Wait what? That heading is the wrong way round is it not? No, I am in fact going to advocate the use of jpeg over raw files. Before you misuse and misquote the article be sure to read it through to the end. The raw versus jpeg debate was a passionate one a short time ago. I myself was one of the biggest advocates of raw only shooting. The debate has pretty much gone away, mainly because it is pretty well accepted and established that raw is the better choice of the two…but is it indeed always the best choice? For most examples you would name, SHOOTING RAW IS THE RIGHT AND ONLY CHOICE, here I want to explore the few occasions when jpeg could be a viable alternative.
The case study.
Let me tell you a story. I was shooting a wedding as the videographer and so I was working alongside photographers, which for this particular wedding were a husband and wife team. I am very curious to see how different photographers handle the rigours of shooting a wedding and doing video has exposed me to a great variety of insights and styles. I realised to my horror that this photographer was shooting all the images in jpeg. I was shocked that in this enlightened day and age someone could do something as unforgivable as that.
Now I was fascinated, and redoubled my efforts to watch his process over his shoulder. I watched as he deleted a shot off his camera when he did not like how it had come out. This is a braver man than me, I won’t delete anything off a card, I am too nervous to mess with files on the camera I will rather use Lightroom and a full size screen to make those decisions. The final act I witnessed was when he switched to black and white in camera, and shot a series of images where the camera stripped the files of their colour information irrevocably. I watched the scene unfold was with the same sense of horror and morbid fascination with which you watch a car accident.
I was gripped by this photographer’s process. Here was a guy with great gear, really top of the line equipment, doing a high end wedding, but in a way I have never seen a professional work. Don’t get me wrong I have seen people do this sort of thing but they are cheap amateurs, or hobbyists, or doing snapshots, but never by a high end professional. At least the work I was seeing on the back of his LCD was good. He was talented and well equipped, friendly and professional but working in a most unorthodox way.
Later that evening when the speeches were taking place, his wife set up a workstation and started editing the pictures. By editing I mean deleting the boo-boos and not necessarily much in the way of retouching. She was done pretty quickly and set up a screen in the reception hall and put up a slide-show of the images. That is when I realised THESE PEOPLE ARE GENIUSES! These photographers have hands down the best business model with the highest hourly rate in our industry. When the photographers leave the wedding they have three and a half hours of work left ahead of then in the creating of the album.
Over shooting and over editing
When we shoot an event we always generate far more images than is necessary. These then need to be sorted and then we retouch them, particularly when dealing with a wedding. Through my informal survey I have been lead to believe that photographer’s uses a solid week of image editing on average, and generally have a three week turnaround time. Not these guys, which makes their hourly rate phenomenal in comparison to others who have to divide the same amount over a three week period. A wedding shoot can be very profitable, your turn around time negatively impacts on that profitability. One of the best ways to reduce your turn around time… optimise your work-flow (shoot jpegs).
I am not going to list the differences between the two file formats as that information is freely and extensively available on the web. What I am going to do is to list jpegs strengths, and discuss whether or not the weaknesses really are all that limiting. While everyone can spout the advantages raw has over jpeg, it must be remembered that jpeg indisputably has advantages over raw. With a paradigm shift jpeg could even be argued to be better than raw for certain situations. Yes, even for commercial work particularly when turnaround time is crucial.
One of the reasons we struggle to get new photographers to switch from jpeg to raw shooting is because their jpegs look better. Jpegs go through all sorts of processing in camera which gives the vibrant colours, dynamic contrast and punch. Raw files need to be worked and worked hard through dedicated software to get them to the point where they look as good as the jpeg. When we first switch to raw the results are disappointing for a while, which puts people off adopting it into their work-flow. So let us recognise that jpegs often look better out of camera than raw images do.
The obvious difference between raw and jpeg is their file sizes. While the larger file is one of raw’s advantages in that it holds more colour information and tonal range it comes at the cost of space, likewise we should acknowledge that jpegs smaller file size is one of its advantages even though it is at the cost of the afore mentioned richness of data. Instead of thinking of this as an advantage disadvantage relationship where one format is “better” than another perhaps it should rather be flip sides of the same coin where on balance they each have strengths under a given set of needs. Whilst I am endorsing jpegs smaller file size, think of how it benefits turnaround time in your work-flow when dumping, exporting, loading, uploading and transferring are about one tenth of the time on average, over that of a raw file.
