smaller files as they are compressed at camera stage (the opposite of the lossless RAWs). This can be a hefty advantage as RAW files are always significantly larger than their JPEG counterparts so by shooting JPEG you'll be saving a lot of space.
If you find that you're happy with the way you process your images as JPEGs and you get the results you need, then it most likely isn't necessary for you to start shooting RAW files. If you find that you don't ever process your images or tweak them in any way then you definitely don't need to be shooting RAW as you really aren't taking advantage of what the RAW files are designed to do.
You may find it useful to start shooting RAW if you are starting to experiment with what can be achieved in your post processing especially if you have the hard drive space to support it. If you're shooting in difficult conditions or want to really work on and get the most out of the images you're shooting then again, you'll want to try your hand in shooting RAW.
Shooting JPEG Pros and Cons
- Smaller files (You can save more files on your PC and shoot more on your camera cards) - Less image data to edit with (loss of quality) - Final image format ready to be printed and shared
- No need to edit your images unless you want to
Shooting RAW files Pros and Cons
- Larger files
- Complete image data to edit where quality is retained
- Must be processed before much can be done with the file