The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

July 2006

Pity the poor jpg, and pity the poor news photographer who shoots jpgs. Real photographers shoot RAW, right? I don't think so. I think jpgs are the logical choice for a lot of journalism.

In the old days of Photojournalism B.D. (Before Digital), a lot of color shooters shot transparencies. When the film came out of the soup and dried, you were already looking at a final image that could be evaluated by the photographer and tiers of editors. Small corrections could be made in the picture on its way to the printed page, but, to a great extent, what you saw was what you got. It was an efficient system, but it put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the photographer.

Exposure latitude was minimal. Exposure was critical. If you blew out the highlights, they turned to unreclaimable cellophane. And underexposed shadows were just more detail-less D-max. The proper film (and sometimes filters) had to be used under different lighting conditions. Nobody was thrilled by uncorrected blue faces shot in open shade or green faces shot in fluorescents. And news deadlines didn't let you wait until the sun was setting to produce a portrait with a warm glow. Ektachromes came in a variety of tastes -- professional (subdued and accurate), vivid and romantically warm. Fuji users chose between Velvia (whammo saturation) and Astia (delicate flesh tones). There were tungsten films, high-speed films, etc. All in all, you made a lot of decisions before you shot and saved a lot of time later getting the finished image to the printing press.

Sound familiar?

That's right. Jpgs are the color slide film of the digital world. (They also increase the capacity of your motor drive and flash card – not unimportant to a news shooter.)

And they have the same hidden advantage. You, the photographer, make a lot of the important esthetic decisions up front, and the folks that follow are kind of stuck with them as they race towards the deadline.

What are some of those decisions? Probably the easiest is setting the color balance and saturation. Too many shooters stick with automatic color balance – a choice that often produces results that are just plain dull. Try direct sunlight, overcast, open shade, tungsten, etc. But don't just try them in direct sunlight, overcast, open shade and tungsten. Mix and match. See what happens when you consciously warm up or cool down an image. And don't let your on-camera flash or studio flash working at an intensity-reducing short duration render everything in cool tones. See what happens when you set a custom color balance to the highest value your camera will permit. See Rembrandt's yellowing varnishes replace the icy look of the short duration flash.

As to color space, don't presume Adobe RGB is for grown-ups and sRGB is for wimps who never use pictures for anything but e-mail. While the difference may not be as great as Astia vs. Velvia and saturation can be dialed up on a computer, the slightly punchier sRGB is my favorite for a lot of shots that depend on color for their effectiveness.

On some cameras, a number of control dial setups may affect color balance. A portrait setting may not only favor shallow depth-of-field but warm up the image and lower the saturation. A landscape setting may emphasize greens and blues and pump up the saturation. It's always good to know what these quick auto settings do.

Simply because they are not quick, the color changes accessed through a camera's menu are probably not of great use to a news shooter. But do be aware of them. On feature day, when the competition is not elbowing you or trying to stand in front of you, they may be useful. Even establishing custom presets may be useful if you find yourself repeatedly shooting in a non-standard lighting situation like a gymnasium or stadium, a nightclub or a stage.

And, of course, the other big esthetic decision is exposure. Once again, if possible, get off automatic and choose the exposure that gives the results you like whether it is an exposure that gets in as much info as possible and still holds highlight detail (the Holy Grail of the slide film shooter) or a consciously high-key or low-key shot. It's your picture; it's your choice. If you're in a state of indecision, bracket exposure, pick the shot you like and erase the others.

(By the way, if you think shooting raw saves bad exposures... Until we shoot 32-bit raw images, shoot negative film, not digital, until you learn to expose properly.)

Jpgs have found a home in journalism because they are relatively small files that can be compressed even further and sent back to home base quickly and efficiently by a number of devices. Even if we shoot raw, we convert to jpg to transmit to a publication.

There is always the danger that repeated transmissions and unnoticed compressions are going to lower picture quality. Great as jpgs are, the minute you have made a select, make a copy in the Tiff or Photoshop format for your files to guarantee that the image cannot be accidentally compressed.

Most of today's digital cameras will allow you to shoot a large jpg and a raw file simultaneously. If you do that, see how many times you choose the jpg with its simpler post-shooting procedures and an image that is already close to the final results over the raw file. You've given yourself an insurance policy with the raw file. You may be surprised at how many times you go with the jpg to produce the final image.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer