Most people are used to JPEG files. All digital cameras shoot them. They can be shared, printed, copied and stored quite easily. They are in fact the most widespread standard today.
JPEG files offer a range of image quality depending on image size and definition. The higher quality and image size you choose in your camera’s menu, the more pixels per inch you’ll get in your final file. Of course this means larger files, which used to be an issue.
With high capacity memory cards and disk drives available now, it’s really not worth considering the trade-off in image quality vs storage space. We recommend you go ahead and select the highest quality and image size your camera offers. That way, you are certain you are getting every last bit of image sharpness out of your camera.
DSLRs and higher range hybrid and compact cameras allow you to choose shooting RAW files. A RAW file is not actually an image, but a data file that contains everything the image sensor inside your camera “saw” at the time of exposure.
Shooting RAW files is one more step to gaining better control over your images. In automotive terms, it’s kind of like having a first look under the hood..
You need to understand that when a digital camera generates a JPEG file, it crunches the “raw” data from the image sensor and processes the information in order to create the best possible photo. In creating this file, your camera selects the data it needs, discards the rest, and does some compression in order to make the file size manageable.
Photographers who decide to shoot RAW wind up with much larger files, and of course they bypass all the processing done inside the camera. Accordingly, if you decide to shoot RAW files you’ll need to use some sort of post-processing software. There are lots of choices out there, including freeware, and we’ll get into this in another column.
The upside is that RAW shooters get to keep all the information memorized by the image sensor, which can then be translated into several renditions of the image. This is very similar to film photographers who developed their own negatives and retained a great deal of flexibility. It’s more work, but you get total control over the final result.
If you are thinking of getting serious about photography one day, you will eventually want to shoot RAW files. And if you can, you should start right now.
Some cameras even allow you to get the best of both worlds by saving two files, one JPEG and one RAW, for every image you capture. This way, you get JPEGs to share with friends and relatives, plus you get to store your RAW files for further fine tuning later on.
Your local camera store is a great source of advice in choosing which option is best for you, and finding out exactly what you need to get it done.