March 17, 2009 Miami, FL Peter Gregg
The question of RAW verses JPG is one of the oldest arguments that exists in camera-land today. Maybe boxers verses briefs beats it, but only because that would go back farther than the existence of RAW files. JPG verses RAW being a hotly contested topic unfortunately is often used as a way to insult or ridicule another photographer (not cool). It is interesting how hobby and professional shooters start to close their world in to become smaller and smaller and then only exist in this small bubble.
So what is really better – RAW or JPG?? The answer is simple – RAW – lol. Okay, that was meant to rile your goat up, but in seriousness there are some issues on both sides of the fence and I will attempt to help you navigate thru this sticky topic.
Read more after the jump.
The argument RAW shooters make is the agility and quality of the raw file being better than a jpg file. There is supposed to be “more” in the raw file that can be “coaxed” out in terms of quality and dynamic range. Well, it’s true, there is more in the RAW file than there is in the JPG file. Also, adding to the argument from RAW shooters is their ability to make changes to the file in terms of exposure, white balance, saturation, contrast, curves and more AFTER the picture was shot, almost as if you were there taking the picture all over again. The claim is that the camera settings don’t matter because you can correct what is wrong after the fact. For professionals, the argument is even stronger that shooting RAW gives better quality and provides a way to make the files right after the fact giving a certain latitude of having a safety net to protect what your final image looks like.
Almost all of the above really is true. The claim that camera setting don’t matter is not quite on target though. I think white balance matters a lot – kind of. I’ll explain further in this report.
Why then, would a person shoot JPG if all those wonderful things about RAW are really true? I have the perception from what I hear on the streets and in the forums that too many people are shoosing RAW or JPG for the wrong reasons.
I am going to say the major concern I have is the argument I hear to often coming from a majority of JPG shooters. Things like JPG saves space, it also saves time. The number of cards you need to own and the upload times are much smaller amount when shooting JPG. Sounds like pretty good arguments and most of that is actually fact, but not necessarily the truth.
I would like to state some obvious truths about raw files and maybe point out where misconceptions have been formed over the years. So much writing has been done on this topic and so many opinions have been preached and I think the line of truth has been shifting back and forth and became a little blurred.
First – all cameras shoot RAW. there is not a camera on the planet earth that does not shoot raw. To rephrase that – there are absolutely no cameras that shoot JPG files. These are some basic facts that most of us know but they have been hidden and not spoken often enough for folks to remember the starting point of all camera files are actually RAW.
In every digital camera there is a sensor that records the light, after the light is recorded from the sensor it is turned into computer talk and goes down the pipeline where it is processed and comes out to be the final file that is recorded to your card in the camera. At that point we have the camera set to record that file into a RAW file, some will record to TIFF or into a JPG file. So in all actuality every camera shoots raw files – period. What happens after that is basically the part that we are all arguing about.
Taking into consideration that all raw files coming from the sensor must be processed the real argument comes down to where the file will get processed. Are your files going to get processed by the computer in your camera? or are the RAW files going to get processed by the computer on your desk? There are advantages to both, but this is the real choice between shootin RAW or shooting JPG
A great reason to shoot JPG is for someone to actually make the statement they are shooting JPG because they choose for the camera to process the files. Then they set the camera in all it’s many settings to cover things like sharpness, contrast, saturation, compression levels and so on. This would be a purposeful choice on one’s part to use the camera’s computer software as your RAW file converter of the JPG files.
The camera is nothing more than another computer that is processing the raw files. You can choose you to have your laptop or desktop computer process the files, or you can choose to have the more limited computer inside the camera process the files. This is the valid reason for choosing to shoot JPG. You feel confident enough in your shooting abilities and you want the advantages of having the files processed on the spot rather than having to go back and process them yourself in your laptop or desktop computer.
Now we have a much clearer explanation as to why we would choose to shoot raw or JPG. A raw shooter shoots raw because he wants hands on control and to harness the power of a bigger computer capacity in developing his raw files, while a JPG shooter wants the convenience of having the files processed inside the camera while understanding the limitations of the smaller computer capacity inside the camera.
Understanding that all files start life as raw files we now can make our own choices as to how and where they are to be completed. I know photographers that are comfortable in their shooting technique and camera manipulation skills that are able to set the camera to the JPG setting allow the camera to be their choice in processing their files. Other people feel more comfortable having that buffer coming from shooting raw files and the extra quality that a more powerful computer and software can extract for their files. This is the basis choosing RAW of JPG, the reasons that are discussed on the Internet and in group conversations about saving space and using less cards is not the reason your mind should cling to in deciding for yourself – raw or jpg?.
The one additional thing I wanted to mention was the comment that the settings do not matter when you shoot raw. They do matter. Specifically the white balance settings. The rest of them really do not matter, but the white balance setting does matter, here’s why.
