If you've shot film, it's like the difference between shooting a negative and a slide. One is a finished product (roughly speaking) and the other is a mechanism for producing a finished product.
A raw file is a lot like a digital negative, while a JPEG is more like a slide.
Although you can certainly edit JPEGs too, there's vastly more latitude when editing from raw. Have a look at this thread that illustrates some of what is possible and why it might not be so easy to "just get it right in the first place."
_____ Brian... a bicoastal Nikonian and Team Member
My gallery is online. Comments and critique welcomed any time!
When you shoot JPEG the camera makes the decisions of contrast, color, sharpness etc for you and saves it as a finished product, leaving out all of the rest of the data it feels is not needed and compressing it into a nice tidy universally accepted package.
RAW on the other hand is a fully unprocessed, uncompressed image and will need to be edited on your computer to process all the colors, contrast, even white balance. There is also a difference in size as the average JPEG is about 1-4MB and a RAW file is upwards of 20MB or more. You then have to convert/save it as some sort of image file such as jpg png etc.
Basically, if you have absolutely no intention of ever editing your photos, or maybe only doing a crop or brightening it the JPEG is probably fine, but if you want to do some serious editing work then RAW is the way to go.
The basics have been covered. RAW is undoubtedly going to allow you the most control, the best final image.
You need a good RAW editor, but not necessarily top of the line programs like Photoshop CS versions. Lightroom is excellent, and as a 2nd, Nikon NX2.
Either program needs at least a decent dual core computer with 4 gig of memory and depending how much you shoot, anywhere from modest to a lot of disk storage. Keep in mind you need to back up your images, (if they are important to you), so any disk subsystem needs to be replicated in some way as a minimum.
"Sawed that board three times and it is still too short... "
One analogy that is sometimes used:...shooting raw is similar to capturing the ingredients for a cake, whereas shooting jpeg is having the image essentially "baked". Once it's baked, you have a much smaller window for making any significant changes in the image.
One example of the substantially wider latitude in shooting raw, is in color balance. This image was shot in raw, but I created two versions, with widely divergent color temperatures:
Raw files are camera specific so you need an editor that can handle them. Also as new camera models are released the software must be updated. From a price and performance standpoint I would recommend the latest version of Photoshop Elements. It has nearly all the tools of the pro versions of Photoshop. Also the free software that comes with the camera, Nikon View NX2 is a good starting point. It can also be downloaded from the Nikon site.
Since jpg files are an industry standard they are not camera specific.
#7. "RE: Raw vs JPEG" In response to Reply # 6 Wed 09-Oct-13 03:15 AM by Beatkat
Don't overlook Faststone Image viewer (faststone.org)..handles RAW from every manufacturer, and has many excellent features...free for Non Commercial use...quite powerful.. FastStone Image Viewer 4.8 Freeware (Last Update: 2013-04-04)
"An image browser, converter and editor that supports all major graphic formats including BMP, JPEG, JPEG 2000, GIF, PNG, PCX, TIFF, WMF, ICO, TGA and camera raw files. It has a nice array of features such as image viewing, management, comparison, red-eye removal, emailing, resizing, cropping, color adjustments, musical slideshow and much more". Connecticut Nikonian D5100 Nikkor 50mm 1.8 18-55DX 18-105VR 55-200VR other asst. glass
I'm still learning, but I like to do editing in PS Elements 11. I haven't shot in raw yet, as I use the highest jpeg settings. I then open the images I want to edit in PSE 11 in "camera raw" and can make adjustments to the images as if they were raw. I'm sure there's a difference opening a jpeg in "camera raw" verses opening a raw file, but you do get all the adjustment tools right there in one screen at your disposal.
Steve, you bring up a point of how many post processing tools do you need? I'm currently in that position since I know have both a Nikon and Olympus. I've been very happy post processing my Nikon NEF's with Capture NX 2 but now have to look for the equivalent for Olympus ORF raw files. That also means learning another tool.
I see some in this thread talk about using PhotoShop for RAW and that may be the best lowest common denominator for RAW processing. I need to do some more research. Using a single Adobe product is also skill protection if you change camera manufacturers.
However, I want to reinforce shooting in RAW. Why have some of your post-processing decisions made by the camera in converting to JPG?
I need to shoot in RAW someday, My situation is a bit backwards. I have been using photoshop since 1995, and I just took up photography on a more serious level last winter (first DSLR). PSE was a familiar setup. When bad weather comes and I have more time I'll play with RAW images in PS and NX 2 and see where that takes me. For the OP, I just wanted to make the point that PSE offers RAW processing (and maybe more than NX2, as I enjoy photo manipulation also) and that you can easily play with your jpeg images by opening them in RAW.
If you're shooting JPG's, then you won't have as much flexibility when post-processing the image. In particular, the camera's White Balance setting will be "baked into" the image, so you can't change it at will as you could with a RAW image. It's also easier to recover under- or over-exposure problems in RAW images than it is in JPG's.