One Photographer’s Opinion on RAW vs JPEG Image Files

There is a constant discussion over the best image file format for professional use in photography.  This is just one more professional’s opinion.  It’s based upon my desire to provide the client with the very best final image.  Doing that efficiently is part of remaining profitable.  Too much time spent processing images eats into time that might be better spent elsewhere, whether that’s relaxation or selling or shooting additional assignments.

I know. I’m an OG. I hope that means I’ve learned some things.

I admit I’m probably an old fogey to younger photographers with digital-only experience.  I’ve been at this photography business for a while, starting with film in 1984.  My main camera was a 4×5 view camera, followed by medium format.  Almost none of my professional work was done in those days with an SLR, although I owned several.   Most of my work was for advertising and most often required what’s called positive film, or chromes; essentially enormous slides.

A tiny history lesson

The important thing with chromes was to “get it right in camera” (“it” meaning exposure and any special effects) because the film was the image, with a very narrow exposure latitude (perhaps 4 stops). Unlike print film, which could be manipulated in printing for greater tonal range between shadows and highlights with detail, with chromes there was only around 1.5 stops above proper exposure if you wished to hold highlight detail, and about 2.5 stops under, before it went black without detail.  It was common to expose one frame at the metered exposure, plus a bracket at slightly under, perhaps a half stop, and another at slightly over if you were worried.

When digital first came along, it only captured JPEG or TIFF image files, but eventually progressed to what we call RAW; unprocessed data that requires an application to finish on a computer.  Unfortunately, like a lot of us in the early days of wide spread digital use (think 2002-05), I formed some bad habits out of unfamiliarity with digital, based on treating those early JPEG and TIFF files like chromes.  Digital may have had more exposure latitude than chromes, but are just as surely destroyed by over exposure.  What’d I do wrong?  Like most of us, I created a lot of underexposed digital images, then processed to compensate the exposure in Photoshop.  The result?  More noise in the shadows than necessary, a certain amount of muddiness in the midrange, a certain not ready for primetime look compared to film at that time.

Finally, along came RAW, the unprocessed data, waiting for us to finish the processing in Photoshop and, later, Capture One, Lightroom and now On1 Photo RAW.  This saved a lot of worry about blown exposures, but has also led to an enormous amount of extra work for photographers, adding perhaps an extra 10-20 hours a week.  How could that be so?

Back in the day, professional grade film and proofs were expensive and very sensitive. When I was pursuing weddings and had become a top wedding shooter in my region, I often shot 300 frames, total, delivering about half that many proofs. Even at that, I was told I shot 50% more than my competition.  Times have certainly changed.  Now it’s expected that wedding photographers deliver 300+ digital files from a wedding.  Today, dealing with perhaps 1500-2000 images to start with, that’s a LOT of extra work, especially if they’re all shot as RAW files, only.  Especially since, back then, with fewer images overall plus the fact that a lab did the processing, proofing and printing, it meant photographers could attend to other things, saving a lot of time, like that 10-20 hours mentioned earlier.

So much for the history lesson, and back to how you choose between JPEG or RAW.   I submit: shoot both, save time.  Most cameras allow that, with some even allowing JPEGs to be captured to one card and RAW to another.  In my case, I look through the JPEGs first, and only resort to RAW when an image doesn’t meet my standards.  Yeah, it’s working with a net, but I prefer that to making an image that disappoints either my client or myself.

RAW does have serious advantages if you miss an exposure, as seen below.


This was the first frame of a recent session, and I was still determining proper exposure when these two kids just  jumped in.  I grabbed the cute shot and was dismayed to see it was about 1.5 stops over exposed, but they’d already jumped out and moved on.  [Subject sizes differ due to my cropping choices, it is the same image file ; RAW and JPEG]

Today, most photographers do all our own computer processing of digital files, so we’re doing work that used to be farmed out to labs.  In addition, since we’re routinely shooting 1500 images or more for events, as opposed to 300, there’s a huge difference in time culling – on top of processing.

What’s the answer?  For me, it’s been a resurgence of my attention to “get it right in camera”. That means exposure, white balance, and proper profiling of the camera body using tools like ColorChecker Passport.  I hand-meter almost everything, and then photograph a ColorChecker panel so I have a known color value in the first frame of a job and in the lighting I’ll use.  In the example above, once I adjusted my exposure, the roughly 70 remaining images required no adjustments, straight out of camera.  That’s an enormous help, because I’m paid primarily to shoot, not post process!

To sum up:  I shoot both RAW + Large JPEG files on every job, and review the JPEGs first.  When those are right, all you need do is cull.  Little or no processing is required.  If you miss on an image, out comes that particular RAW file for special handling (RAW will have the same file number, just a different suffix, so it’ll be easy to find.)

I’m not some snob who insists that others should work in this way.  I’m a convert who found something that works better – especially when I discipline myself from the start of the shoot.  I’m simply saying it might work for you, too.  This process has so simplified my work life that I’ve been able to shed perhaps 10+ hours a week by not having to spend so much time in post.  Try getting it right in camera, while using RAW as a safety net, it might work for you, too.

Visit my gallery to see how well these changes and learning opportunities have worked to your advantage.

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