The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts:
JPEGS vs. Raw
April 2007

by Bill Pierce

When I was a child (in terms of the digital experience), I shot as a child and shot JPEGs. When I became a man (in terms of the digital experience), I shot as a man and shot raw. As an old dude (in terms of the digital experience), I realize shooting JPEGs taught me a lot about raw. And, quite often, saved me a lot of time. So, now, I shoot JPEGs and raw.

JPEGs force you to make a choice; raw doesn't. And learning how to make that choice educates you. It's all very well to put the color balance, exposure, sharpness and contrast on auto when you are taking pictures in raw and say, "I'll deal with that stuff later. Right now I must exercise my incredible personal vision." It's just that when you are faced with sorting, editing, captioning and delivering a large number of images, you really don't make too many changes from the results the automatic settings chose. Your "incredible personal vision" tends to get replaced with the rather bland choices of your camera and image-processing software on deadline mode.

Among the less obvious choices in color balance are using overcast and open shade settings to warm up conventional daylight. And, of course, you can just spin through the rarely used Kelvin settings to see if one of them is appropriate. That kind of white balance correction plus an adjustment to the green-magenta settings can often come up with a more effective setting for a specific fluorescent or vapor light setting than the single all-purpose fluorescent setting found on many cameras.

And one color balance setting that you are not going to use after the shoot is the custom white balance found on many digital cameras. Photographing a white sheet of paper or an 18 percent gray card (often better) under the existing illumination produces a custom color balance setting that renders that value as a neutral. It's a lifesaver in mixed light situations and all those other situations where the scene's color temperature falls somewhere between the neatly defined settings on your camera's LCD. It is both one of the most useful and least used color controls on a lot of digital cameras.

Exposure? This myth that raw files provide many stops of exposure latitude is a pleasant delusion. A blown highlight or an empty shadow is still unreclaimable. And, while the upper end of the raw file has less noise, that does not mean that every image is going to benefit esthetically from an exposure that puts a lot of the image at the upper end of the histogram and gains drama by chopping shadow detail in an image-processing program.

The JPEG has even less exposure latitude. But come up with a JPEG that delivers the image you want and the raw file will do that in spades with a little creative wiggle room. But, remember, to really evaluate an image in the field, on the camera LCD, you may have to set the screen brightness to a different level than the default level. And you should, absolutely, check the histogram. With experience, those two tools, especially the histogram, will provide you with the information that guarantees the "print quality" that you want while you are still in the field and shooting.

I'm not quite sure why we don't use the contrast control much in either shooting or post-processing. Perhaps it is because that option, outside of changing films, wasn't available to color transparency film shooters and only was available to those shooting color neg with the selection of different printing papers. Perhaps it is because our pictures "come out" even when we don't use that control.

But for the black-and-white photographer, used to having different contrast grades of printing paper available and often using them for creative effects, the loss is significant. Try shooting a black-and-white JPEG with the normal setting, the lowest possible contrast and the highest. Be it portrait, landscape or close-up, just the change in contrast can make for a variety of images, each one making a very different impression on the viewer.

That leaves only sharpness to be played with. And sharpening sits in a world outside of JPEG vs. raw. (Nonetheless, a few rather obvious thoughts: The degree of sharpening in a digital image depends very much on its final use. Is it going to be a small image on a Web site or a big paper print? If it's going into the newspaper, what dots, what paper stock? My recommendation is to shoot with no sharpening and do the appropriate sharpening on your computer. Many folks prefer a little in-camera sharpening with desktop fine-tuning for a specific output.)

Now, outside of in-camera sharpening, there is nothing we have discussed doing in-camera with JPEGs that you can't do with raw files sitting at your computer. So, why mess with JPEGs at all?

It's not so much a question of messing with JPEGs as not setting everything on your camera to automatic and pretending you are going to have the time, knowledge, experience and inclination to individually process and fine-tune every raw image before you deliver it. The limitations of the JPEG force you to think and make creative decisions early in the game. Working with JPEGs is good training whether you end up using JPEGs or raw.

Indeed, with most cameras and image-processing programs, the raw image is normally displayed with the settings you last set for JPGs. So, even if you are not going to take advantage of the fact that the JPEG is ready to go to the newspaper, magazine or agency, your JPEG decisions at the scene of the shooting have already moved the raw file out of the "auto-everything" category and into the "my choices" category.

Nor, in fast-breaking spot news is there any sin in putting the camera on auto-everything and doing "Hail Marys," figuratively and literally.

However, in the last few years I have met several young photographers breaking into news photography who have never taken their cameras off program mode, automatic white balance and the other default settings on their cameras. One did not know what the Tv, Av and M meant on that little dial on top of his camera. Most of the time, their pictures come out. I just don't understand why these photographers get a credit line that should be going to Canon or Nikon or whoever made their camera.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer