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One of the ongoing debates among advanced digital photographers is which format—JPEG or RAW—to use for recording images. Both formats can produce high-quality images. But when you shoot in JPEG mode, the camera processes the image for you—adjusting for white balance, applying sharpening, and so on.

When you shoot in RAW mode, the camera records only the raw image data—leaving you to make the proper adjustments when you’re at your computer. This process is more like taking a negative into a darkroom and adjusting white balance and exposure until you get the perfect image. Sure, you can make the same adjustments in postproduction with JPEGs, but you’re then fixing incorrectly applied effects. With RAW files, you’re actually mapping the original bits of information.

For example, finding the right white balance can be difficult at the moment of exposure—especially under fluorescent or mixed lighting. When you shoot in JPEG mode, you have to make an immediate decision, and if you’re wrong, you have to figure out how to correct it later. In RAW mode, it doesn’t matter which white-balance setting you have when you shoot the picture. The camera records the raw data and lets you fill in the blanks later.

One downside to RAW files is their size. They’re usually several times larger than a camera’s best-quality JPEG files. And RAW mode often limits the speed at which you can take photos.

You’ll need software that can interpret RAW data from your camera. Apple’s iPhoto 4 can’t upload RAW files. But most cameras that support RAW files include the appropriate software. Photoshop CS also lets you work with RAW files.

5 Things to Consider When You’re In the Store

1. Size Matters If your camera is too heavy or bulky, you’ll be less likely to carry it with you. Make sure that the camera is comfortable when hanging from your shoulder or neck—with the battery installed (this can make a big difference).

2. Check Ease of Use You should be able to navigate to any option in your camera’s menu within a few seconds. Check that menus are arranged intuitively and that you understand the terminology used. You may be instantly pleased with some menus and hate others.

3. Look for Quick Access You’re likelier to use key features—such as flash controls, shooting modes, and ISO settings—if they’re within reach during the heat of shooting. These features should be quickly accessible from a button or a dial on the camera body or from a top-level menu item.

4. Get the Right Picture If you enjoy fine-tuning photos in Photoshop, look for a camera that lets you capture images in RAW mode. You can spend less time worrying about details such as white balance and ISO while taking the photos and make all of your processing decisions later at the computer.

5. Avoid Unexpected Costs When buying a digital camera, you’ll need more than what’s in the box. You should also invest in an extra battery and an upgraded memory card. Make sure your budget accounts for these additional costs.

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Megapixels determine only how large your image is—they don’t guarantee its quality. Some cameras take beautiful, well-exposed pictures in almost any light. Others produce unsightly noise in low-light situations. Of course, you won’t see these details on the box. Once you’ve decided on a couple of contenders, read reviews of each one to see how their images stack up. Here are some good online resources: You can read all of our digital-camera reviews from the past year and find the best deals on the Web.

Imaging Resource In addition to offering news and reviews of digital cameras, this site lets you compare images from several different cameras.

Digital Photography Review This site offers a comprehensive look at the world of digital photography. You’ll find in-depth reviews of many of the latest digital cameras, as well as how-to information, side-by-side comparisons, news, a glossary, and discussion forums.

Steve’s Digicams This site offers in-depth reviews of hundreds of cameras. Cameras are broken down into categories according to their megapixel ratings.

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