Raw plus JPEG: A More Efficient Image Workflow?

It seems photographers fall into two camps; those who shoot Raw and those who shoot JPEGS. Few photographers shoot both. Raw shooters want to capture the most data possible from their cameras so they have the most information available to tweak in post-production. In the film days the negative was the analog data base used to make expressive prints in the darkroom; in the digital era the Raw file is the equivalent to the film negative. Raw shooters generally want to take control and expressive processing is as important (and sometimes more important) than image capture.

A Raw file with minimal processing.

A Raw file with minimal processing.

©Darwin Wiggett - the same image from above but 'expressively' processed.

©Darwin Wiggett – The same image as above but ‘expressively’ processed.

Photographing with JPEGS is like photographing with slide film. With slide film, the images did not go into the darkroom, the slide (the positive) was the finished product to be projected or published. Slides shooters were photographers first; they were not darkroom artists. Digital photographers who shoot JPEG need to get it right in the field because the image is processed and finished in camera. Any further processing in the computer will degrade the image information plus defeats the purpose of finishing the image in camera. JPEG shooters either don’t want or need (or are allowed) to do post-processing or are under tight deadlines and don’t have the luxury of post-production.

©Darwin Wiggett - An in-Camera multiple exposure JPEG.

©Darwin Wiggett – An in-Camera multiple exposure JPEG.

Why not have the best of both worlds? Until recently the main reason that photographers did not shoot both is that Raw and JPEG required different approaches in image capture that often were incompatible. Raw shooters want the most data possible and to get that data requires ‘exposing to the right‘ to capture more pixel information. Essentially this means ‘over-exposing’ the image without clipping important detail to have more pixel information to massage in post-production. Superficially these images look washed out and pale on the LCD and Raw shooters use their histograms to judge appropriate exposure and not the look of the image on the camera display. The final image density is set later in the computer. JPEG shooters, on the other hand, want images that are finished in-camera looking appropriately exposed for the photographer’s taste. As well, JPEG shooters must decide on the appropriate picture style (vivid, standard, monochrome etc), colour space and white balance to set on their cameras before pressing the shutter. With Raw, you just capture the data; camera settings like white balance, colour space and picture style have no effect on the information captured. And so shooting Raw or shooting JPEG often meant two different shooting mindsets. Photographing with both at the same time didn’t really work well for most people.

©Darwin Wiggett - The image on the left is an 'exposed to the right' Raw capture while the image on the right is a JPEG with exposure, white balance, and picture style chosen for a finished result in the camera.

©Darwin Wiggett – The image on the left is an ‘exposed to the right’ Raw capture while the image on the right is a JPEG with exposure, white balance, and picture style chosen for a finished result in the camera.

In the last five years or so, improvements in camera sensors have made the need to ‘expose to the right’ to get high quality data more a matter of theory and less a matter of necessity. If you’re really anal and a pixel peeper you may see small quality differences in files processed from ‘expose right’ versus ‘exposed to taste’ Raw files. But really, the differences are now so small that for practical applications exposing right just doesn’t matter that much anymore. And so now we could shoot Raw plus JPEG and have the best of both worlds… but why bother?

The biggest problem with shooting Raw is the fact that it’s easy to make images in the field but the real work and time involved is in post-processing. Almost all the photographers I know that shoot Raw have years of back-logged images that are not processed and this backlog constantly haunts and taunts them. You can’t print, email or publish unprocessed Raw images; they need to be run through a Raw image convertor, even if minimally processed, before they can be used. Piles of unprocessed files languishing on hard drives are more than just an inconvenience they are a liability.  Years later, looking at backlog of Raw images, you may have forgotten your initial creative vision for a particular image. Maybe you initially envisioned  the finished image as a high contrast B+W but now looking at the pale milky looking Raw file you wonder why you even took the photo in the first place.

©Darwin Wiggett - When I saw this bridge I thought of a high contrast B+W that was in a 4:3 aspect ratio. I set my camera picture style and aspect ratio to suit my creative vision. This final JPEG reminds me of where I was going with the image at the time I shot it.

