What are RAW files, JPEG files and why are they fighting?
Back to some basic computer stuff for a minute or two. When a computer stores information, it assigns the type of file with a three letter ending called a file extension. Depending on your computer settings, you may or may not be able to see these extensions. Some of the more common settings are “.doc” for a Word Document File; “.mp3” or “.wav” for an audio file; or “.jpg”, “”.png”, “.gif”, or “.bmp” for a picture file. These extensions tell your computer which programs are able to use these particular files, and what kinds of details are in the files, (what you do with them). These files are associated with the programs best suited to make them work.
JPEG files are picture files that were created so they could be easily smashed down into smaller files so they could be stored easier, and processed faster by your computer or camera. A digital camera is just like a computer. When it captures an image, it has to record that image to some form of media (a memory card), and then move on to the next picture. The short-term memory on a camera is called a “buffer”. The buffer has a specific amount of memory to hold the image after it has been taken, until the card writer inside of the camera can catch up with all of the pictures that have been taken. Without getting too technical, if you are buying memory cards, the only real difference is the “write-speed” of the cards. The newer ones have the fastest write-speeds.
JPEG files save some memory by taking every single little dot that makes up an image, “pixels”, and groups them into squares and averages these squares into the color that fits best for that particular group of dots. So, instead of remembering the color for each tiny little dot, the picture only has to keep track of the colors for this little bunch of dots, it does this by making all of those dots the same color. So, when working with JPEGs your colors will be close, but not always precise. Also, when dealing with JPEGs you have “artifacts”., or leftovers. Have you ever taken a picture off of your computer and tried to blow it up to a size you could print only to find a bunch of little tiny, blurry squares where your nice edges used to be. These are JPEG artifacts.
JPEGS are much more compact and easy for your camera to work with, but they have limitations when it comes to color and making them bigger.
Now, we move on to the hero of the digital camera movement, the RAW file. A RAW file (.CR2 for Canon, .NEF for Nikon) does not group these little tiny dots into squares. Every single tiny dot has its own color information and location. This can make the RAW files huge. But, the beauty of the RAW file is you can use a photo-editing program equipped for RAW files, (more and more common), and change over twenty different components of the picture. If your exposure was off while taking the picture, you can salvage the picture if it’s within one or two levels of exposure in either direction (too dark or too light). If your camera color settings are off just a bit, you can correct this with the color settings. If your White Balance is off, you can change this with just a click of a button. I will get into the beauty of RAW files a little later, what is important is that you have tons more control over the image if you shoot a RAW file.
Tip for experienced photographers and beginners: Windows does not recognize any type of RAW file, you will never see a thumbnail preview of any RAW image until it is converted into a format that Windows will recognize.
If you’re thinking “WOW, this is a real headache”. Please don’t. The benefits of a RAW file far outweigh any small learning hurdles in the beginning.
RAW files allow you to edit your original picture by starting out raw. All of the essential image information is there, what should be dark, what should be light, which colors should be where. When you edit the image, your image editing program will add extra information to the file, to give it just the right special touches you need to make the image “sparkle”. When you save this information, it is added as a companion to the picture you have already, (just as good as the JPEG file). But here’s the magic part, your original image remains UNTOUCHED by any editing you may have done to the RAW file. You changed your picture and you didn’t hurt a thing. You can blow it up to much bigger sizes, within reason, and not have to worry about looking at little tiny box squares on the side of some one’s face.
**So, because of their file size, JPEGs should be used when you’re taking a lot of pictures at fast speeds, or when you’re taking a lot of pictures and need the memory space. But every other occasion when those two items aren’t critical, I use RAW, you have more control over the image, you have better (unclipped) colors and you maintain the integrity of your original image.
Everyone has their own cooking analogy for Camera RAW from soup to cookies to brownies. Just figure a RAW file as having everything you need for the picture already there, now you can go in and change a thing or two to your specific taste.
Last, but not least, no amount of image editing will save a bad picture from the camera, but it will let you do some interesting things to use them in other places. More on that later.