RAW vs JPEG (reprise)

As a Fuji shooter, I regularly read about one professional photographer or another extolling the virtues of Fuji’s OOC JPGs and using them as the primary images, with RAW kept as backups. Most recently a lengthy and informative article by Kevin Mullins, a wedding photographer.

Possibly there is not definitive answer to the RAW vs JPG debate, but rather an ‘it depends’. It depends on what you want to do with the images – for wedding and commercial photographers a speedy workflow and turnaround are vital. And the quality that Mullins achieves from his JPGs is quite outstanding; he places a strong emphasis on knowing how to obtain the desired exposure (frequently using spot metering), as without this there are limited possibilities for recovery with JPG. However, where any significant degree of fine-tuning is required; for example in landscape work or Photoshop composites only RAW will do.

Source: f16.click, by Kevin Mullins

But with clear benefits in workflow time savings, it is worth exploring the limitations of JPGs to allow an informed choice about their use as part of the photographer’s toolkit.

I took some photos in an old (slightly run-down) mill town not too far from my home and processed the RAW and adjusted the JPGs in Lightroom for the same images. The practical experience was valuable and I note some specific disadvantages of adjusting JPGs as opposed to processing RAW. These of course exist because of the very different nature of the files, but nonetheless one should feel the impact in practice to understand it.

click for larger view

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One pair from the ten or so images I made. It is important to note that the JPG file may have been improved if the exposure had been better or the in-camera JPG settings were changed. Points noted:

  • JPGs are sharpened in camera, so there is no sharpening in LR. In LR both the level of sharpening and masking of areas not for sharpening are controlled by the user. It is also possible to do selective sharpening of elements in the image. In scenes with many elements, this is potentially a benefit. On the other hand, Ken Tanaka in the Online Photographer, suggests, ‘Using only Raw files from your camera is analogous to buying an uncooked meal from a fine restaurant, preferring to season and cook it at home. This made perfect sense years ago when the chef was still in school. But today many in-camera chefs are James Beard Award candidates.’ What goes on inside a camera’s expensive algorithms is difficult to know!
  • White adjustments have little effect on JPG files – I was able to brighten the under exposed white sign with the RAW file. But again, if I’d make a correct exposure compensation adjustment for the white, maybe there would not have been a problem (this could have also taken care of the blocked up shadows).
  • The clarity adjustment slider can quickly cause degradation in JPG files, resulting in grungy images (common place on photo-sharing sites)
  • In general, only a limited degree of adjustment is possible with the JPG files before it becomes visible. So, if you get it more or less right in camera, you are fine, but otherwise there can be trouble.
  • Finally, and obviously, with the JPG file you are stuck with the colour rendition selected in camera ; black and white conversion on JPG isn’t too clean and there is no coming back from black and white to colour.

For my own practice, I will continue working at getting the exposure correct in camera (note that ‘exposing to the right’ is not necessarily a good idea for high quality JPGs). Michael Freeman’s book is an excellent guide (see here). The time savings would be significant. However, it is difficult to envisage dispensing with RAW files at least as a backup solution; and there are times when the digital darkroom is just necessary.


Ken Rockwell [website]. JPG vs Raw:
Get it Right the First Time. Available from: http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/raw.htm [accessed 26.7.26]

Michael Furtman [blog]. The Real Truth About JPEG images. Available from: http://www.michaelfurtman.com/jpeg_myths.htm [accessed 26.7.26]

Mullins K. F16.click [blog]. Shooting weddings with Fuji. Available from: http://f16.click/wedding-photography/shooting-weddings-with-fuji.html [accessed 26.7.26]

The Online Photographer [website]. Ken Tanaka: Shooting JPEG Instead of Raw. Available from: http://theonlinephotographer.typepad.com/the_online_photographer/2012/03/ken-tanaka-shooting-jpeg-instead-of-raw.html [accessed 26.7.26]

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