Roll up, roll up for the photographic scrap of the decade. In the blue corner is JPEG, the tried and tested file format that many digital photographers have bet on for years. He's refined, processed and slimmed-down to a sensible fighting weight – you can get lots of these guys on your memory card.
In the red corner is raw. Big, beefy, unrefined and pretty much straight off the sensor, raw is a rough and ready fellow who delivers winning results – he needs careful handling though, and you can't get so many of these bruisers on your memory card. Photographers have been arguing the pros and cons of raw and JPEG for years, but what is the most suitable file format for MyPhotoSchool students?
Actually, it's not really that big a dilemma. Shooting in raw makes a lot of sense for nearly all amateur photographers, and the majority of pros. When you open a raw file, you are seeing a file that has undergone minimal processing. Crucially, it's uncompressed, so you are getting the complete package of data as recorded by your camera's sensor. In comparison, JPEGs are compressed to save space (thereby losing some data) and have undergone some in-camera processing – to improve sharpness, for example.
So which is best? It depends on what you are photographing and why but for most enthusiast/amateur photographers, there are no longer many compelling reasons for NOT shooting raw. You're getting as much detail and resolution coming through as you possibly can. Yes, you have to open and edit raw files in special raw-editing software, but these are much easier to use than they used to be, and can do a lot more than image processing – Adobe Lightroom is pretty much a complete editing and workflow package for most photographers, and you can pick it up for under £80/$120. Often you get free raw-processing software with your camera, too.
Once you have figured Lightroom out, it takes about a five minutes to open, edit and save out a raw file as a JPEG or TIFF, and you can automate the process to make it even faster. The arguments against raw go as follows.
One, it slows you down and takes up memory card and computer space. True to an extent, but with storage media cheaper than it's ever been, this argument is less valid. Unless you are a sports or press photographer who has to get images to a news editor within five minutes of taking them, there are fewer and fewer reasons to just shoot JPEG. Also, every time you open, edit and save back a JPEG file, some degradation takes place, so it seems a false economy.
Just one word of caution – don't expect raw shooting to somehow compensate for poor camera technique. While it is a more forgiving format than JPEG, enabling you to retrieve a lot of detail, change white balance and correct some poor exposure, it can't salvage very badly exposed or unsharp shots. Noisy and over-sharpened shots will stick out like a sore thumb, whether originally shot in raw or not. Raw is not a cure-all.