In general, advanced photographers are pretty confident about which file format, raw or JPEG, to use when making images. But does that confidence have any foundation? Listening to some shooters spouting off on this topic makes us cringe; there are so many myths and misconceptions around these two settings that beginner photographers must feel overwhelmed. Well, we’re going to sort through this mess on Saturday at our oopoomoo Talk, Raw vs. JPEG: Which One is Right for You? This talk is for both beginners and advanced amateurs. In fact, this talk is for anyone who has told another shooter, “shoot in raw format if you want to be a good photographer”. Take the quiz below to see if you know as much as you think you do!
Q: Professional photographers only shoot in raw format, and everyone should aim to photograph in this format. True or False?
A: False on both fronts. Knowledgeable pros photograph in the format that works best for the occasion; part of being a pro is knowing how to get the most out of your camera. For example, wedding photographers often photograph in raw + JPEG format because this allows them to quickly send hundreds of proofs, the JPEGS, to clients for review. The pro then processes those raws that are the final selects.
We know numerous pros who only shoot in JPEG format because the images are finished in-camera, and the final results of the shoot are instantly ready to send to the client (who always seems to have a pressing deadline!) Most photo journalists only shoot in JPEG, not only for concerns about immediate deadlines, but also for veracity — the image was captured in-camera and not subjectively massaged in raw conversion software. Like many pros, we shoot in either raw or JPEG format depending on the context. When we are shooting for ourselves and want the flexibility to process our images according to our artistic vision, we shoot in raw format. When we are shooting for clients who need fast delivery of accurate results of their products, we shoot in JPEG format. Rarely do we shoot both at the same time because each format requires very different approaches behind the viewfinder.
The photo above is from the Talyn Stone photo shoot and Darwin shot in raw format. A large part of the creativity in this shot is done at the time of capture (model pose, lens, location and lighting choices) as most good photos should be, but the flavor of the image has been enhanced in the processing of the raw file (see the unprocessed photo below).
Q: Raw is a superior file format to JPEG. True or False?
A: It depends. There is a myth floating in photography cyberspace that raw is a ‘superior’ format and that only amateurs shoot in JPEG format. It’s time to leave behind this kind of ego-stroking mentality. The fact is that there are pros and cons to both formats. Whether you shoot in raw or JPEG is going to depend on your personality, your interests, your skill level with the camera, your skill with processing software and the final output or goal of an image. In other words, it’s a lot more complicated than it appears on the surface. For example, even if a raw capture gives you more and ‘better’ data to work with, if you captured poor data to begin with, then you’re still going to have a poor output even if you shoot raw. If your processing attempts can’t rival your in-camera jpeg, then why would you shoot anything other than JPEG?
Q: You should bias your histogram to the right to get the best data possible no matter what format you shoot. True or False?
A: False. The ‘expose right’ guideline is very helpful when shooting in raw format and trying to capture the best data possible. But always ‘exposing right’ for JPEGS is just a bad idea. The reason to shoot JPEG in the first place is to have the camera process the image so you don’t have to do so later at the computer. So, shooting JPEG means you have to capture the best possible data in-camera so the camera can use its processing algorithm to deliver a great result that needs no more processing after the fact. If you are post-processing your JPEGs, then you are not doing all you need behind the lens to give your camera the best data possible. JPEG shooters should not have to do image manipulation after the fact.
The funny thing about shooting JPEGs over raw is that JPEG format demands that you be a better photographer than a shooter using raw format. In short, shooting decisions such as white balance, picture style, choice of lighting, and use of filters are more critical when the image is finished in-camera than when the data is simply harvested (raw) to be processed later.
Getting a great in-camera, finished JPEG means the photographer actually has to know the fundamentals of photography; raw shooters, on the other hand, can get away with knowing less about basic photographic principles. (We’re not advocating for photographic laziness though! The more you know, the better your file quality regardless of file format.) So who says JPEG is for amateurs! If you don’t know just how differently you need to expose raw versus JPEG images, then come and learn more at our talk!
Q: If you are just learning how to process raw images, you should shoot in raw + JPEG mode. True or False?
A: By now, you should guess the direction we’re heading here by debunking these rumours. This is also false. Yet we hear photographers advising the hapless beginner to shoot in both modes as a ‘hedge your bets’ kind of mode. The argument is that, if you shoot in raw + JPEG, someday when you are skilled at processing raw files, you’ll be glad you had that raw file from a year ago because now you can go back and rescue it from the bowels of your hard drive, process it, and win a contest! There is an exception that proves every rule, so we won’t say that having just this situation happen is an impossibility. But, realistically, as we’re learning, most of our early efforts are crap…or worse. (Some of our early images make great instructional slides on what not to do!)
There are some big disadvantages to shooting raw + JPEG when you aren’t skilled enough to process a raw file. For example, you’ve increased your file storage costs in this duplicate system and, unless you have a very organized file numbering/naming system, you run the risk of de-coupling the raw and JPEG files and losing one or the other of them. Not only have you increased the cost of storing your images, you’ve also given yourself a headache after spending hours trying to find that darn raw file of your favourite JPEG image! And how often do we actually go in and play with a raw file after the fact? For most of us, the answer is probably ‘not often’. Shooting raw + JPEG also acts as a crutch: if you really want to learn the control of raw processing, then kick away the JPEG crutch and get processing.
Q: If you do HDR (high dynamic range) imaging, then raw is the only format to use. True or False?
Of course false. JPEGs captured well in-camera will make great HDR photos. Raw images not exposed well or processed poorly can look terrible: just check out the garish HDRs polluting Flickr, for example. We constantly see ‘advanced’ photographers who tout the ‘quality’ of raw format yet feed their HDR programs terrible raw captures resulting in noisy, banded, and artifact-laden HDR outputs. Garbage in is garbage out no matter what format you orginally started with!
Finally, there are very different considerations to be made in the field when shooting in raw vs. JPEG format. The big issue is: are you exposing for the raw file or the JPEG file? What is the best capture in the field for one is often not ideal for the other. Shooting both formats at the same time is problematic. As we mentioned in question 3, if you’re shooting in raw format, you’re going to try to bias your exposure slightly to the right. But this may leave your JPEG image looking bleached and over exposed. Yech! Sure, you can try to darken the picture a bit on the computer, but you won’t be able to play with it too much before seeing a loss in quality. And if you expose for the JPEG image so that it looks good on your LCD (which is what most JPEG shooters do), chances are the raw image is either underexposed or metered to an ‘average’ of the tones in the scene, and this is non-optimal for a raw file. Why shoot raw when you come away with poor data?
These myths above are only the most common. On Saturday, we’ll be discussing:
- how to figure out which format will work best for your style of shooting and skill-set
- the pros and cons of raw and JPEG formats
- how to obtain optimal capture for each format
- how to best expose for high contrast scenes for both raw and JPEG
- how to shoot for the best data for HDR images
So if you are puzzled by the raw vs. JPEG debate, then come out on Saturday, Feb. 18th when we will set the record straight! Please help us spread the word if you know of anyone who would be interested in this topic. (And if you got any of the quiz questions wrong, come along too so that, next time you hear a photographer spreading these vile rumours, you can correct them!)