Monday, April 23, 2007

Raw versus Jpeg

This is an argument (using the debate definition of the word) that I've learned to stay away from, but occasionally find myself in the discussion when people take one extreme position. It's actually worse than the old film type arguments when photographers would criticise other photographers because they simply used a different type of film. I got into those discussions too but left when it was clear there are no winners, only pissed off people. The raw versus jpeg argument is worse.

You can find all sorts of on-line resources about both of these types of image capture, and almost any book on digital photography discusses the two types along with other types of intermediate image formats. Personally, I would be cautious of any of the on-line resources written by a photographer unless it has, what they say, a fair and reasonable balance of the two image capture formats, which I'll also say is rare. Almost all photographers have a preference and express it on their Website.

So,is there an important reason to weigh into the discussion? Yes, if only because I personally dislike people who take an intransigent position, you know those who say, "You must..." do this or that, meaning almost all the time, "You must shoot raw." Well, that's not correct or accurate, and if you push them a little, they'll back away from their point a little, but still believe raw is the only real and true format, forgetting Jpeg outdates raw and was developed by photographers for photographers, and continues to work in many fields as the standard image format.

Well, it's interesting that those who take that position, either didn't spend much time with film photography or completely abandoning it as "unprofessional" now. They're total digital converts and only the best is worth the time. So why do many own less than the best camera and far less than the best lenses? As a philosopher said, "There is nothing worse than the clear view of a fuzzy idea." While raw film capture can be the best image format, using a less than full-frame sensor and using consumer lenses only inhibits the image quality.

Really? Not that you can really see in the final image, and that's the real idea here. It's not the capture image that matters so much as long as you have the color balance, picture style and exposure correct for what you want, and you get the final image you want. Who cares how it was captured? And if you notice many professional shoot predomiantly or exclusively jpeg for speed and ease of post-processing. It's the story if you get it right in jpeg, there isn't much you have to do except resize it and move on.

Ok, enough wandering, and my take on it? Well, for one raw has some great advantages if you have the time and want the full control over the image in the post-processing stage. But a word of note here. Raw is not 16-bit format. Almost all cameras made today, especially 35mm format ones, capture in 12-bit color and convert to 16-bit format for computers. Otherwise they'd still be 12-bit output images. This means you get a 4096 range for each color, not the 65,536 often reported. Keep that in mind when you talk about all the neat things you can dow will all those colors, it's only 16 times the 8-bit color range.

Another issue I have with the "raw only" folks, is when they talk about viewing the raw image. You can not view the original raw image, it doesn't have any white or color balance. You have to set that in the post-processing photo edit software package you use with the raw conversion. The advantage of raw is that you can change that with the original data, but the reality is that if you use the same setting as a jpeg, the raw image will look 99+% identical to the jpeg image in the camera's photo editor. They will be slightly different with a different photo editor because they convert the white or color balance slightly different, but that's a personal choice than a technical one.

So why shoot jpeg? For one, the files are smaller, being 8-bit color. For another you get faster to capture in the camera, meaning you get a lot for frame per second shooting for events or scenes with movement. For another if you have the picture style (usually standard works very well), white/color balance and exposure right, there's very little post-processing. For another you get 2-3 times more images per flash card, which is handy when shooting more than a 100 or so images. And you get ready to go to publication format images since the standard is jpeg.

Does jpeg have any drawbacks? Yes, one that I know and have experienced. It's just like film, if you screw up, many of your images are toast. You can do a lot of corrections in Photoshop but you can't uncorrect a wrong white/color balance since Photoshop can't undo the same settings from every camera. It's just not realistic to do so. So jpeg can be unforgiving, but then a lot of film photographers know this from experience.

My conclusion? You really want to hear it? Ok. Personally shoot for the circumstances. The neat thing is that it's adjustable in the camera so don't worry. I shoot jpeg 90% of the time and occasionally shoot raw or raw+jpeg for the few times I want to capture an image for post-processing or testing. I'm a traditionalist, and like film so I like seeing the images similar to film and what I saw, and I hate sitting too long in front of a computer on any single image. I occasionally spend some time on one, but it's mostly for printing.

So, as they say, that's my story and I'm sticking to it, and occasionally I'll sing against the voice of obstinence for raw-only shooting. As one event photographer said, go shoot 500-1,000 images in raw and see how long it takes you, and I'll shoot in jpeg and be said, done and gone to the next event well before you're done converting the raw files.

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