JPEG vs RAW Revisited

I have just been through arguing in forums about the merits of shooting RAW vs JPEG. It all started with a beginner asking whether RAW is indeed that much better than JPEG. In yet another forum, expert moderators even think I’m insane because I shoot in JPEG. When I showed them that the director of National Geographic agrees with me, they banned me for pointing out that this article says exactly the same thing. For such self-proclaimed expert photographers, they can’t seem to see words properly. Power can sometimes be very blinding. 🙂

So, is RAW better than JPEG? Of course the answer is yes. RAW is superior to JPEG but …

But if you are still asking why RAW is better than JPEG then you should probably shoot JPEG. Beginners in photography should shoot in JPEG. Period.

Yes, RAW is superior and nobody is debating that. RAW has more data to work with compared to JPEG. More isn’t always better though. It’s like saying 2 is better than 1. Two houses may be better than one but two wives probably aren’t.

To make full use of RAW you will have to tweak it. Premature post processing is EVIL. Shooting RAW forces you to post process your shot to arrive at something more palatable. JPEG looks good straight from the camera. RAW looks flat and yucky. The problem here is that beginners are still learning to shoot and yet they are also bombarded with the task of processing their shots. The reality is that more time is spent in front of the computer instead of shooting. Beginners don’t even know what’s wrong with their shot. If you don’t know what’s wrong in an image, you won’t know how to fix it. And that’s why beginners end up with overcooked images that look worse than when they came out of the camera. I have been there. I went through HDR hell and feel lucky to come back alive. I can bet my life that there are millions of iphone shots that look way better than RAW images that have gone through beginner post processing mayhem.

If you want to see how photography hell looks like then check this out: http://youarenotaphotographer.com/

That’s what happens when people think about “fixing” shots when they get to their computer. It leads to bad habits. Instead of getting it right in camera they let the computer “shoot” for them. A very common argument here is that by shooting RAW, you can pull the highlights and push the shadows in post to arrive at a better image. Yes that is true. But then if you have to go through that kind of extreme post processing then it probably means you did something wrong during the shot.

A common mistake is shooting in ugly high contrast situations such as shooting in mid day. Not even RAW will save you here. Yucky light is yucky light. Am I saying that you can’t shoot during mid day? Of course you can. But it will require more work. You may need big strobe lights when doing portraiture to counter the harsh sunlight. With landscapes, strobes are useless. You can try HDR and a lot of tweaking which beginners know nothing about. So yes, you can shoot but do not expect the same quality of photos as when you shoot in good light. Your shots will look like every other tourist’s shot. They may look good but not spectacular. Your shots will look like everyone else’s shot. And when your shots look like everyone else’s then why bother with this expensive hobby? Stop calling yourself a photographer. You did not buy that multi-thousand buck camera and f1.2 premium lens only to shoot in broad daylight. In good light, mobile phones that shoot in JPEG can match the image quality of your expensive DSLR. Again, if you have to perform a lot of highlight and shadow magic in post then you probably screwed up your shot.

So when do you shoot RAW? Simple: if you think that post processing can improve your shot. If your shot looks cluttered or wonky or what not, then no amount of post processing will save you. What this means is that when you where trying to capture a scene, you already have it clear in your mind how the final image would look like. For example, a common backlit shot which is one of the trickiest to pull off. During sunrise or sunset, the light intensity difference between your foreground and the bright sun is just too high for any camera to capture properly. By shooting RAW, you will have a smoother gradient in the highlights and have a fighting chance in pushing the underexposed foreground to where you want it to be.

wellington-point

I practice what I preach. I have been in that situation when I was pushing sliders to 11 until the shot bleeds to death. I want you to be aware of this trap and avoid it. Even now that I am no longer a beginner, I still shoot JPEG when I can. Just to show you what JPEG can do, here are some of the images I took:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA SONY DSC SONY DSCOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA jindabyne

By the way, that shot of the trams and taxis, I have printed that at one-meter wide and it looks fantastic on my wall.

Have a serious think about what you are doing. If you can’t even get your horizon straight and level then you have no business touching Photoshop. No amount of Photoshopping will fix your image. Shoot in JPEG and learn to shoot before anything else.

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