In the microseconds after pressing your shutter button all those bits and bytes start flowing from your camera sensor and down a pipeline towards your memory card. But soon there’s a junction.
To the left there’s a sign saying “JPEG”. The pipeline quickly narrows and the data races onto a conveyor belt and through a series of noisy gears, cogs, wheels and big stampy things. At the controls of the machines sit a dozen stressed-out robots, pushing buttons and pulling levers as fast as they can. In the panic to reach a consensus on how the image should look one of the robots turns the wrong dial and the conveyor belt speeds up. The assembled image shoots off the end of the belt and smashes into the wall on the far side of the room, narrowly missing the delivery chute to the memory card. A significant number of bytes fall off and smash on the floor, never to be recovered. One of the robots hops up from his desk, and feeling pretty despondent about the whole situation, shrugs his shoulders and with a solid boot kicks what remains of the image down the delivery chute. The image arrives looking colourful and dazzling, but its got some dents and scratches which are gonna be difficult to repair or enhance.
Had the data taken the pipeline to the right, under the “RAW” sign, it would have flowed out onto a wide meandering plain surrounded by vibrant green grass and daffodils. Lambs frolic on the banks and willow trees sway gently in the breeze. The image flows blissfully towards the golden light on the horizon and arrives on the memory card feeling fully relaxed and bursting with unrealised potential. All it needs now is some further assembly by its creative owner.
Or something like that anyway.
In a nutshell, a RAW file means more data, more quality, and more creative control. Most cameras, and even some phones, allow you to choose JPEG or RAW as the recording option (sometimes you can even do both at the same time). If you’re after maximum quality for processing and eventual printing then RAW is your option. On the other hand, if you’d prefer the camera to make all the creative decisions, then JPEG is your answer.
Here are some examples of why you should shoot RAW. Use the sliders to see the before and after effect!