Monday, May 23, 2011

RAW versus JPEG

A very interesting exchange on the Fuji Forum this morning leads me to make a few comments on the never-ending RAW versus JPEG debate. By now, anyone who is paying attention understands that RAW shooting has (at least) these advantages:

  • Uses state of the art conversion that can perform adjustments that the camera cannot
  • Can save a significant amount of highlight and shadow detail where point and shoot jpeg engines cannot
  • Allows custom noise reduction and sharpening, dramatically improving high ISO imagery
  • Preserves more detail for cameras that have aggressive JPEG engines (like the HS10’s)
  • Can tailor each image to its individual exposure and lighting, thus making every image in a sequence a perfect rendition
  • Can be reprocessed into an even better image as RAW engines improve (e.g. dramatic improvements in ACR6 led me to reprocess some difficult images)

These advantages are why many professionals shoot RAW exclusively. The only real downsides to RAW are file size and shot to shot or continuous shot performance. The former is not all that relevant as we get cheap 3TB drives and fast SATA III and USB III transfer speeds. The latter is irrelevant to dSLRs shooters, as those cameras shoot RAW pretty much as well as they do JPEG.

But small sensor cameras tend to handle the larger files poorly and have much slower continuous shooting and buffers that can only store a few images before writing for a long, long time. Still, I shoot RAW+JPEG on the F550EXR as a matter of course now. I don’t mind the performance hit and some of the images are simply that much better than they would have been otherwise.

So it was with some amusement that I read through a thread about RAW shooting today. Someone with a weird handle popped in to ask about Raw Therapee, a freebee that I am not all that fond of. I really dislike the controls when compared with something like ACR. I would much prefer to use a real editor like Elements 9 with ACR 6 anyway. (Or Photoshop CS6 and the full version of ACR 6, which is what I do use.)

He (or she) was basically asking about batch processing to speed up the process. This kind of goes against the point of RAW shooting for most scenarios. RAW takes some time to process, but no more than JPEGs once you get used to it. In fact, I process all JPEGs through ACR6 in the same way that I do RAWs. They all need some tweaking too … sometimes more (to save wrecked highlights and shadows.)

I therefore agreed with Paul when he made this comment:

If you can't be arsed to convert them shoot in Jpeg. I never understand why people batch process pictures, they all require different levels of adjustment.

He is right that, for most people, batch processing a waste of time unless it is for proofs or something like that. It can also work for sequences of images shot in manual under identical lighting. That would provide perfectly consistent output. But this person was complaining about 160 images.

The other person’s response was fairly typical of people who are looking for short cuts:

I'd love to learn how to process RAW. but 160 of them!! That'll be like peeling potatoes!

Photography is a pretty technical craft. If you find the need to be organized and methodical that painful, like “peeling potatoes” for example, then perhaps you are not into the craft as much as you think you would “love to be” …

RAW is a wonderful tool. Once you get a handle on it, it will make a big difference in your output. But if you are not ready, or interested, then consider sticking to jpeg. Learn to get the best capture you can and just live within its limitations … I have a list of some great books here:

Some of them go to getting the best exposures, and some of them go to processing – including RAW processing. Think about the area you want to work on and try some of these out. They are cheap enough on Amazon, but you might prefer to hit the library. As you wish …

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