I picture it like this. I step up to the podium, clear my throat and, in a subdued voice mutter “Hello, my name is Claudio and I’m a JPEG shooter”. From the room comes the response “Hello Claudio”. I’m a JPEG shooter in a room full of RAW shooters sporting looks of pity and incredulity on their faces, eager to lead me through the multi-step program that will help me kick the JPEG habit for good.
So why do I do it? Why, you may ask, do I persist in working with files that are obviously inferior, lacking in resolution, muddy, noisy and colour blind? The answer is – because they’re not!
Now, before I go on, let me just state that a RAW file with expert processing has the potential to yield the best final image – I know that. Just like putting nitrogen in my sports car’s tires and ultra premium fuel in the tank will shave a few hundredths of a second off the lap time in the hands of an expert driver. So why doesn’t everybody do that? Is it possible that most of the time, it doesn’t matter? In fact, as I write this, I’m flipping through the latest Sports Illustrated. Not only are these images outstanding but, I’m willing to bet most were shot as JPEGs.
Here’s the deal. The people that ultimately decide how good my work is are not my fellow photographers nor the outraged denizens of online photo forums – my work is judged by my clients. And they don’t care how I produce the images they pay me for. What they care about is: does the image meet the creative brief they provided, will it print to their specifications, can I deliver it on time and is the price fair. That’s it. They don’t care what camera I use, what lens, what software or even whether I own a computer. They certainly don’t care about file formats or workflow. But, of course, I do, and for me, simplicity and consistency are key. Like everyone else, I want to create the best possible image in the camera. That means sharp where it needs to be, properly exposed, and within the dynamic range of the sensor. There shouldn’t be major issues to resolve in post. If there are, you can see them immediately, correct and reshoot. So the idea that you need a RAW file in case you need to recover blown highlights or retrieve detail from underexposed shadow areas, although true, is flawed. As a pro, these are issues that should be resolved with proper lighting and exposure control – so don’t wrap up a sloppy shoot with the phrase “we can fix it in post” – fix it now, in the camera and you won’t need miraculous recovery tools. But what about portrait retouching or image enhancement or black and white conversion, how do I do that with a JPEG? The answer is, beautifully, in software, on JPEGs, non-destructively, just like others do with RAW files. So long as you don’t expect to make something out of a disaster like you sometimes can with a RAW file.
Would I ever shoot RAW? Sure, if I were forced to shoot at extremely high ISO where lots of noise is inevitable or if extensive processing is a requirement (beauty and fashion come to mind). For me, that’s not the case. I shoot mostly travel, wildlife and editorial stock and rarely need to do significant post processing beyond cropping, minor tonal adjustments and sharpening. So why would I exclusively use a format that forces me to process every image? For years I relied on labs to process my transparency film so I didn’t have to do it myself, so what’s different now? Are digital cameras so lousy at recording images that the thought of not processing every image with software strikes fear in our hearts? I hope not. I hope we haven’t forgotten how to take great pictures at the expense of learning how to use a computer. I’m oversimplifying, of course. We all do post processing but the point I’m making is that shooting in JPEG does not preclude that. If you’re interested, here’s a list of common problems and tasks that are often pointed at as reasons to shoot only in RAW and how I deal with them:
|Exposure Problem||The vast majority of the time, camera metering is spot on so no excuse for messing this up. For critical situations or in the studio, I use a handheld meter and confirm with the preview and histogram. It’s also no problem to adjust +/- 1 stop in Photoshop on a JPEG file if you have to.|
|Dynamic Range too Great||If Active D-Lighting in the camera and a graduated filter aren’t enough to get it right in the camera, I’ll shoot a bracketed sequence and process as HDR with Photomatix Pro.|
|Tricky Colour Balance||Prior to a tricky shoot I always either a) do a custom white balance with the camera and a grey card or b) include my ColorChecker Passport in the first frame and correct as a batch with ACDSee Pro.|
|Chromatic Aberration||Corrected automatically in the camera. If it wasn’t I would use the PTLens Plugin for Photoshop from EPaper Press.|
|Lens Distortion||Corrected automatically in the camera. If it wasn’t I would use the PTLens Plugin for Photoshop from EPaper Press.|
|Sharpening||Mostly done in camera. If more is required as a final step, I would use the FocusFixer plugin for Photoshop from FixerLabs.|
|Portrait Retouching||I use the Portrait Professional Studio plugin for Photoshop from Anthropics.|
|Image “Enhancement”||I can use ACR (yes, on JPEGs) but usually work in Photoshop for the layers capability and the Color Efex Pro or Viveza plugins from Nik.|
|Black and White Conversion||I use the Silver Efex Pro plugin for Photoshop from Nik.|
I can hear the tidal wave of scorn and derision building so before I get inundated, here’s my version of the RAW vs JPEG FAQ.
|RAW files have almost twice the bit depth of the equivalent JPEG so don’t they produce a better image?||No. They may produce a different image but in all cases the final product is an 8 bit JPEG. We always start with RAW and always end up with a JPEG, the difference is that with RAW you do the conversion, with JPEG, the camera does. Think of JPEG like transparency film, you take the picture and the lab processes the film and provides slides. With JPEG, the lab is in the camera.|
|But what if I’m not happy with the camera’s processing?||Then by all means shoot in RAW and tweak away. But with the horsepower in the latest generation of image processors and the flexibility of in-camera options, I find it hard to believe that a proper image can’t be produced in camera. Remember Kodachrome when we were happy with Kodak’s processing? Same thing.|
|With a RAW file can’t I salvage a poorly executed shot and produce a useable image?||Yes. But if this is the reason you’re shooting RAW, your time may be better spent improving your photography skills.|
|With JPEG, isn’t a lot of information discarded permanently?||Yes, and so what. Once you have the JPEG what are you planning to do with the RAW data? If you’re doing this for a living, you will deliver the final image to your client and never again touch the RAW file. If you’re a hobbyist, OK, you may want to reprocess the file as an educational exercise or to try out new techniques. It’s like baking a cake – once you have the cake, what do you need the ingredients for? With digital you can make an infinite number of identical cakes.|
|What if I want to do more advanced processing like HDR, won’t a RAW file produce a better image?||No, HDR software works equally well with both formats. The determining factor either way is how good the initial images are.|
|Don’t I need a RAW file to do non-destructive editing?||No. Photoshop can edit non-destructively in either case.|
|Why should I rely on decisions some engineer has made to process RAW to JPEG in the camera?||Because they’re really good at it. Millions of dollars in R&D go into developing image processors to do the conversion so why not take advantage of it. If you’re just writing RAW data to a memory card, you’re wasting the image processing capabilities of your camera, and you need to be that expert to do the conversion. We go to nice restaurants because chefs are experts at what they do and can usually prepare a meal better than we can and more conveniently. If you can do it better, go ahead – most of the time, I can’t.|
Remember that all cameras capture an initial RAW file and then convert that to a JPEG, however, all the in-camera adjustments are performed on the RAW file prior to conversion so the real question is, can you do a better job than the camera. If you spend enough time, yes you can and if that’s what you want – go ahead, knock yourself out. But camera manufacturers spend millions of dollars developing and perfecting advanced image processors like Canon’s Digic and Nikon’s Expeed and I, for one, don’t mind taking advantage of that technology. Like with a sports car, some people will be obsessed with squeezing every ounce of performance out of it and relish the control offered by a manual gearbox. For me, those extra hundredths of a second aren’t important and the automatic gearbox in my Maserati works just fine, thank you.