From Shooting RAWs to Shooting JPEGs

To Shoot RAW or JPEG?

I have been shooting photographs regularly for over 7 years now. I spent the first year shooting with a 2 Megapixel phone camera. Since then, however, I’ve almost always had RAW capable cameras and shot RAW compulsively. And why not? I get 16x or 64x more colour depth than JPEGs. I don’t have to bother about setting the right white balance, contrast or sharpness. I don’t have to choose between monochrome and colour at the time of shooting. I can figure all of that out on the computer during RAW conversion and even try out different settings for the same picture at my leisure. Why would I give up all this and shoot JPEG?

The Switch

The reason, unsurprisingly, is that I find a lot less time these days to spend in front of a computer processing photos, which means that I could either shoot fewer shots, or save time on post processing.

Some time last year, I started shooting in RAW + JPEG mode quite regularly. It allowed me to quickly share the obligatory pictures I took at social events with the participants who would be quite impatient to upload them to Facebook, etc. What I found was that often the JPEGs were great even for pictures that I cared about personally.  After several months of this exercise – and due to quite some friction with handling Sony ARWs in my Nikon-centric workflow – I decided to give JPEG-only shooting a try. My Sony RX100 turned into a JPEG-shooter.

I still prefer to shoot RAW in all conditions. However, forcing myself to shoot JPEGs on my backup camera has helped me get over the fear of not shooting RAW. The practice I get from shooting JPEGs has helped me gain more confidence with the way I shoot RAW and not keeping my friends and family waiting for weeks to see the “finished” photos has been a bit endearing as well.

What does it take to shoot satisfying JPEGs?

The Shooting Discipline

Since JPEG files have very little latitude for post-processing, it is important that the photograph be finished to as much of an extent as possible in the camera. This requires a bit of extra consideration while shooting. However, I found the change to be less drastic than expected.

I have always been particular about using the right colour mode (Landscape, Portrait, Vivid, etc.) while shooting RAW even though it’s inconsequential because it helps me visualise the end result while looking at the preview in camera. This setting alone can nail contrast, sharpness, saturation and the overall “look and feel” of the photo. It is very important to get this right since the colour mode dictates the tone curve that would be used to down-sample from 12 or 14 bit sensor output to 8 bit JPEGs. The 4-6 bits discarded per channel better not be the ones that you need the most for your end result or you’ll have a tough time trying to work without the lost data in post processing.

The next most important thing for JPEG shots is white-balance. The white-balance setting for RAWs is totally inconsequential since it is just a multiplier applied to RAW channel data for Red:Blue ratio (warmth) and another for Green channel strength (tint) during conversion. However, extreme multipliers (e.g. in Tungsten, Fluorescent, Shade WB) tend to discard significant amounts of data from a channel (Red, Green, Blue, for the mentioned settings respectively). Having the wrong WB setting while shooting JPEGs makes it almost impossible to fix in post-processing. This is where a camera with better Auto-WB computation proves very helpful.

An exciting new development in recent cameras is the addition of “creative effects”, which you can use to add some more macro-customisation of the output as it is being recorded. This helps a lot in saving post-processing time by accomplishing more specialised results such has high/low-key shots, colour strength/weakness, dioramas, etc. right at the time of recording the photograph.

Finally, since we are shooting JPEGs to avoid post-processing time, it’s important to get the exposure, composition, horizon tilt and framing right, as much as possible. Having done all of these right would get you the holy grail of being able to use your photo “SooC“.

Examples

Following are a few JPEG samples that I am particularly satisfied with and feel that they match the results I could have extracted from post-processing RAW output.

ArrivalThe picture above is a great example of using the right colour mode. This flight landed just a few minutes ahead of sunset (see the long shadows) and I wanted to capture the late afternoon atmosphere so I used the “Sunset” colour mode on the RX100. That got me the exact look I wanted and allowed this picture to be uploaded as-is with zero post-processing.

