Brave New Image Processing: To JPEG or RAW, That’s No Longer the Question, Maybe

To JPEG or to RAW, that is one of photography’s old recurrent questions that has always been highly susceptible to dogmatic practices. Some photographers protect their RAW work flow with religious devotion. Or others shoot primes only and look down on telephoto zoom lenses. Yet other photographers preach only full-frame and film are providing the true photography experience. Like the Shakesperean question, “To JPEG or to RAW, that is the question.”

Dogmatic photography - JPEG or RAW? |

Many friendly JPEG vs. RAW conversations easily turn into bloody disputes. RAW, the JPEG zealots say, is for pseudo photographers because they always have to correct and post-process their shots. JPEG, the RAW zealots say, is no better than just shooting with a point-and-shoot camera. Is it a coincidence that RAW turns into WAR spelled backwards? True, JPEGs slowly deteriorate. But neither zealots are right.

Think of it the pragmatic way: a sports and news photographer will likely go JPEG because of quicker, easier handling of the files. A landscape photographer will likely shoot RAW. Chances are parts of the photographs need to be lightened while others need to be darkened — and a house or person that offends the eye needs to be erased. There’s so much more information in RAW for retouch etc.

As a rule, tough lighting conditions and specialty photography involving complex dynamic range issues prefer RAW. In fact though it’s a less and less important question really if a photographer should shoot JPEG or RAW because today’s quality of JPEGs is flat-out amazing. The RAW-only dogmatists face difficult times. Is RAW a thing of the past?

I’m not talking about the all important studio shot or contract work that’s gonna be costly if you fail. Chances are though that the better JPEG engines become the less you’ll need RAW files.

Think of RAW as film. A RAW file is comparable to the latent image contained in an exposed but undeveloped piece of film. It holds exactly what the imaging chip recorded. Once your image is taken and digitized there is much you can alter, and yet again only so much. ISO? You’re stuck with set ISO. Add the time factor a.k.a. inconvenience. Why needlessly suffer.

In fact most people can’t tell the difference between a native JPEG and native RAW image. If native resolution is good enough even for your larger prints, then embrace the nice new world of JPEGs that, by the way, still allows extensive post-processing. Adobe Bridge for instance allows the editing of JPEG files as if they’re RAW files. Just open the images in Camera RAW editor.

Old school though says an all-RAW work flow is supposed to be the real thing — if you don’t mind the 75 MB size of a Nikon D800 RAW file (while a processed TIFF file will eat a whopping 212 MB). Storage has become cheap, but time is money. And fact is new cameras such as the D800, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Fujifilm X-Pro1 or Olympus OM-D E-M5 crank out amazing JPEGs nailing white balance and exposure.

Why not trust “pre-cooked” JPEG files by taking advantage of the enormous strides that camera manufacturers have made in in-camera image processing.

True, RAW allows greater if not maximum control in post-processing with less quality loss if you change exposure, saturation, sharpness, curves, etc. But there’s less and less need to post-process because JPEGs today are what RAW once was.

True, any JPEG post-processing will result in more quality loss than processing RAW. But today’s megapixel count and resolution provide sufficient data on a JPEG file to match RAW output (we’re not talking billboard size printing, that’s for medium format anyway).

Using RAW, again, is like shooting an analog roll of film. That roll has to be developed. The time the film roll has to spend in the darkroom you’ll spend in front of your computer screen.

JPEGs, in comparison, outsource the darkroom to in-camera processing systems such as Canon’s DIGIC, Nikon’s EXPEED and Fujifilm’s EXR by integrating the operation of the camera, lens and sensor to optimize the recorded image.

RAW is like going to the market buying all the raw, uncooked ingredients. At home you spend time trying to create something nice while others live on ready-made meals or precooked food. Which one is better? That’s not only a matter of taste but a question of the raw materials and processing aka cooking methods used. I bet you have a favorite ready-made dish.

Today’s JPEG engines think for themselves. Yes, there’s the danger that fully automated exposures make you become careless. Never mind overexposure or blown-out highlights. Your “in-camera darkroom” will save you somehow. Which is the big negative of shooting JPEG. The relation between aperture, shutter speed, composition and creativity becomes more and more irrelevant.

If you’re serious about photography you’ll not make use of a camera’s fancy filters and presets. Stay clear of faux effects. That’s what your smartphone photography is here for with the myriad of photography apps.

Get to know your camera. It’s character should become a second nature to you. Know in what conditions to over- or underexpose. Know the metering and processing responses.

Keep your negative aka JPEG file as neutral as possible. Once set and processed there’s no going back.

Don’t let those tiny little processors do all the thinking whether you have to isolate your subject/object or not. Decide yourself what maximum ISO setting you can get away with.

These days you don’t even have to be able to hold a camera firm and steady. All sorts of anti-shake and stabilizing systems make 1/20 what once was 1/100.

The question of JPEG vs. RAW comes down to your shooting style. If you enjoy black-and-white photography and want to do more than just press the monochrome button, then RAW offers much richer conversion options. Also a RAW file’s adjustment of white balance is a no-brainer.

To JPEG or not? Find out what works for yourself. Shoot both formats if you’re unsure and compare the results.

In essence the problem is reduced to this: If you shoot JPEG you get smaller files with all the associated benefits. If you shoot RAW your files offer a lot more latitude for being manipulated. And that’s really it.

Explore, discover what the latest JPEGs offer. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Most cameras allow shooting RAW and JPEG simultaneously anyway, albeit at slower in-camera processing speeds.

Today’s JPEG processing engines come pretty close to the “real” thing. Afraid you’re called a traitor? Why deny the comforts of progress.

Or think of RAW this way:

If you get the exposure right at the time when taking the picture, what’s the point of heavy post-processing.

With smaller files and no time wasted in front of the computer doing post-processing you can actually spend more time taking pictures.

  • Rastenberger

    You nail it very well with the comparison to fast food and the meal made at home. The real deal is to cook your own food, that is most healthy and you learn how to cook. The same with RAW, it is the format to use when you are really interested in photography and want to learn the art of developing. Many friends are going back to film and develop it at home. I would say that jpegs are for phone cameras and when you want a quick snap from a party, but not if you want to be creative.

  • DanTHEME

    So you’re implying JPEG is like fast food.

  • Rastenberger

    Not me actually. The article mentions jpegs as ready made food and that is fast food to me.

  • Larpam10

    I have been shooting jpeg for years.  I thought when I retired and had more time to process, I would switch to raw, but I did not. 99.9% of my images are for viewing on the internet and jpeg is fine.  The only time I have run into a problem are tricky/mixed lighting,  but I generally find something in the image that is either pure black, grey or white and the eye dropper in color cast fixes it.  It ain’t perfect, but it sure saves a lot of time.

    Speaking of 99.9%, that is about the percentage of population who do not know or care about raw.  99.9% cannot see the difference.  It is only a very few of us who are pixel peepers who view at 100% and put our noses up against a print.  The rest of the population view images from several feet away which is where a print should be viewed.

  • Eye Forget

    The problem with jpeg is the appauling job many of the camera manufacturers do with their algorithims. From my limited experience, Canon seems to do a decent and consistent job. Nikon is not worth taking a jpeg with. Sony varies all over the place from great to poor. Fuji nails the jpegs but its too early to see if they will be consistent.

    For a jpeg shooter, its simply easier to shoot raw and do conversions with software. I shoot with one of a stream of Nikons, a stream of Sony’s and a Fuji. The Nikons and Sonys are set to raw only, the Fuji, r+j. Having said that, most of my shooting is done with the Fuji and the excellent jpegs, which take edits pretty well, is one of the drawing cards.