If you take great care in metering and exposure, you will rarely, if ever, need to shoot RAW and you can avoid a lot of post-production time.
A little while ago my colleague Mason Resnick published an article on why he has switched to shooting only in RAW (Why I Stopped Shooting Only in JPEG and Learned To Love RAW). While shooting in RAW certainly has advantages, as a busy professional assignment photographer I would never switch to shooting RAW. Here’s why.
Shot in JPEG with a Fujifilm X100. Exposure: ISO 1600 f/8 at 1/1000th second
The question becomes how does one get the most out of their JPEGs the camera can produce. While many of us simply turn on the camera and shoot at whatever defaults our cameras are set for JPEG creation, to maximize output we must learn how to use the tools we have at hand.
Shot in JPEG with a Fujifilm X100. Exposure: ISO 640, f/2 at 1/60th second.
The best way to approach this is as a film analogy. RAW files could be considered as an undeveloped C41 negative. They do allow for extensive manipulation and exposure latitude in post just like processing film (N+1 etc).
JPEGs, on the other hand, should be treated much like E6 (slide) film, with little room for error that could be corrected in post. Here the onboard JPEG engine comes into play, as it is our automated lab processing the RAW data in a few microseconds based on its settings. Just like it was in the glory days of film, if you can learn how to deal with this, the results will be as good as any RAW conversion for the vast majority of applications in both the enthusiast and professional markets.
Let us see how we can do this.
Shot in JPEG with a Fujifilm X100. Exposure: ISO 640 at f/5.6, 1/125th second.
First thing we must do is control exposure. Now I shoot JPEGs 99% of the time when doing documentary or runway photography. The former to reduce my workload in post, and the latter for the simple fact that the turnaround for those images is measured mere in minutes, hours if you are lucky. Another concern is color accuracy. While the Auto White Balance of the vast majority of cameras comes close, none are what I call “perfect”. Now for the vast majority of folks “close enough” is usually good enough, but in some of the environments I shoot in “close” just won’t cut it.
Let’s tackle problem one, exposure. Back in the film days when I used a Leica M4 or an Olympus Pen FT with a broken light meter, I carried with me a Sekonic 398 light meter. I still use this meter today for all my street photography work. It worked fine for Kodachrome, and works perfectly fine with my Fujifilm X100. This selenium-powered meter (no batteries required) is one of the best meters I have ever used. While the one I use is more than three decades old, this wonderful meter is still in production today.
The Sekonic 398A Studio Deluxe III
Using a light meter for street photography is fairly straight forward. You need to take two readings, one for the sunny side of the street and one for the shaded side of the street. Usually during a day of street shooting I will have to do this at most three times. When combined with dynamic range expansion (a little more about that later) I find this method very effective. Another option if you don’t feel like taking a light meter or spending money on an incident light meter is to use a simple grey card. Simply fill the view of the camera with one in both lighting situations and use the settings the camera will read out to you.
Adorama Delta Gray Cards Exposure Aid
While not as accurate as a light meter, a gray card will certainly give you a better reading than trusting the AV option on your camera, which can be easily fooled by scenes with high or low contrast. Also dark and light colors will fool the meter on your camera, here a light meter or grey card will save you a lot of post whether shooting RAW or JPEG.
One bonus on using a grey card is color accuracy. A shot of a grey card can be used for custom white balance on all digital cameras. Finally, if you really want to go OG on this, the vast majority of sidewalks here in NYC can double for a gray card.
Canon 1Ds Mark III with Canon 135mm f/2 L lens; exposure, f/3.2 ISO 400 and 1/400th second, 3100K
Now while all these techniques are fantastic for documentary photography, the demands of runway or similar photography are far more discerning. A simple selenium meter and gray card will not cut it here. Unfortunately the turn around time in these environments (typically less than an hour after the end of the event) and the volume of images (a typical fashion show can generate on average 700 shots) truly precludes shooting RAW. In these situations I tend to use a Sekonic L358 as my light meter and a Sekonic C500 color meter that gives me the color temp in Kelvin. Granted, these are far more expensive tools, but I also use these items when shooting in studio or on those jobs that I know I will be shooting RAW as I can enter the Kelvin reading directly into my RAW editor.
Sekonic L358 Flash Master, Weatherproof Digital Incident & Reflected Flash and Ambient Light Meter.
Sekonic Prodigi C500 color meter Photographic Color Meter
It is important to note that a color meter is only useful if you can actually enter Kelvin values into your camera’s JPEG engine variables. Otherwise a gray card is your best option.
Just Like A Race Car…
As I mentioned above while discussing the use of a color meter, all cameras have a JPEG engine. On most basic point and shoots it is all you have for image creation. Many of these engines can be “tuned” or “optimized” to provide better output. Here is the major reason why some folks will wildly and erroneously declare “JPEGs Suck!”. They don’t take the time to actually adjust the camera for optimal JPEG creation. The best analogy for this is a race car. Take the Ford Focus. Right off the lot your typical Ford Focus is a remarkably mundane car, perfect for the everyday tasks that most people use it for. The same mundane car with proper adjustments and engine tuning is also one of the top race cars in the World Rally Championships. Yes that very same Ford Focus is the monster of the WRC.
Canon 1D Mark III, Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS lens; exposure: f/5 ISO 640, 1/200th second, 3300K
Now while tuning a Ford Focus into such a monster is an involved and expensive process, tuning your camera into a monster of JPEG creation is actually a lot easier and cost you zero dollars outside of the initial investment of lenses and body. Tuning basically requires you shoot a standard scene and adjust your camera’s JPEG settings viewing the images at 100% on a monitor. Start with all settings at “0” (these will include sharpness, contrast, saturation, noise reduction and color). The basic procedure is “shoot, view, adjust, repeat” until after adjusting each variable to your liking you have tuned the JPEG engine to your taste. About the only variables from this point you should be adjusting with any regularity would be color balance and dynamic range. Many mid and high range cameras allow you to set multiple setups so you can have several flavor of JPG conversions available (say one for color and another for out of camera Black and white) for quick adjustments for the environment you find yourself in.
Fujifilm X100. Exposure: ISO 640, f/5.6 at 1/125th second.
Finally let’s quickly discuss one of the latest technological tools in cameras today, dynamic range expansion. Called “Highlight Tone Priority” on Canons or “DR” on Fujis or simply “Shadow” and “Highlight” on Pentax, these settings control how shadow tones and highlights are adjusted by the camera’s JPEG engine. These basically are much like the “Recovery” and “Fill Light” settings in ACR. They allow you to open up the shadows and keep highlights from blowing out. None of these tools will save a poorly exposed image, but with a properly exposed image, can help bring out details that might otherwise be lost. The only drawback is none of these systems across the various platforms allow you to shoot at base ISO. Choose when you want to use these settings carefully based on the scene that presents itself to you.
Yes RAW is more flexible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce great JPEGs straight out of the camera. You just have to take the time to learn how. For those wondering, all street shots were metered using the Sekonic 398 and color balanced either via gray card or sidewalk method. All the fashion show shots were metered with a Sekonic 358 and color balanced via color meter input.