The reason white balance matters is a Catch-22 situation. In one way you can argue that it really does not matter because you can always go back and correct your white balance yourself later in your conversion software. True.
However if you are to examine a histogram where the RGB channels are shown separately, it is easy to see in both the sRGB color space and Adobe RGB color space the red channels are often pushing the envelope and blowing out long before the green and blue channels blow out. It is interesting to note that in the Pro RGB color space this does not happen and is a major reason for the Pro RGB color space to be desirable, and also don’t forget that the Pro RGB has a larger color gamut.
Here is why knowing what is happening in the separate color channels is helpful and actual a big advantage to us as photographers. The camera’s metering reads the entire spectrum and because many many times the red channels are overexposing (clipping) the camera will often under expose the image. It sets the metering incorrectly. Wait a second though, it IS correct for the white balance you shot the picture in, but when you apply the CORRECT white balance in your software – ouch – the metering changes and is now wrong putting you at a disadvantage BIG time.
When looking at your image on your screen the first thing you will do is white balance with an eye dropper tool. When you do the white balance correction, the image will most often become darker and will be too dark. This now under exposed image on your computer will jump out at you will want to to correct this in your RAW software by raising the exposure slider – sometimes a lot. This in effect is gaining stops – and that means . . . gaining noise. You don’t want that! We want less noise, not MORE noise
Correcting your white balance ahead of time is advantage to you because it causes your camera to get a better meter reading and get the correct exposure in the camera to begin with. For those of us in the 1600 Club, this is important because we often are shooting at ISO 1600 and higher. As we raise the exposure slider we will be raising the noise levels, and this is a big no-no. Raising an ISO 3200 image to ISO 6400 because we underexposed by a stop or more is not a good practice to be engaging in. Getting a correct white balance with a tool like the ColorRight.com white balance tool definitely is an advantage.
Even though it is preached from the soapboxes that white balance doesn’t matter when you’re shooting raw I am saying that it really does matter because it affects the exposure of the camera and that in turn affects the noise level in your image if you constantly have to raise up the exposure. You will be defeating your camera’s low noise properties if the camera is constantly are pushing the red channel too far in the color spaces I mentioned.
In conclusion, shooting raw or shooting JPG can be an advantage to the photographer as long as it is based on the correct thinking patterns. If it is understood that the camera is nothing more than a small computer with limited power and you still choose to have that computer processor files then you are making the correct decision. If you decided to shoot JPG strictly because of the size and space, then you have made the wrong choice and are looking at the wrong things to base your choice on. The price of cards and hard drives today are low enough where they do not enter into the decision like they would have done 3, 4, or 5 years ago.
As a personal note, I choose to shoot raw. Once I got myself into a happy workflow with my files it is actually an inconvenience to shoot any other way outside my workflow. Shooting JPG files for me would be an inconvenience because it would be a different workflow and I am not set up and fine-tunes for JPG shooting. Some people would ask out of curiosity though what would happen if I was actually forced to shoot JPG files. My answer to that would be to treat them as though they are raw files. I would begin by understanding where JPG files are weak and where JPG files are strong. I would play into this strength and make adjustments to overcome their weakness.
As an example I would say JPG files have less dynamic range. Contrast destroys dynamic range. Sharpness also destroys a JPG file at the individual pixel level. Knowing this in advance I would set the camera settings to lower the contrast setting and also to lower the sharpness setting. This would be less destructive of the pixels and also would add dynamic range to my jpg files. Now I have the choice to correct this later in the computer if I choose to much like I would do with a RAW file. See, I still THINK in RAW even though I would be shooting in JPG.
A good example was the Canon G9 camera. With that camera I had no choice but to shoot JPG files as it had no RAW choice. I tested the files to see how they came out and made my choices on how to set the camera settings for my JPG files. I made all my choices to preserve pixels rather than to destroy them by lowering the in-camera sharpening down to a minimum and sharpen later in my computer software. I also moved to the G10 as soon as it came out as I could should RAW with that camera
If I knew absolutely there would be no computer interventions later I would have to know my camera well enough to know where to set those levels to get the best results. Another example, years ago, not today, the Nikon cameras had a lower dynamic range in it’s sensors (especially at higher ISO) and therefore it was necessary when shooting Nikon bodies that I needed to lower the contrast so I would not blow my highlights. I need to make it clear that this is NO LONGER true today, actually the Nikon D3X is giving the best dynamic range of the whole lot of cameras on the market today -I know as i have one of those beauties
That was only an example in getting to know your camera and how to make the adjustments necessary to draw out the best JPG files that you can get.
So whether you are shooting raw or shooting JPG files, as long as you know why you are shooting a certain way, and you can establish a good workflow for yourself, then you are free to choose whether shooting raw or JPG is best for you. Remember, all cameras really shoot RAW files, how and where they get processed is up to you. Happy shooting and see you online.