I have nothing against JPGs but I think a photographer should only shoot RAW except in special circumstances where JPGs are needed, for example when having to shoot burst speed. In this short article I will list my top 7 reasons to shoot in RAW. Yes, I got tired of top ten things, so let's do a top 7.
1. To store the most from each photo.
This is my #1 reason why photographers should shoot RAW even if they don't know how to process a RAW file. A RAW contains all the information the camera sensor recorded from the scene; if in the future we learn how to edit our photos better or new applications are created to edit photos, the only way to be able to use these new tools and knowledge in our photos is to keep the RAWs. Even if you don't do anything with them just store them, disk space is cheap and if you ever need them, then you have them. Imagine a new tool that can do something great to photos but needs a RAW file as the input…
2. To be able to fix White Balance
The camera Auto-WB setting is good but it is never perfect and for some scenes it can go badly wrong. In a previous article I discussed some tools to improve the white balance of your photos. It's very hard to get a perfect WB in the camera but it's easy to do it in post-processing. And you can try several different color temperatures and find something you didn't consider in the shoot. To correct the WB without destroying information you need to shoot RAW.
3. To extend the Dynamic Range
There are several tools and utilities to create HDR images from a single RAW. The explanation is very simple: A RAW contains all the exposure information the camera sensor could capture and that's more than what a single JPG can represent. So a good piece of software can use that exposure information in the RAW to create a photo with more dynamic range compared to the default JPG that the camera creates.
4. To improve our processing options
There're several good tools to develop RAW files. Many of those applications can fix distortion, correct chromatic aberration, correct lens softness and do many, many interesting things. They are not a complete solution for a photo-editing workflow but they are a great first step before editing with Photoshop or something else. DxO optics for example can create an image from a RAW file that is far better than a default in-camera JPG.
5. To reduce noise
There are two big advantages about shooting RAW in terms of noise. The first advantage is that you can expose to the right maximizing the signal that the camera gets and thus improving the signal to noise ratio. If you expose to the right you need to shoot RAW to be able to fix the exposure of the shot to something you like. The second advantage is that the RAW processor can apply a first instance of noise-reduction to the RAW file with results that are not as destructive as a noise reduction applied to a JPG. If you shoot frequently in twilight or at night RAW is mandatory to improve your shots.
6. To improve prints
This is as simple as "real pixels are better than software created pixels" when you shoot a photo as you will probably need to do many things before printing. Leveling the shot a little, cropping, changing colors to match the printer profile and of course sharpening. If you do all these things over a JPG you will be editing and modifying a file that is not intended for editing. JPGs are the final step in any workflow, so if you start with a JPG you can't do anything and we all know that no photo is perfect for printing straight from the camera.
7. Why not?
I left another strong but simple reason for the end. Unless you really need to shoot JPG because you need a certain burst speed or you have a small memory card, there's really no reason against shooting RAW. You can even shoot RAW + JPG if you want and use the JPG storing the RAW for the future. Shooting JPG is like using a polaroid camera, you lose your negatives and what you get is the final representation of your photo, it has little flexibility.
In my next article I will discuss a simple workflow that can be used if you shoot RAW.