Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No need to shoot RAW anymore

Intimate portrait of an orchid (jpeg cropped). Exif data.

For years the jpeg v raw debate has raged. Advocates of both formats defended their positions and ‘wars’ were waged in internet forums.

A Google search will bring up thousands of hits on the topic and you’re welcome to wade through all of it but if you’re short on time, here’s a quick summary.

Proponents of shooting jpegs say:
  • The files are smaller and don’t clog up your hard disk.
  • The quality is just as good as RAW or so close it doesn't make a difference in the real world.
  • Saves time as there is no RAW post processing to be done.
Proponents of RAW say:
  • RAW gives you all the options to tweak your images to your heart’s content, while jpegs lock you into the processing decisions programmed in by your camera manufacturer.
  • You can easily correct white balance mistakes.
  • You can retrieve more detail, particularly out of highlights.
  • The quality of the final image is superior to a straight jpeg.
There are many more ancillary points that both camps make but I think that captures the basic differences.

The thing that bugs me is that a lot of self-styled internet photography gurus tell enthusiasts that shooting in RAW is a more professional approach and something to be aspired too; that the results of shooting in RAW will be infinitely superior to the bog standard jpeg that comes from your camera. They offer spurious arguments and image comparisons. Amateurs spend (waste) hours upon hours trying to perfect their workflow and learn how to develop their images out of RAW.

It’s time to dispel these myths. I agree that until recently some cameras were not entirely up to scratch when it came to producing perfect jpegs out of the camera. Now days though if you make the right photographic decisions regarding exposure and white balance your images will be spot on, without having to sit behind a computer for hours processing RAW files.

Here’s why you should shoot jpegs instead of RAW:

Camera manufactures have come a long way and modern DSLRs are in fact amazing computers processing thousands of bits of information to deliver you the perfect jpeg image. Ignoring the clever in camera processing decisions of your DSLR makes to generate a jpeg these days is like insisting on using a handheld light meter instead of your camera’s advanced matrix metering system. Camera manufacturers provide you with a wealth of tools to tweak white balance, exposure and colour in camera.

Save time, electricity and effort wasted on processing RAW shots on your computer.

Save space on your hard drive. Think of all the space used to store large RAW files (not forgetting your backup space too). But do remember never to save over your original jpeg after you work on an image!

Free time up to go out and take more images or perfect your best images in your favourite image manipulation program.

Many photographers will not be able to work a RAW file to a point where it is superior to the out-of-camera jpeg. Why give yourself all that aggravation?

Professional photographers in most disciplines shoot jpeg unless specifically asked to shoot RAW format by a client. One example is my wife, pro-photographer Magda Indigo; she never shoots RAW with her Nikon DSLRs. Her images are sold through stock libraries like Getty and used world-wide by agencies and publishers.

These days auto white balance and presets together with in camera adjustments give you all the scope you need to ensure you have a good white balance. The LCD screen on the back of the latest cameras has also become far more accurate and gives you an excellent idea of what the final jpeg will look like. Trust it. If you’re still unsure you’re getting it right you can use a white balance target or a neutral white piece of paper to take manual WB reading. Easy. Get it right in camera.

When to shoot RAW:

  • If individual colours need to be finely tuned for a colour critical fashion, product or reproduction shot.
  • In a very high contrast scene where you’re trying to retrieve every miniscule detail out of shadows and highlights, and your shots will be printed extremely large.
  • You want to heavily manipulate your image and need to reduce the risk of blowing out colours.
Most of my images have been shot in RAW over the years although I am confident that clients, the public and even experts will not be able to see the difference in final prints or on screen between an image shot as a jpeg or one shot in RAW.

UPDATE: March 2012 - I never did quite transition to shooting mostly JPEG. Although I know that JPEG will deliver great results the added 'safety net' of shooting in RAW and the potential to adapt images in the digital darkroom, together with a slick workflow have kept me shooting RAW.

This blog post remains valid as each photographer should continually challenge their assumptions and the way they work. This is the only way to progress.

Till soon,

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