How much data do we really need?
As I myself just mentioned raw files hold more colour information. My challenge to you now is… so what? I just read an article stating that a 14-bit file has 4.4 trillion possible tones per pixel, but does it? Your camera is limited to AdobeRGB at best which has a decidedly finite colour gamut and your image editor works within a range of 255 steps per channel. You can save you image in the ProPhoto colour space but it will not expand the range pre-existing in your file. So here is my problem with 4.4 trillion tones, the scene does not necessarily contain that range, your camera sensor is not guaranteed of being able to recorded that scope, your computer screen can defiantly not display it, and your printer can not even reproduce a fraction of that. In practical terms, no matter how colourful and tonally rich an image is, it can only be visually consumed and physically reproduced in a range more closely matched by the spectrum held within a jpeg.
On that note, I myself have over time done my fair share of “pixel peeping”, which is the process of over analysing images and their technical aspects in the quest for achieving perfection or at the very minimum, the least compromised result. Here is what I have since learnt from that process, to a paying client it does not matter. By way of example, converting an image to black and white by using a Photoshop adjustment layer with carefully and mindfully controlled sliders versus an in camera process. I am willing to bet that when you compare the two side by side that manual conversion will beat the cameras desaturated version every time. What we need to bear in mind is that the client should not ever see a side by side comparison. Especially if the client is a bride, she will not care if the image is your ultimate bespoke, hand crafted and micro adjusted black and white, over an image the camera stripped the colour data from. She just wants to look beautiful and have the memories recorded in a flattering and artistic way.
I agree the one will be better than the other but only if compared side by side, if the bride sees only one version and she looks gorgeous in it, she will love the image. This is the problem with “pixel peeping” it ignores the emotional attachment clients have with the content and fixates on the technicalities which are 99.9% of the time invisible to the person paying for the work. I won’t argue that these are the qualities and characteristics that can define your work as a photographer, which in turn, will help you achieve your higher pricing. I will however argue that it will affect your profitability when you turn around time is twenty one times longer than your competitions.
Jpeg has been painted as inferior to raw, and in most considerations of it, it is. However its perceived weaknesses can possibly be appreciated as its advantages. I was shooting on the Nikon D800 for a client who needed an unreasonable turnaround time, and jpeg made it possible. Files from the D800 are insanely large and work-flow suffers tremendously. So why don’t we use jpegs more often? When I ask photographers they tend to list reasons which could all be summarised and interpreted as “raw offers a better safety net”.
Basically raw allows for recovery and latitude that acts as a safety net. When people tell me a raw has the ability to recover more blown out information over jpegs I have to question how many stops are they incorrectly exposing by? My experience has been that any image relying on that much recovery, is a shot so incorrectly taken that it cannot, or maybe even, should not be saved. If you are a photographer who knows their camera and its workings, abilities and limitations you should not be shooting anything which requires such a large margin of error correction or “safety net”.
Now that I have planted the little seed, let me add the disclaimer. I am speaking to photographers who have a lot of experience and understanding of their equipment. These are the people who no longer need a large safety net to rescue images because of basic shooting mistakes. The example I gave earlier of the photographer shooting jpegs at a wedding, well he was using the top model DSLR available at the time. He achieved good results as a result of his knowledge of composition, talent and his ability to pose the couple. His cameras exposure metering is also the best money can buy, the in camera black and whites are done by the most expensive processor on the market.
The expensive technology in a top end camera on auto, will produce results you can trust far more often that the bottom of the range DSLR. This being said it should be noted that a cheap camera is capable of producing horrendous over processed, and in my opinion, unusable jpegs particularly when used in auto “picture modes”. Some cameras do skin smoothing for example, which just result in the most unacceptable plastic looking people. If you are reading this article in the hopes of finding justifications for never moving to raw shooting, I am going to have to disappoint you.
So my advice is to shoot raw files
I believe people who are just starting out their journey of photography should make the conversion to raw and not stick to jpegs citing this article as an excuse. Working a raw file to its full potential is invaluable in learning and understanding the data within your files and both the abilities and the limitations of your camera. These are lessons you cannot bypass or take short cuts on by buying expensive gear and relying on your equipment to produce results. What I would like to achieve through this article is a more open minded view of the jpeg and adopt a slightly less elitist attitude to file types. Do not dismiss the jpeg out of hand, with modern equipment it is not the petty underling of years past.