If JPEG quality suffices for most everyday situations, should we still need to rely on RAW files?
If an in-camera JPEG can suffice for your purposes, do you need the RAW?
Most people don't begin their photographic adventures shooting RAW files, but at some point they either opt for a RAW+JPEG option or switch to shooting RAW exclusively. They gain confidence with post-processing and they see how much more malleable their files are. They decide that JPEG is not good enough. Shooting RAW files, they are told, is what anyone that cares about their images needs to do in order to be considered a proper photographer.
There are many good reasons to shoot RAW files, and anyone that wants to see what’s possible from his or her camera should definitely give it a go. The issue is, many photographers get so used to working in one way that they forget to consider whether other options may serve them better.
Do you always need RAW?
A question. Out all the RAW files you’ve ever captured, how many of them ended up getting processed? Naturally, many will simply be safety shots of other images, but the overall amount is still likely to be a fraction of the total. Yet, all these files are still sitting somewhere, on a computer or hard drive, taking up space. Sure, high-capacity memory cards and hard drives are cheap enough to store plenty of these, but this is a continuous process that just becomes more demanding as you upgrade cameras.
Today’s cameras make it easy to be more selective, to only fill your card up with what you actually need. A number of cameras, for example, have the option of changing to RAW, or adding a RAW file to the JPEG, on demand, just by pressing (or holding down) a button. Canon’s One-Touch Image Quality setting and Pentax’s One Push File Format option are two examples of this, although customisable function buttons on many other cameras can often have this assigned too.
Some cameras also allow for RAW images and JPEGs to be deleted independently from each other, as you will often not need both. This isn't a new feature, but it’s not something every manufacturer has adopted yet. Quite often, the JPEG will do. After all …
Cameras continue to get better
The concept of a RAW file is not one that only applies to digital capture. The negative from a roll of film plays a similar role, in that it is the bones on which the final result is constructed. And many famous images captured on film may well have had much done to them when developed and printed to get them to their final result.
This would, of course, always be necessary given the more limited control you would have at the time of capture. Today, we’re spoilt for choice, with cameras performing all sorts of calculations and adjustments within a fraction of a second.
Let’s take Fujifilm’s X-series as an example of a popular current camera line. The range of reasons why people have been drawn to the line since its inception is wide and varied, but one much-praised aspect of these models is the quality of images straight out of the camera.
The detail captured by the X-Trans sensors and the cameras’ ability to keep noise in check, together with the colours of Fujifilm’s Film Simulation modes, work together to produce images that many would consider ready for use. The camera is already doing so much of the work for us, and doing a pretty good job of it too, but we often need to feel the need to put it through our own processing for it to feel like it’s genuinely finished.
Of course, some tasks are either impractical or not possible in camera. More selective cloning, for example, or dodging and burning different parts of the scene. Anyone capturing such an image, perhaps a landscape with a wide dynamic range and variety of details that may need to be gone through more thoroughly, is wise to capture a RAW file, given what they know can be done later on. But everyday images are not subjected to this kind of treatment as there is simply no need.
Do you really want to process every image?
Surely the most satisfying photograph to take is one that needs nothing further done to it. An image with accurate colours, balanced exposure and contrast levels just right. Something that we know we have in the bag as soon as we’ve captured and reviewed it, rather than something we’re hoping to polish up later on.
On a recent holiday, I found the level of control my (not particularly advanced) camera provided was more than enough to end up with the images I wanted. There’s a satisfaction in being able to capture images like this that you miss out on with RAW. I still captured RAW images but my mentality changed; rather than seeing the RAW file as my starting point, I considered it to be a backup, a kind of insurance, for an image I was already happy to use.
When you consider just how much processing control you have in-camera, you start to wonder whether it makes any sense to leave that much to post-processing. Sure, if you use the software that came with your camera it may well support certain settings that were used at the time of capture and immediately apply them to a RAW file. But the vast majority of us don't use this software, as it's often clunky and we're used to a more mainstream program, perhaps one that will also keep everything organised for us.
Even on less sophisticated cameras we now can exert a great deal of control over how an image turns out before we've pressed the shutter button. Exposure compensation now runs a gamut as wide as +/-5EV on some models, often in increments of our choice. We can create our own picture options with the contrast and saturation we want, with further controls for clarity, sharpness and maybe even bias towards a particular colour tone. We can bring up shadows how we want while keeping highlights in check, remove optical aberrations at the time of capture and apply coloured filters to images.
Even if we just look at white balance alone, the options on a modern camera will suffice for the overwhelming majority of situations. Nikon has long offered seven separate presets for fluorescent sources alone, and each of these can be adjusted should they not be quite right for a given situation. Auto options on many models can now be set to have warmer tones in the scenes retained or biased towards a specific hue. And that’s on top of all other common presets, colour temperature scales and the ability to use a custom setting based on a target in the scene.
All of this should make it clear that getting the result you want is now easier than ever without going anywhere near a computer. Photography should be enjoyable, but when our portfolios mostly consist of folders and folders of RAW files, they stop being our images and become something else. They become work. Something that’s only half finished and in need of pulling sliders around for it to get to where it needs to be.
None of this is to say that you should stop using RAW completely. A photographer who understands their equipment should be able to know when one format is more appropriate than the other. RAW images will always have the edge for images destined for manipulation, as that’s what they're designed for. Perhaps we just make things more difficult for ourselves by assuming that every image we take has to begin with its RAW foundations.
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About the Author
Matt Golowczynski is a London-based photographer and technical journalist who has written for a range of print and online magazines. For more information and to see more of his work visit his website.