I’m frequently asked which file format I shoot in, particularly when I talk to groups or societies and have a good number of mounted A3 prints for them to look at. There is often surprise when I reveal that the majority of the work is shot in high JPEG. RAW obviously has more information, often as much as ten times that of a JPEG. It has a greater latitude with regard to exposure and more control over the basic settings that are available to the photographer; such as colour balance, contrast, sharpening, saturation and hue – but all of this doesn’t necessarily make it the obvious and only choice. There are advantages and disadvantages in shooting in both. Once you have some understanding of what is involved with each it becomes a matter of personal preference and pragmatism, often related to the type of work you are involved in.
I have been a professional photographer all my life and was schooled in the traditional side of photography. Digital was just about on the horizon in my college days. I remember a demonstration we had of the Sony Mavica, not quite a digital camera as we understand them now, but as the name suggests a Magnetic Video Camera generating a video signal in the NTSC format. This was back in 1981 and is generally considered to be the first commercial ‘digital’ camera. A great deal of scepticism followed and at the time we could not envisage the revolution that was to take place in the early nineties.
Much of my work in the 80’s and 90’s, in a professional capacity, was carried out on colour transparency film. This was an unforgiving medium, with very little latitude. Your exposure needed to spot on and half a stop either side spelt trouble. We were taught about exposure and ran test after test to identify the actual, rather than nominal, speed of any given film batch. In short we knew the film and we could expose it accurately. Today exposure is never seen as quite the art it was and not many photographers are shooting on transparency as compared with those working digitally.
One of the reasons I shoot on high JPEG is that I am confident of my technique. I understand exposure and with the use of graduated neutral density filters, can control most situations I come across in landscape or natural history photography. A great advantage of the RAW uncompressed format is that it allows a couple of stops error either side of the ‘correct’ exposure, in effect giving you an insurance policy with regard to recovering a poorly exposed original. This ‘recovery’ factor is impressive within RAW and I have known photographers, particularly in wedding situations, who have been extremely grateful for this. But if you are sure of your exposure and confident that the ‘in camera controls’ are set for optimum results when you make an exposure a high JPEG is absolutely fine.
I don’t over manipulate my images and do very little post processing; a layer mask here and there to control shadows and highlights via levels or curves is about the limit of my post production, the rest being controlled via the camera, during exposure. I have not altered my working practice from the days of film, but I have been working solely digitally for about eight years. I did not manipulate my images then and feel no need to now. If I were to change my working practice and begin to explore photographic manipulation and work heavily on my images then I would undoubtedly switch to the RAW format.
Much of my work within the area of natural history demands a lot of patience within the field. You can wait hours with little activity and them be confronted with a situation that requires a very short but rapid burst of images. RAW files are large and are much slower than JPEGS to buffer onto the cards, a significant factor to take into consideration. Many sports photographers work with JPEGS for much the same reason.
The recent Nikon DSLRs now actually have three possible levels of compression for a RAW file, uncompressed, lossless compressed or compressed. It can all get a little confusing, but is well explained in Simon Stafford’s excellent Magic Lantern guides. These have been invaluable to me over the years, as I have continued to upgrade from one camera to another.
Storage and Time Factor
Of course, there is also the storage and time factor. With RAW files containing considerably more information than a JPEG, much of it superfluous to my requirements, a vast amount of additional storage capacity would have been needed. I am already dealing in terabytes and that’s with JPEGS. If all those images had been taken in RAW I would have ten times the number of hard discs I am now dealing with. It would also have cost me ten times as much as it has up to now.
The time factor involved is crucial for my workflow. After every photographic job or outing I always discipline myself to go through all the images taken and save those I select to their respective folders within my route filing system. These images are saved as files that have been ‘worked on’ and are print ready. After a significant shoot it can take a good few hours to do this but it is the only way to stay on top of my images. If I was dealing in RAW it would be impossible to maintain this workflow and I would simply never be up to date, as the additional processing time is significant when dealing with these larger files.
I also work freelance for a number of clients and they want files that are universally readable across all imaging programs. In these cases JPEGS fit the bill perfectly. They are easy to transmit and reproduce every bit as well as a RAW file.
It is important, though, that the prime factor in any decision you make is based on the quality of the final result. I have shot the same image on RAW and JPEG, many cameras allow you to shoot both simultaneously. I have then printed them up to A3+ and if anything I find the JPEGS sharper and ‘cleaner’ than the RAW files. It responds to how I work and has no loss of quality for my purposes. I would strongly recommend, however, that before you come to any firm conclusions you test your work under both systems. Which ever works best stay with it and don’t be swayed by a belief that simply because the RAW is uncompressed and carriers far more information it must be better.