On the recent GoPro flagship models (specifically, the HERO7 Black, HERO6 Black and HERO5 Black models, you can choose between two image formats when taking pictures: JPG and RAW. Here's a quick overview of what the difference is and when to use which.
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JPG (or JPEG) is by far the most common image format used today. It has a lot going for it. It's very widely compatible, it can keep very good image quality, and it can be used to drastically reduce file size and therefore make the files easier to share.
All GoPros (and nearly all other digital cameras, for that matter) can save photos as JPGs. It's the simplest option, and it's also the most convenient. You can share JPGs right out of the camera, and when you send it someone or upload to an online service, you can be confident that they'll be able to view or work with it.
All of the various still image modes on the HERO6 and HERO5 models--including burst mode and continuous mode--can produce JPG images.
There's also another option for file format when shooting photos with the HERO6 Black and HERO5 Black. It's a RAW file with a file extension of .gpr. That file extension is used explicitly for GoPro's implementation of RAW, which is based on Adobe's widely used DNG format.
The advantage of shooting in the GPR format is that you can get better image quality (potentially, at least). It records all of the information that the sensor sees, and that gives you more latitude when it comes to processing for controlling aspects such as white balance and for recovering more detail in the shadows and highlights.
The biggest disadvantage of using GPR is that you really need to do the extra step of processing them in some kind of image editing app that can work with RAW files. If you try to share a GPR file to someone else of upload to most online services, they won't know what to do with it. So you'll need to import the .gpr files into an image editing app that can work with RAW files.
Unfortunately, most RAW processing software has been very slow to add support for .gpr files. GoPro recommends newer versions of Lightroom, Photoshop, or Adove Camera Raw. They're paid apps--and not inexpensive, at that--but there is a free workaround: convert the .gpr files to .dng files first. I've put together more information on this here.
Once you've processed the RAW file you can then export it as a processed JPG or another format that's more suitable for sharing.
There is, however, an important safety net feature built into these cameras when shooting with the RAW format. That is that when you shoot RAW it also saves a JPG version at the same time. So even if you're not able to work directly with the RAW version, you have a JPG there as a fallback. You won't get the advantages that come with working with RAW, but you will still have access to your photos.
Limitations of Shooting in RAW on GoPros
There are limitations when it comes to using the .gpr RAW photo format--it's not available in all of the cameras' still photo modes. Specifically:
- It's not available when you're shooting in burst mode or continuous mode. (It is available in the timelapse photo mode.)
- It's not available when you change the FOV to anything other than wide.
- It's not available when you're using the WDR (HERO5 Black) or HDR (HERO7/HERO6 Black) modes.
There is one other consideration when shooting in the RAW format, and that is that it takes longer to write each file to the SD card, meaning that the camera is unresponsive for longer after you take a photo. This is something that bugs me, especially since other cameras seem to have found a way to solve it, but it's just something you have to live with when shooting RAW.
Which to Use?
I routinely shoot in RAW on all my cameras (when it's available), including my GoPros. But I'm also in the habit of downloading the images and processing them in something like Lightroom. That extra step is just a standard part of my workflow.
Few RAW processing apps can work with .gpr files. The simplest option is to use Lightroom, which has built-in support in recent versions. But if you don't use Lightroom, here's a free workaround.
One other time that the RAW format can come in handy is when shooting time-lapse photos. Even if you're using the camera's automatic exposure settings (that is, you're not overriding some of them in the Protune options), the ability to synchronize the white balance across the whole sequence can be useful. Of course, you could also just manually lock the white balance at a specific setting before shooting and still use JPG, but having the RAW files gives you that little bit more flexibility later.
If you want the simplest, most convenient option and aren't interested in significant processing of the images, you can just use the JPG format. And that's the format that's set by default.