Saturday, May 3, 2014

RAW or JPEG?

Brownie Target Six-20 - Stallion Springs, California
An example of an image captured using JPEG.
Yesterday someone asked on a photography forum how to convert a digital image to black-and-white. More specifically he wanted to know if it is better to convert to B&W in-camera or later with software (and if later, what software should he use). A simple enough question. What was the consensus answer from the "helpful" photographers on that forum? Use RAW. Huh?

For some reason there are photographers out there that seem to think that saving an image in RAW is essential. Apparently there are some that think RAW is the answer to everything. Some also think that no serious photographer would ever have the camera save JPEG files.
Window Shadow - Victorville, California
An example of an image captured using JPEG.
Lets take a step back for a moment. What is RAW? What is JPEG? What's the difference? A RAW file is as the name implies: the unprocessed data from the sensor. A RAW file is not a photograph until it has been processed, and things like white-balance, contrast, saturation, etc., etc., have been applied. A JPEG file is processed data from the sensor. It is a photograph because white-balance, contrast, saturation and so forth have been applied to it.

Almost all digital cameras can save in RAW or JPEG (or both simultaneously). If you save in RAW you must further process the file to get an image. If you save in JPEG the camera processes the file for you with however you preset it to do so.
4014 Flag - Barstow, California
An example of an image captured using RAW.
The reason one might choose to save in RAW format is because that person wants control to make whatever adjustments that he or she deems best. Sometimes in-the-field it can be difficult to know exactly what the white-balance should be, or how much contrast should be applied, etc., and so the photographer wants to be able to make those decisions later while sitting at their computer. This is especially useful in quickly changing environments.

The reason one might choose to save in JPEG format is to save time. If one takes care to ensure that every setting is as he or she wants it prior to capturing a photograph, then the JPEG image will be a finished (or nearly finished) product. No need to spend hours staring at a monitor fiddling with photographs. The camera did the work for you.
Yearning For Life - Tehachapi, California
An example of an image captured using JPEG.
Time is money. Time is also priceless. The less time you spend on a computer playing around with images, the more time you could be capturing photographs or selling photographs or spending time with your family.

A problem with JPEGs is that, in order to be successful using them, one must be careful to ensure that all of the camera settings are just as you want them prior to capturing an image. It takes forethought. It requires photographic vision. Otherwise you'll wish that you had saved in RAW.
Foggy Mountain Road - Tehachapi, California

To summarize as simply as possible: RAW takes more time but allows you to be more careless in-the-field, while JPEGs take less time but requires you to be more careful in-the-field.

As you can see, telling this poor guy that he needs to save in RAW in order to convert to black-and-white is confusing advice at best. The RAW or JPEG choice is about time and attention and little else.

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