Why you should be shooting RAW
You have been told over and over: If you are serious about your photography, you should only be shooting in raw. Let's talk about why and when this is true.
While there are several applications where it is perfectly fine to shoot JPEG, in this article we will cover when and why you should be shooting raw, to incorporate the full potential of your camera's sensor into your photography, even though shooting in raw required a more complicated workflow and will utilize way more space on your hard drive or memory card.
What is raw
The raw file format was developed, to save all the information captured by the camera sensor, unprocessed and uncompressed, before any software renders it into a visible image. This enables you to have the best possible lossless source material for your image editing workflow on your pc, which offers way more powerful editing methods than any camera could to convert it into a final photo. In fact you could define raw as sort of a photo negative which is developed on your pc. The difference in quality compared to a JPG file from camera is significant.
Apropos: It is indeed called "raw", not RAW, because raw is a simple adjective and not an abbreviation as e.g. JPG (JPEG/Joint Photographic Experts Group)
DYNAMIC & Color Depth
A JPG Image has 256 (8 bit) shades of brightness in each color channel, red, green, and blue, to define the entire image. Most modern camera sensors, however, offer a color depth of 12 bit, which means 4096 levels of brightness from dark to light. Some high-end cameras can even capture light in 14 bit, resulting in 16384 nuances per color channel. This is called color dynamic or color depth. This means billions more than a JPG image can hold. Sounds quite excessive, but is in fact very useful, especially when working on very dark or bright areas in an image, without causing color banding. This is an obvious advantage.
Illustration comparing 8 bit color depth to 12 bit
The bigger dynamic range of a raw capture enables you to correct brightness and exposure much more extremely without getting ugly color banding effects. Also, there is much more detail retained in dark and bright areas, resulting in finer gradients.
The full potential of your raw files is exposed when working on your pc with a raw processing software like Adobe Lightroom, Capture One or Hasselblad's Phocus which enable you to precisely control colors, contrast, image dynamics and exposure.
Is raw always necessairy?
Of course there are situations where you wouldn't want to have to shoot raw. If you are certain you have setup everything correctly and if you are not interested in excessive post-processing, or want to save the disk space, then it's completely ok to shoot in JPG. You should be aware, however, that your possibilities are limited and your exposure needs to be spot on.
Saving disk space
Raw data can take up a lot of space on your hard drive. It's recommended to use Adobe DNG Coverter to convert your raw files into digital negatives, which offer a lossy compression that keeps the color depth and has no visible difference to the original. File sizes are much smaller then and much easier to share or archive.
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