©Darwin Wiggett – When I saw this bridge I envioned a high contrast B+W in a 4:3 aspect ratio. I set my camera picture style and aspect ratio to suit my creative vision and made this in-camera JPEG.

Here is how the Raw file of the photo above appeared in my image browser. Would I have remembered my creative vision for the image if I did not process it right away?

Here is how the Raw file of the photo above appears in my image browser. If I waited months or years later to process the image would I have remembered my original creative vision?

To solve both problems (the image backlog and remembering your creative vision) why not shoot Raw plus JPEG? Photograph with appropriate white balance, colour settings, exposure, aspect ratio and picture style to honour and represent want you want the final image to look like. These settings will be recorded on the JPEG as a final processed image that you can catalog and share right away.  The RAW version of the file will serve as the negative for that JPEG and is always available should you want to tweak the image later or try a different treatment. Using this system gets your images into your catalog faster, allows you to see a rough representation of what you had in mind for your finished image and still provides you with a Raw image to manipulate if you need it. Also shooting JPEG will make you a better photographer because you’ll have to think in advance about what you want the final image to look like. You actually have to visualize and that’s what good artists do! They don’t just take a Raw file and wiggle sliders until something ‘cool’ emerges. If you worried about hard drive space, then just shoot small JPEGS with your Raws since the former is really only used as a visual reference of your digital negatives.

The Raw plus JPEG workflow is not for everyone. If you shoot lots of HDR imagery, focus-stacking, or multi-image panoramas then you might as well stick with Raw because you’ll need to process your images anyway. If you have a camera older than 5-years old you might also want to stick to Raw as well for quality reasons. But if you mostly shoot single in-camera images and have a newer camera with a great sensor,  then maybe the Raw plus JPEG workflow might work for you. Try it and let us know what you think.

©Darwin Wiggett - A finished JPEG ready to catalog and share; the RAW 'negative' gets the same catalog number is is always available for other processing options.

©Darwin Wiggett – A finished JPEG ready to catalog and share; the RAW ‘negative’ gets the same catalog number and is always available for other processing options.

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

12 Comments

  1. Ron
    May 2, 2016

    Well now, I am an old “slide” shooter who now shoots exclusively raw (emphasis on “old”). What does that make me – obsessive-compulsive? I think that for a lot of us, and I can really only speak for myself, digital and raw opened up a window into our creative souls. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – I don’t know, except that for me I feel that it is a good thing. I leave it to others to judge for themselves. Raw has unlocked a potential that was simmering beneath the surface in the “good old slide days”, jpg, not so much.

    I would also note the increase in the number of photographers shooting IR, in raw, in one form or another and doing some very creative work. This was hard to do in the “film” days as IR film was expensive to buy and expensive to process.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 2, 2016

      No doubt Raw has made us take another step down the creative process, now we express creativity in what and how we capture things and then in how we process things. This works great if you stay true to your muse and follow through with your vision from capture to output but many people take a Raw file and just run it through digital filters and plug-ins and play with sliders until they see something they like which is often whatever the fad of the day is… instead of what their vision wants to express.

    • Ron
      May 2, 2016

      I would say that if people want to take a raw image and – “just run it through digital filters and plug-ins and play with sliders until they see something they like which is often whatever the fad of the day is” – then it is what it is for them, and if that is their approach to their creative soul, does it really matter? They are certainly putting more into the process than they ever would have been able to with slides or film. Maybe the question is – Where does the fad stop and the creative soul begin – I don’t know – maybe what is “fad” for someone is “creative soul at work for someone else”, but then that is the subject of whole new discussion.

    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 2, 2016

      Nothing really matters if it makes you happy. If moving sliders is your creative outlet, then slider away!
      I do disagree though that photographers doing post-process with digital are “putting more into the process than if they shot film”. If anything I see the opposite, often Raw shooters have the attitude that “I can fix that later” and so get a bit lazy in the capture department. With slide film in particular you were really invested in the front end to get everything right because there was no fixing things on the back end. When I shot with slide film I thought a lot more BEFORE I ever pressed the shutter. With digital just snap away and then clone and massage and add a cool effect in post. Is that ‘more invested’ or just covering up for poor visualization in the first place 😉

  2. Doug Keech
    May 2, 2016

    Wonderful article Darwin. I really appreciate your insights. I have always been a fan of single image over multiple image HDR techniques. As well, I still shoot a great deal of film on my F1, Hasselblad, Contax, and Pentax cameras. I’ve often thought the funnest part of photography is trying to pre-visualize what you would like the image to look like so that you can manipulate your zone exposure and in-camera stuff before hand. I really don’t care for highly manipulated images anyhow, so this technique really speaks to me and will most likely save a great deal of time behind the computer. Cheers.

    Reply
  3. Dave Kosiur
    May 2, 2016

    While I had shot mostly RAW in the past, I’ve switched to shooting RAW+JPEG in the past year for a few reasons. First, I like to convert many images to B&W and I had the JPEG rendering in-camera set to a B&W style that’s similar to what I’d usually want, so I can more easily visualize the result while shooting. Second, I’ve used Lightroom Mobile on my iPad occasionally for editing in the field (more properly, in the hotel [grin]) and I can get a high-res result in LtRm Mobile by importing the large JPEG from my camera.

    Reply
  4. Lynn smith
    May 2, 2016

    I have shoot raw for a very long time and enjoy it. Every photographic journey makes sense to the photographer exspressing their craft. For me I have time to enjoy working on my photos. Lately I have had the privilege to to some event photography. I think I will try the raw/Jepeg. That way the general pics can be quick and easy. I still like getting a photo and looking at it and thinking where do I want to go with this.

    Reply
  5. Jim Dobie
    May 2, 2016

    I shoot a lot of commercial interiors and RAW files are essential because of the often varied light temperatures involved. Sometimes there’s fluorescent lighting, LED lights and daylight all in play; it can be a real problem. I take a couple of shots with a grey card placed at a few locations in the field of view then adjust the white balance in Lightroom. This allows me to export a series of jpegs that I can blend in photoshop to give me the final result I need. The interior designers expect the colors to be rendered perfectly, so this method is the best option. I take jpegs as well just for reference; I usually wind up deleting them when the job is delivered.

    Reply
  6. Veronica Reist
    May 3, 2016

    A great article For all photographers just starting or has been photographing for a while .For years I only shot in jpg . It seemed to work fir me back then until a couple years ago , a business wanted to use my photos for their show room . Of course many of the images they wanted to enlarge to 10 feet were only shot in jpg . Sad to say the files were to small.
    I was disappointed that I had not shot in raw and jpg . The good news I had a couple that were in raw format so they could print larger on canvas and the rest were high quality jpg with lots of detail that they were able to use only in a 3×4 ft canvas . The lesson I learned here is one never knows who will want to purchase your photos . From now on I shoot in raw and jpg .

    Reply
  7. Martin Jurgeit
    May 5, 2016

    A relevant piece, which I am considering in my biased way. Having operated my own darkroom for more than 50 years, I take issue with the writer’s statement that “…shooting JPEG will make you a better photographer because you’ll have to think in advance about what you want the final image to look like. You actually have to visualize and that’s what good artists do!” In my humble opinion it’s exactly the opposite.

    For example, let’s consider any one of the images made by Ansel Adams. He saw the scene, previewed it in his mind and then spent a great deal of time setting up his view camera. That took care of composition. He then determined exposure and the type of negative development appropriate for his envisioned result. In addition, he gave deep thought to printing paper and its development. Only then did he press the shutter release. A lot of photographers in the past did exactly that and many still do. But what made Adams famous?

    Ansel Adams became famous for his prints, which displayed an enormous (for his day) dynamic range. He managed to squeeze the ultimate tonal range out of the materials he had at his disposal with skills he had acquired by long and tiring experimentation in his chemical darkroom. For his own practice and for anyone else interested he invented the “Zone System” of exposure and processing plus a number of alternative ways to process both, negatives and prints.

    The processes of the chemical darkroom, which often took several hours per print and required up 10 – 20, or more, sheets of printing paper, can now be accomplished within minutes with digital software, be it Lightroom, Photoshop and any of the many plug-ins.

    Digital Process

    Over the years many photographers acquired the skill of dealing with photographic subject matter, composition as well as materials and technique, such as film types, exposure and the arcane secrets of the chemical darkroom. Although we still consider conventional aspect of the art, such as “seeing”, composition and, generally, the expected impact of the image on the viewer, the novelty of the digital age has forced upon all of us the post-capture process, whether we like it or not. My observation is that far too little attention is being paid to processing of the image once it has come off the camera’s sensor.

    As the article states, when photographing with slide film, nearly all work of the photographer was done ‘in-camera’. As soon as he pressed the shutter release the work was finished. It was now up to the lab to finish the process, leaving only such things as minor cropping in the frame, perhaps an Orton Effect and a few other effects that were not used very often.

    When they received slides in their cardboard or plastic frames photographers generally forgot, or were most likely totally unaware, that the resulting pictures had been heavily processed. There was the film manufacturer’s idea of what the picture should look like with respect to white and colour balances, dynamic range, grain, resolution, sharpness and many other factors, all of which had been determined and specifically designed by hundreds of chemical engineers and scientists in the employ of the film manufacturer. Manufacturers also knew that there is no such thing as ‘one-fits-all’. Therefore they gave photographers the choice of materials, dozens of film types and formats, different modes of processes and, for printing, an infinite number of papers and developers. Photographers developed preferences for certain types of materials, which they used for different types of images. When it came to B&W, photographers’ ideas changed from time to time and modes of processing approached infinity.

    The digital age ended all that. The manufacturer of the camera has given us a device that collects photons. An on-board computer, by an analog to digital process, converts the information collected into digital numbers, which by further digital process can now be displayed on the computer. The difference between that and the old chemical process is that all the work of 100s of scientists, engineers and lab technicians is now transferred to the photographer. It’s the photographer who determines what the final picture should look like. It’s no longer the geek in Silicon Valley, Rochester or Tokyo. All that work has to be done in the post-capture process with programs such as Photoshop, Lightroom and many others.

    Many photographers, particularly those who learned their skills in the chemical era, find it hard to acquire the processing skills of the digital age. They are misguided by equipment manufacturers telling them that they need to learn only to make a few settings on the camera, dial in the JPG mode and Henry’s or Costco will do the rest. Some such individuals maintain that they “don’t do computers”, let alone complex programs like Photoshop. They are not helped by statements that those who shoot RAW are a small gang of hopeless fanatics and anal pixel peepers.

    The fact is, as the author obliquely implies, that RAW allows the photographer options of processing an image to his own specifications. Today’s software presents the maker of the image with controls that we could not imagine in our wildest dreams 10/20 years ago. To encourage photographers to acquire the skills to master the second part of digital photography, namely the post-capture process, should be the purpose of every lecture, presentation, magazine article, outing and workshop.

    Photography like any other art form is a journey and to suggest that individuals rely on a few camera settings and JPGs to improve their photographic artistry is simply to encourage them to keep their minds in neutral.

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      May 12, 2016

      Great summary and I agree with you on all points except your last paragraph: nowhere do we state or imply that people rely on their cameras or JPEG settings to improve their artistry. Indeed, we advocate for people to do more artistic inputs at the camera stage than most do. There is so much creative vision available on the front end that is simply overshadowed by the possibilities in the digital darkroom. Creative photographers should load on front end creativity as much as possible and then use post to enhance their vision in the field. We see the front end as the cake and post-production as the icing. The raw plus JPEG workflow we advocate is just a way to catalog things faster but then you have raw files available for those images to do all the post-processing icing work to enhance your creative eye.

  8. Donna Wayne
    August 9, 2016

    Thanks for the post. I am a newbie photographer. And while I like raw images, I have thought about what might happen if I just start getting a ton of images backed up because I don’t have time to edit them. This is a great idea you have about shooting both so that you use one as your reference and te other in raw to edit later.
    I love shooting in raw. Like you has been said, it opens up a whole new step of creativity. I actually enjoy the editing part of photography as much as I do actually taking the pictures. That is why learning about raw has been great for me. Here is one of the first articles I read about it that really helped me out: http://www.paintshoppro.com/en/landing/raw-images/.
    It has a lot of good info for newbies like me.
    Thanks again.

    Reply

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