Take This Sun. Keep it SafeThe above picture is an example of why it’s important to get the WB nailed as far as possible. I wanted to highlight the blues and suppress the greens in this shot, so I chose “Fluorescent” WB setting to achieve that effect. It got me to the ballpark colours but was a bit too strong on the effect, so I shot it again with Auto WB. Later while adjusting the colours in post-processing, I found that it was much easier to get the desired look from the “Fluorescent” setting than from the Auto WB setting. The latter led to increased noise – the usual outcome of pushing a JPEG to its limits. This picture also happens to be an in-camera HDR done superbly well by the RX100.

The Iconic Entrance to C Wing

The above picture is an example of how you can use some of the conveniences of a modern camera. This picture is shot hand-held in “HDR Auto” mode. In this mode the camera automatically decides how many bracketed shots to take and what their EV deviation should be, it fires all the shots in a single click of the shutter button, aligns the images and does the tone-mapping. All of this happens in accordance with the colour mode you select (Vivid, for the above picture). This picture too has been posted with zero post-processing adjustments.

Cams in a Hall

This last example shows the usage of creative effect modes while shooting JPEGs. This shot is in the “Rich Tone B&W” mode that creates a monochrome HDR photograph with a single click of the shutter. This too has been uploaded with zero adjustments in post-processing.

Conclusion

Shooting photos in RAW format gives immense creative freedom in finishing the photograph and also simplifies the shooting process by requiring only that the photograph be framed and exposed reasonably well. However, this freedom comes at the price of time spent in post-processing on the computer.

If you already have an end-result in mind, you could save a lot of time and effort by trying to get the photograph as envisioned right in the camera itself. Contemporary cameras offer the JPEG shooter with a lot of creative options that make it even more quick and convenient to get the envisioned end result.

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  • I’ve been a Sony user since the Mavica FD7 (1997), previously shooting slides on my Pentax multi-lens SLR. I now have the RX100, as well as an HX100 (for the long zoom) and love the quality of the RX. Having shot slides for some 36 years, I’m more inclined to make the best shot in the camera — it’s just my working style. I use auto bracketing, and have also used the auto HDR on the RX. And I shoot in jpeg.

    From the comments in the post of this article in Flipboard, it seems that some “pro” photographers think those who shoot in jpeg never post-process. I certainly do, and work in Photoshop CS5, although often there’s nothing more needed than a slight crop and a tweak to the black level.

    So while I did work as a pro for a time, as a press photographer for a daily in the 60s, I have long since retired and my photography now is for my own pleasure. I continue to work entirely in available light, and love the RX’s capabilities in that area.

    The debate between use of RAW and JPG will go on until jpeg no longer exists, but that’s life. Those who never had the “pleasure” of lugging around wet flash units and working with smelly chemicals in the darkroom don’t know how easy they have it now, either way!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Lesley. The RX100 does encourage JPEG shooting more than the DSLRs. I think a lot of cameras coming out in the mirrorless compact or enthusiast compact categories have lot of little features that make it possible to shoot an image close to what you envision, in the camera itself.

      In the end, I shoot to have fun and the added challenge of making an out-of-camera JPEG work as far as possible is something I enjoy. Not to mention getting rid of the compulsion to shoot RAW, which in retrospect seems to be a bit of a… baggage.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Lesley. The RX100 does encourage JPEG shooting more than the DSLRs. I think a lot of cameras coming out in the mirrorless compact or enthusiast compact categories have lot of little features that make it possible to shoot an image close to what you envision, in the camera itself.

      In the end, I shoot to have fun and the added challenge of making an out-of-camera JPEG work as far as possible is something I enjoy. Not to mention getting rid of the compulsion to shoot RAW, which in retrospect seems to be a bit of a… baggage.

  • barry

    ive not shot raw at all yet i do not have patience to go through evey photo and edit .

    “I get 16x or 64x more colour depth ” but i did like this statement , i do not really understand it but colourful is got to be better .