Exploring the natural and built environments through photography
If you have a camera that allows you to record images in RAW format I highly recommend that you always capture in RAW either in addition to, or in lieu of JPG. Sure the file sizes may seem outrageous, but if you care about your photographs, starting with RAW files will usually provide you with the opportunity to produce the best possible final image. Digital storage today is pretty cheap, so the additional space needed to save the large files should not be a significant deterrent. The only drawback to me is the additional time to process the larger files – especially if you don’t have a powerful enough computer. Regardless, I’d suggest that even if you don’t plan on processing from the RAW file initially, you still capture and save the RAW data for potential future use.
The primary benefits to me for shooting in RAW are:
RAW files contain way more information than JPG’s. Most DSLR’s are capable of recording either 12-bit or 14-bit color depth RAW data, compared to 8-bit JPG’s. Higher bit rate color depth provides significantly more tonal gradation. My primary camera body, the Canon 6D has a 14-bit sensor, capable of recording approximately 4.39 trillion tones. By comparison, 8-bit color is only capable of recording about 16.8 million tones. While 8-bit color is perfectly adequate for a final processed image, (the human eye can only detect somewhere around 10-12 million colors), by primarily manipulating image files with 14 bit data, you will preserve subtle gradations and detail. Ideally, all work is done in a non-destructive workflow, such as in Adobe Lightroom, and once all adjustments are made, the file can be converted into an 8-bit image for display or printing. If substantial processing is required in Photoshop, an alternative is to create a 16-bit TIF file, that can then be used up until the final output to JPG. For a more in-depth explanation of color depth, I’d recommend Andrew Gibson’s blog post here: Bit Depth Explained In-Depth
The second reason I listed above (future re-processing) is huge for me. My skills in Lightroom have improved dramatically from when I first started to develop my digital workflow a number of years ago. Since I’ve preserved original RAW files of my earliest photographs, I’ve been able to go back and re-process a number of early photos with great improvement. Additional opportunities for re-processing are available as newer software or plug-ins become available to photographers. Even if you don’t have the tools, techniques, or interest to process RAW files now, why not preserve that opportunity for the future? The only way to do that is to shoot RAW, and save those files for future use.