RAW images contain a lot more data than JPEGs. If you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you should shoot in RAW most of the time — it makes the most of your camera’s capabilities. You can even shoot RAW on your iPhone. However, there are a few situations where you don’t need to shoot — or even shoot — RAW.
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If the photos don’t matter or you want to be able to share them quickly
From time to time, I get photographed at a Christmas party or a family event. These are not quality portraits; they are just pictures of — usually drunk — people. The only reason people ask me is because people know I have a good camera. Once you get a reputation as a photographer, it will almost certainly happen to you.
When I get into one of these events, I try to set the camera to aperture priority mode, turn on the flash on the camera if necessary, and then wander around doing my thing, taking photos from time to time. This is one of the few times I intentionally shoot a JPEG because it means that at the end of the night I can drag all the photos to my Dropbox folder (or whatever) without even looking at them and send them to the organizer. They get all the photos and I don’t have to spend hours working on them in Lightroom.
When you shoot a lot of lines
When you shoot a burst with your camera, all images are buffered before being written to the memory card. The size of this buffer is one of the main factors limiting the duration of a shoot. Because JPEGs are much smaller than RAW files, most cameras can store more JPEGs in their buffer and therefore shoot longer bursts.
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For example, my Canon 5DIII can shoot six RAW or JPEG frames per second. The buffer can only hold 18 RAW photos, which means I get a three second burst at full speed before it starts to slow down. However, it can hold up to 64 JPEG images: that’s a full ten seconds of continuous shooting.
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Whenever I shoot sports games or other situations where I want to be able to produce a lot of fast bursts, I switch to JPEG. Sometimes it’s more important to take a picture than to get a quality photo out of nothing.
When you shoot time lapse
Time lapse — those fast-moving videos that compress one hour, one day, or even longer into YouTube’s observable length — require a huge amount of photos. The most common format is 24 frames per second, so for every second of footage you need to take 24 photos. This means that the two and a half minute slow motion video consists of 3360 photos.
Some photographers shoot in RAW for a while, but that creates an enormous amount of work and, more importantly, requires a seriously powerful computer. Most laptops are not up to the task of handling that much data. (At 25MB per RAW file, that short amount of time contains over 80GB of data).
The easiest thing to do if you’re just starting out is to get the exposure right and shoot a JPEG. Your computer will thank you for it.
There used to be another reason not to shoot RAW when storage space was too expensive, but that doesn’t matter anymore: Good SD cards now cost between $10 and $30. Outside of the above situations, you should shoot in RAW by default.