Raw vs Jpeg Camera Files
Digital cameras capture images on their sensor and then save the file in the digital memory or storage card. Many cameras give you a choice as to what happens to the file before it is saved.
If a digital camera saves the image exactly like it was captured by the imaging chip, it is called a "RAW" file. You could think of a raw file as a "digital negative" which will need further processing to create the final image, much like a film negative must be processed to turn it into the final print.
To convert the raw file to a useable form, you will need some "raw-conversion" software before you can use the file in a normal way. Cameras that save files in a raw format usually provide this software. Sometimes this software is quite good, and sometimes (as in the case of some Canon software) not so good. There is some excellent after market software out there if your raw conversion software is too slow for your normal digital workflow, or lacks features that you want. My advice to you is to begin with the software that comes with your camera and use it enough to get used to it. If you think something is missing, then read some good reviews of third party raw-conversion software and try something different.
Each camera manufacturer that uses the raw format does it in a slightly different way, and this can change with different models from the same manufacturer. If you use third party raw-conversion software, make sure it will work with your particular brand and model of camera
If a camera applies some processing to the image before saving it to memory, the file will be saved as a JPEG file. These files are immediately useable in imaging processing software to view, e-mail, and print. No special conversion software is necessary. Just drag the files from your camera memory card to your hard drive and have fun.
Virtually every camera that saves files in a raw format also allows you to save images in a jpeg format, and some allow you to save the same image in both format at the same time. This is a very handy feature since you have your raw digital negative to play with later, plus an immediately useable jpeg file.
Most point and shoot cameras allow you save only in a jpeg format.
RAW VS JPEG
If your camera allows you to use either, which should you choose? As you have heard before, "That all depends." At the risk of oversimplification, raw files give you maximum control over the final look and quality of your image, while jpeg gives you more immediacy. Having said that, if you use the best jpeg settings on your camera, and make wise choices over the other image parameters, the potential image quality can be very close to what is possible with a raw file. Your choice probably comes down to a matter of time and fussiness and the end use of the file.
If you know that the only use of a file will be to send a small photo by e-mail, you might very will go with a lower resolution and lower quality jpeg file setting on your camera. If you want a good 8x10 print, you might choose a high resolution and high quality jpeg setting. If you are doing a 20x30 print for an art gallery, you would more likely choose a raw setting and give great care to how you process the image.
With these basic thoughts in mind, experiment with the file and quality settings. See what works for you. No matter what settings you use, the more you use your software, the better the results you will get. This applies to both raw-conversion software, as well as basic imaging processing software to make the most of your jpeg files. If your camera does not have a raw setting, don't worry about it. Try the settings that you do have and see what kind of difference it makes in the final product. Be sure and read Jpeg Camera Settings and Fixing Digital Camera Files.
Update, April 13, 2011: Read my new article, The RAW vs Jpeg Exposure Advantage.
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