For years, I was a JPEG-only shooter. Now I'm regretting it. I'm also not looking back. Here's the story of my RAW conversion.
I was reviewing an AdoramaTV video about shooting time-lapse videos by Rich Harrington when Rich suddeny exclaimed: "JPEGs suck!" It took me by surprise, for many reasons.
Now, if I were a JPEG, I thought, I might be somewhat insulted by Rich's comment. Some of my best photos are JPEGs. I've been shooting JPEGS for years, and found them to be perfectly fine. Or so I thought.
Then, a few weeks later, I was minding my own business watching a Gavin Hoey AdoramaTV video, one of many in which he fine-tuned an image he'd shot in RAW using a RAW image editor. But in this case, he was shooting sports, an area where I thought JPEGs had a distinct advantage. "I love a bit of clarity," he said, as he does so often, and moved a slider to show what he meant. Indeed, it improved the picture, as did several other easy actions.
Then, I was watching a Mark Wallace AdoramaTV video about Lightroom workflow working with RAW images, saw how easy it was. My resistance was down. I said to myself: "Self, maybe you should revisit your stubborn resistance to RAW."
A unique problem
As a camera reviewer, I have a problem that most photographers don't have: When I get a brand new camera to review, my version of Photoshop may not yet have been updated to support that new camera's RAW files, and I have to use the (usually kludgy) RAW editor that comes with the camera. Since I have to review the camera fairly quickly, I often don't want to be bothered with RAW. This probably has added to my reluctance to shoot RAW but that's just me.
However, as a photographer, I was intrigued with the fact that when you are editing a RAW image file, you are working with all the information in the image file, and can more easily coax out shadow and even highlight details, effectively expanding your camera's dynamic range by a stop or two in each direction, by simply moving a couple of sliders.
And so, I gave RAW a chance. Actually, I gave it several chances. I tried applying what I'd learned about working with RAW images and Adobe Bridge (which can be found in all flavors of Photoshop) from Mark, Gavin, and Rich's videos on about a dozen images. I wanted to test out its efficacy an compare it to that of working with JPEG. Here are two sample images that I shot in both RAW and JPEG, I did the best I could in Adobe Photoshop with each file format, and compared my best results.
Straight out of camera: Above, an unretouched JPEG (shot in RAW simultaneously). Single side-light source leaves deep shadows that I'd like to open up. First, I opened the JPEG and made some adjustments, and got this:
Added just enough detail in the shadows. I'm happy with this result. Let's see if fine-tuning the RAW version in Adobe Bridge can improve on this.
Very close! Shadow details are equally improved, and I brought the highlights down a notch, perhaps too much. I could have easily have made that chance to the JPEG file.
In the first example, I photographed my daughter using two Flashpoint II 1220M Monolights in my backyard, using the high output to deliberately darken the background. I placed one light directly behind her, bare bulb facing up to light her hair and the foliage behind her. The other light was to my left. The dramatic result worked well straight out of camera and required minimal work. In the JPEG version of the file, I used the Lighting-Contrast adjustment sliders to open up the shadows slightly, but that was it. I used a similarly light touch when I opened the RAW file. The results were similar. My take-away? If the conditions are well controlled, both RAW and JPEG seem to be equally good. I wasn't sold on RAW...yet.
But what happens if conditions are the opposite?
Making Order Out of Chaos
In a less controlled situation, the difference was much more dramatic. Last month I was testing the Fujifilm X-E1 on the streets of New York, doing street photography. (You can read the full report here.) When doing street photography, lighting can vary greatly—especially on bright, sunny days—and photographers often have to contend with a wide range of light from bright sunshine to deep shadows within the same image. Here it is, straight out of camera:
In the photo above, I overexposed by approximately one stop—not intentionally—and the result was blown-out highlights. You can see this in the biker's face and arms, and in the face of the woman in the background in the pink sweater. In digital photography, detail in blown-out highlights are generally considered lost and indeed, I tried shadow and highlight adjustments, overall darkening, playing with contrast. Very little detail came back in the highlights.
Best I could do with a JPEG: Despite my efforts, too much information was lost lost in the highlights.
The funky rhythm of this image appealed to me, though, so I was motivated to keep trying. Fortunately, I was shooting RAW+JPEG that day, so I opened the RAW image, and got to work. The first thing I did was to move the highlights slider all the way to the left. Much better. Skin tones, which until then were nothing but white, featureless highlights, emerged. I also nudged the shadow slider slightly to the right to get a bit more detail in the shadows, and pushed the Whites slider all the way to the left. Finally, I boosted vibranace a bit, and then I increased clarity. I must agree with Gavin Hoey: I love clarity—it is like lifting a layer of haze from the image!
Much better! While there is still a bit of missing highlight, this is a much more usable image. While I might have liked slightly more detail in the bike rider's arms, I was generally pleased with the result—compare the level of detail in the white bike handles, for instance—considering what it looked like when we started.
Seeing firsthand how RAW saved this image convinced me to explore further, and indeed, the more I worked with RAW the more I came to appreciate its ease of use and time-saving aspects. Below you can see the slider settings I chose in Adobe Bridge:
And so, for sports and street photography, where I once felt JPEGs ruled, I've converted to RAW. With inexpensive memory cards able to hold so much information these days, the argument that RAW images take up more room no longer applies.
As for more controlled environments (such as studio shoots) I also see the advantage of RAW because you can access the image's full bit depth and pull out more subtle detail that exists in the files.
I didn't even talk about the time-saving asset management abilities that Adobe Lightroom brings to the table. But even without those features, I'm sold. I've converted to RAW, and I'm not going back.