This is a question that has been going back and forth for a long time now since digital photography really started to take off. For me personally (and most photographers) it’s a simple answer, and that is to always shoot in RAW whenever possible. The sheer difference of quality between a RAW file and the exact same shot in JPG is a big, and will give you so much more potential when editing as there is a lot more data to play with. If you ever have to recover an image, be it your or someone else’s, you’ll be glad that you have the original RAW file.
The thoughts below are my own and are mainly based on my own experience, but should you feel that I am way off or there is something important I have left out, then please comment and say why and I will update this.
When I first started getting into photography, I always shot in JPG. This was mainly due to the fact that my first camera was a Casio point and shoot and the memory card that I had was only 128MB; also I had no idea as to what RAW actually was nor the benefits of it. About a year later when I started to really want to improve my photography, I started, as most people do by looking to other photographers online for tips and advice. The first bit of advice for me was to actually get myself a camera that was capable of more than the basic, ‘point at the subject and hope the camera makes it OK’, type of shooting, and invest in a beginners DSLR. Then it was a question of what make to get and which type was best for me. After a lot of research of choosing between Nikon and Canon (yes, I know there are other makes) I settled on a Nikon D40 with a very basic 18-55mm kit lens.
I noticed straight away that there was a lot more functionality to this compared to my first one, but most importantly, I had a lot more control over the camera. As advised, I set the shooting mode to Manual and the image quality to RAW. I learned pretty quickly that you need to know the correct settings for different shots, (lighting, aperture, shutter speed) and forcing myself to keep it in Manual made me learn very quickly, as I could see what effects the different settings had on each image. I also, bought a Nikon 50mm 1.8 (Prime lens) as I wanted to learn about DoF, have a lens that would be consistently sharp and force me to physically move to compose the shot rather than rely on the zoom function.
I have since upgraded to a Nikon D300s which allows me to shoot up to 7 frames per second (8 with MB-D10 + EN-EL4a battery) which meant, that as I shoot everything in RAW, but wish to also be able to shoot at the maximum amount of frames per second as well, (mainly for shooting sports) I needed not only a larger card (the camera actually takes 2 cards, 1 SD and a compact flash) but a card/s that will be able to deal with sending the RAW files from the camera to the card without having to worry about buffering issues (the speed at which the camera can adjust the image and send it to the memory card, then take another one), as the RAW files sizes are pretty large as the camera shoots in a higher resolution than my old D40. On average I think that I can take about 12 RAW shots in one burst, and then will wait approx 2 seconds for the images to be sent to the CF card until I can take a further 12. The solution was simple, as I bought a 16GB SDHC (Class 10) and a 16GB compact flash (60MB/s) which were the fastest ones that I could get.
Now, I can understand that for some people, shooting in JPG is either their only option due to the limitations of their camera or it could be that they only have very small memory cards in their camera and the size of the RAW file limits the amount of images that they can take. Also, they may not have access to software in which to edit the RAW file and convert it to a JPG, like Photoshop, Adobe Bridge or Lightroom. I also have a few friends who work as paparazzi in L.A and London who shoot in JPG 99% of the time as that is easier for them. However, it’s the sheer amount of data that you lose as the camera compresses the image to JPG (depending on what mode of JPG you have set, will determine the amount of compression) which is a major no-no to me, as it’s a very destructive way to shoot. I found out in the beginning the hard way, that trying to recover lost details in an over exposed or poorly lit subject matter in JPG can sometimes be impossible as the required data was discarded when the camera compressed the image.
Another reason that a lot of people say for shooting primarily in JPG is that they get the shot perfect every time in camera, (exposure, white balance, sharpness etc) so see no reason as to shoot in an uncompressed format. No one get it’s right in camera 100% of the time. If you have the memory capacity in your camera then I’d really advise shooting everything in RAW where possible, especially if intent to do any amount of editing to them.
Haje Jan Kamps, over at Pixiq has created a very informative infographic that goes into more detail as to the changes that your camera makes to the original RAW image when it has been set to output the images to either TIFF or JPG (known as destructive shooting as it can’t be undone).
If you are interested in further discussion as the RAW vs JPG argument, then I would defiantly head over to FroKnowsPhoto.com and watch/ read Jared Polin’s (The Fro) articles and videos. He is probably the most well know photographer out there, who really argues the case for shooting in RAW and has created hundreds of videos for free where he teaches you every aspect of photography. If you want to check out some of his videos, then you can view then on his YouTube channel here.
Hope that helps.