Wind-blown grassesWind-blown grassesDry grass blowing in the wind near Canberra.

RAW provides you with more options in your photography

November 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

There's a minor debate on YouTube at the moment (mid November 2017) about RAW versus JPEG, so naturally, I feel the need to "have my two bob's worth".

In March 2016, I wrote a blog in praise of raw, in which I said:

Put simply (very simply in fact), a raw file is an unprocessed record of the light falling on your sensor. It carries information about what your camera thought the exposure and colour balance should be, but because all the data are still there, you can adjust as far as the file will allow. A JPEG on the other hand is produced when your camera looks at the raw data, decides things like exposure and colour balance - and then writes what's needed to the file - and disposes of the rest. That's why formats like JPEG (and GIF) are called "lossy". And that's why raw files are big (in this case, 35 meg) and JPEGs are relatively small (2 meg): the raw file still has all the original information. (There are other differences like bit depth, but we needn't worry about that.)

JPEGs have their place. You wouldn't want to send a photo of your kid's party to your family in raw format. What's more, some cameras (like Fuji for example) do a brilliant job of producing JPEG images. But if you make a mess of your exposure as I did, or you are shooting difficult subjects such as sunsets (high contrast) or in low light, you want all the data your camera can give you to make adjustments.

There are two main reasons to shoot JPEG. Firstly, they're smaller than RAW. The following table will illustrate what I mean. I created JPEGs two different ways. I took an existing RAW file, opened it in Affinity Photo and exported it as highest and second highest quality. Next, I shot four images with with my Nikon D800 using the same settings, but saving as RAW, "fine JPEG", "normal" and "basic". This is what happened:

File sizes for RAW and JPEG (in megabytes)

Source RAW Fine JPEG Normal JPEG Basic JPEG Affinity Photo
JPEG Conversion
Highest Quality
Affinity Photo
JPEG Conversion
High Quality
Nikon D800 51.7 15.0 8.5 4.2 - -
Affinity Photo Conversion 50.2 - - - 38.0 7.5
JPEG size saving - 71% 84% 92% 24% 85%

As you can see, there are substantial savings in file size by using JPEGs instead of RAW, but that comes at a price. I'll come back to that.

The other reason is convenience. Just as in the days of film, when we took our colour film to the local lab rather than spending an evening (or two) in our darkroom, JPEGs offer a "ready to use" image file. And just like those postcard prints from the minilab, most will be useable - but some won't.

Which brings me back to my point. A week ago, I wandered into an old (by Western Australian measures) churchyard near Perth and made this image. This is a JPEG (yes, we use JPEGs for this sort of thing) of my unprocessed RAW file:

The image before processing.The image before processing. Not very exciting is it? Added to which, there are areas in the top left and middle right that are over-exposed and rather distracting.

This is what it looked like after processing in Capture One:

The image of the graveyard after processing and converting to monochrome in Capture One.
The image of the graveyard after processing and converting to monochrome in Capture One. ​I'm happy with that image. I think the black and white works for the subject material, there's a good balance, and the image is quite sharp from foreground to background.

For the record, these are the steps I took:

  • Levels - with Capture One's "Auto" setting
  • Highlights adjusted to 50
  • Clarity: 30
  • Sharpening: 200 (from the default 180)
  • Vignette: -1 stop
  • Local adjustments for those bright areas - done by eye
  • Conversion to B&W using the "Panchromatic 4" setting
  • A sight S-curve adjustment
  • Contrast at 9

This is the result when I tried almost identical steps on the highest quality JPEG:

Adjusted JPEG image Adjusted JPEG image Not so good. I would go so far as to say that the edited JPEG file is unusable, whereas I'm happy for people to see the RAW conversion.

While editing, it was noticeable that I simply didn't have the same latitude when brushing in local adjustments in those overly bright areas. The results were lumpy and the image tended to go grey, looking like fog, rather than simply darkening as happened when working with the RAW image. This is hardly surprising as (getting geeky) JPEG files are 8-bit, whereas my RAW files are 14-bit. What does that mean? Well, every point in the JPEG has 256 levels of colour, whereas the RAW file has 16,384 levels. More detail, more information in every pixel increases your options when editing!

It's true that the JPEG file is smaller than the RAW, but it gets that way by losing data - and we need that data for adjustments and fine tuning. 

On the other hand, how big a deal is file size these days? 64G SD cards, good for over 1,000 images on most cameras, can be bought for as little as AUD45. Faster cards are more expensive, but whether you even need that depends on your camera and how you shoot. External hard drives that can store 20,000 or more RAW files can be had for less than AUD100. 

Size just isn't an issue any more!

Processing might be. The fact is that a RAW file needs processing; a JPEG doesn't. That said, I likened RAW and JPEG to darkroom and minilab earlier, but it's not really like that, is it? We can do in software in a few moments what would have taken hours in a wet darkroom. A few days ago, I played with Apple's Photos app and tried its auto function. The results were surprisingly good - and I still had the option to tweak the settings. The same is true of Capture One, which is hardly a consumer product. Its auto button does a good job, if you're in a hurry or just can't be bothered. I imagine it's true of your software as well.

So if you're not using RAW, give it a try. If you're on a Mac, you already have a very good photo editor and if you're not, try one of the 30 day trials offered by most photo editing software developers.

You even have a safety option: I think you'll find that if you're nervous about RAW, your camera will allow you to capture RAW and JPEGs at the same time! There you go: a plan with no flaws!

Give it a try. Once you've sampled the flexibility and latitude provide by RAW, I'll be surprised if you go back to JPEGs.

Shane

 


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