Talk about JPG vs RAW... for image capturing

July 14, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

There is a lot of talk about JPG vs RAW... for image capturing, so I thought I'd spend a little time and do a bit of research... and hopefully come up with somethings that makes sense to people interested in the topic.


Many times over the years, I've been reminded of Ansel Adams. Just a few years ago someone reminded me again to 'care more' about the published and shared photography I post... and how selective he was on what he showed others. The general public never saw his 'experiments,' only his amazing finished and polished works. Ansel Adams developed the 'Zone System,' which revolutionized photography forever... and distinguished him from all other photographers of that time. At its core, the Zone System is about the artist making completely subjective and educated decisions based on experience, personal choice, and AWARENESS of the subject, contrast, light quality, film structure, processing, and paper... from the moment the shutter is clicked, through development to print. Each step is a separate, but a vital series of choices that must sync for the most impressive finished product. Anyone that actually developed their own film (back in the pre-digital old days) remembers the time, thought, and effort put into each print (and how easy it was to screw up, or get inconsistencies because of chemical changes, temperature changes, and the slightest adjustment to the process). Most will also remember how it really was nearly impossible to print the EXACT SAME PRINT, especially on different days. My basic premiss is that post processing in digital world allows exactly the same things, and that you have more choices and flexibility by choosing RAW, and nearly exact replication of the finished work you SAVE when working with digital files, the same printer, paper, and inks (or dye-sublamation).


The reality is, image conversion, white balance tweaking, angle, photo manipulation, color correction, sharpening, or any alteration you make effects the pixels... in groups, zones, and individually are things that happened in the dark room... back in the old days. Digital only allows greater latitude, and flexibility, depending on what you have to begin with. The original image, the smoother the shifts in tones, the less noise, and better potential for a nice finished product. Think about it, using RAW images from your camera, you will have 1365 shades of black to white transitions occur in , verse just 85 in JPGs.


Again, the math is important. A JPEG is an 8bit file, which equals 256 colors (its entire tonal range) per color channel of RGB (Red, Green, Blue). This equals a grand total of 16.7 million possible colors per pixel (all the average computer screen could display, prior to LCD's and Plasma). Now, that seems like a lot, and it is (especially for just a computer screen or newspaper print). However, most RAW files are 12 or 14 bit files. And just a 12 bit RAW file can measure 4096 tonal values per color channel, which is a total of 68.7 Billion colors PER PIXEL. Wow! And yes, that's 'B'illion! 16.7Million vs 68.7Billion. HUGE Difference!


Now, the average human eye can only discern about 10 million different colors; so, the average person is incapable of even seeing the 16.7 Million... which seems to beg the question, “Why do I need that much information in my photos?” The easiest answer, “Because I can!” But where is the fun in the discussion if it's left at that? And, in some photographs, those color transitions stand out more than others.


As a photographer, you have choices. Ultimately, you need to remember that you ARE selling (or gifting) a product - your photograph, and if you are shooting in color (not just black & white or grey scale), the greater tonal range allows for a smoother, better color transitioned, and sharper final image. If you are serious about being a photographer, your goal goes past the snap shot, past even 'just a pretty picture,' with a consistently improving (and pickier goal) of creating a masterpiece! A goal of UNIQUENESS... something few could ever get (as well as you did)... or could recreate any better. That is what experience and practice gains you. And, with it, you'll learn to shoot RAW's the majority of the time.


However, as Steve Anderson, an experienced commercial photographer, once pointed out: "I’m a realist; I know there are a lot of industries shooting JPEG. Press photographers at the Olympic Games enjoy some of the coolest technology available, but getting photos out in “real time” puts a lot of pressure on them. So, shooting JPEG is part of that solution, and with it comes a new set of concerns. I enjoy seeing the photos and never think to care if it was a JPEG or RAW. The final word, because someone is going to ask, yes, I did shoot JPEG once. OK, well actually a few times, but at least once on a job. It was the end of a 3-day shoot in Hawaii for Aqua Lung; I was waist deep on a reef, a long ways from a download, shooting my last card on hand. I flipped it to JPEG to squeeze out another 50 frames or so before the sun set."


Summary: If photography was really easy, everyone would be doing it... and doing it well. While an amateur can get lucky, it takes thousands upon thousands of captures, prints, and evaluation... hours of practice & education, and a clear understanding of your equipment to become consistently good. The post processing can take the technically good, and help make them great. However, failure to understand your camera's settings, ability, and how to properly take a photo can't be fixed in post processing... whether in JPG or RAW. Enjoy... feel free to share this with your photographer friends if this helped you.




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If you have any questions about photography, please feel free to ask. I might not know the answer off the top of my head, but odds are I can either help you find the answer or know someone that knows the answer. After nearly 45 years of playing with hundreds of different cameras, both film and digital, I probably don't know specific 'make and model' info... but I UNDERSTAND PHOTOGRAPHY, and the PRINCIPLES & CONCEPTS of capturing and creating good to great images.
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