By Ken Tanaka
A couple of months ago I suggested keeping an open mind toward using in-camera image processing, and a number of people asked me to expand on the subject. So I thought I'd just share the logic behind my suggestion and some notes on my own practices.
First things first: no, I am not advocating that anyone abandon using Raw* image files. They are undeniably essential for any application requiring extensive manipulation of the image, particularly significant enlargements. Further, Raw will be the most practical choice if you expect to apply extreme tonal variations on those images. If you need Raw, shoot Raw. Simple as that.
That said, however, the fact is that the majority of my own images remain rather close to their original capture state. I'll bet yours do, too. And with 10 MP being today's apparent minimum resolution for new cameras, I rarely need to even stretch a file any more. The native resolution is nearly always adequate for even larger prints.
So with 1+ terabyte of mostly Raw files hogging my disc space, I asked myself a few simple questions. Does an all-Raw image work flow make any sense? Should I be taking advantage of the substantial storage and processing economies of using pre-cooked camera JPEG files as my new "standard"? Shouldn’t I be taking advantage of the enormous strides that camera manufacturers have made in in-camera image processing? And the big question: Will anyone call me a sissy if I use in-camera JPEGs?!
Why shoot JPEG? Because that's where the money went!**
The major camera manufacturers invest substantial sums toward refining their image processing technologies***. It's what they're most proud of as the hearts of their cameras and a key part of their proprietary competitive weaponry. Processing systems such as Canon's DIGIC system, Nikon's EXPEED system, and Fujifim's EXR system integrate the operation of the camera with the lens and sensor in an attempt to optimize the recorded image.
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. It's definitely time for a re-think.
Back to the future!
So now that you're eager to use all the new technology in your camera, I'm going to suggest you shoot like it's 1980. Yup. Even the best camera JPEG is an 8-bit file which affords less adjustment leeway than a raw file. So the best general guidance I can offer when shooting JPEGs is to be careful with your exposures. We've all become sloppy as cameras have become more automated. Many of the camera processors realize this and have programs that automatically compensate for our carelessness. But the best strategy is to devote some "quality time" to become deeply, almost instinctively familiar with your camera's metering and processing responses. I guarantee that the investment will repay you with excellent dividends.
I'll have mine medium-rare, but hold the sauce, please
I approach in-camera processing to get the best of what it can provide. But usually nothing more. That is, I generally use the most neutral color profile and medium contrast and sharpness. This provides the camera's essential technical corrections and tonal adjustments but steers clear of the faux effects such as "Holga," "Antique," and "MFA Candidate." This produces a file with color and contrast tonality that's generally straight down the middle of the road and able to equally accommodate + or – bumps. It looks more lively than a purely linear Raw image but not vivid.
What about B&W conversions?
Black-and-white conversions are more technically and aesthetically complex than simply nudging chroma and luminance. Reducing relatively rich color data to a few shades of gray is tricky for anything fancier than simple desaturation. B&W conversions also tend to be wandering manual processes as you lurch through slider settings in search of perfection. Staying within a higher-bit color system offers you a wider aisle down which to lurch.
For this reason I recommend taking either of two approaches. First, experiment to see if your camera's processor can produce a conversion that you like. You may discover that it can usually produce a good average head-start baseline.
Failing that, I recommend that you simply use Raw files for images destined for B&W conversion. This is especially true for scenes featuring color gradients and/or a densely varied palette of colors and tones. Why needlessly suffer?
I've already made the point of taking care with your exposures when shooting JPEGs. To that end, if your camera's exposure compensation facility is not already second nature to you (wagging finger), invest the time to make it so. Exposure compensation may be among the least-used features on advanced cameras, even though it's incredibly valuable and powerful for providing the crucial nudging important for getting the best images straight from the camera (Raw or JPEG).
• The "expose-to-the-right" mantra is not always the best strategy for JPEGs. In my own experience, well-lit scenes with high-contrast ratios will, indeed, benefit from + exposure compensation. But predominantly dark scenes featuring bright points or pools, such as the top image, often benefit from – compensation. Again, forget dogma and experiment for yourself.
• Beware of resolution reductions that certain in-camera rendering modes may produce. For example, the Fujifilm X10's EXR mode devoted to minimizing low-light noise uses a pixel-binning**** technique which halves the camera's resolution. I'm not suggesting abstinence, just cognizance.
• Editing JPEG image files in Lightroom and Bridge is essentially identical to editing Raw files. (I use the Camera Raw editor in Bridge for making edits to JPEGs as well as Raw files.) In fact I expect that you'll rarely take note of the difference.
• Images processed from Raw files tend to have basically the same initial appearance, camera to camera, principally determined by your converter. But camera JPEGs show much more character of both the camera body body and the lens. Just an observation.
Photography has always been highly susceptible to dogmatic practices, fetishes, and gospels. "Only film...," "Only prime lenses...," "Only viewfinders...," "Only full-frame...," "Only Raw files...." The problem with dogmas is that although they're often founded in point-in-time best-practices they can become dated millstones in a field with such an inconstant technical environment as photography. That's exactly the case with the "Raw-only" dogma. If you use a late-model camera and have largely ignored its image processor, you owe it to yourself to explore it, even if you're a placard-waving "Raw-only club" member. You may find that you can better allocate your post-processing time or, better, spend more time just studying your images.
And nobody's going to call you a sissy or kick sand in your face at the beach if you start using in-camera JPEGs.
*[Just an editorial note...we can never decide whether to write it "raw" or "RAW" (it's not an acronym) so TOP's site style is simply to split the difference and write "Raw." This is on us, not Ken. "JPEG," however, is an acronym. —Mike the Ed.]
**Apologies to Willie Sutton for adapting his famous line.
***There are some exceptions. Within my own collection of cameras two, of the most expensive, the Leica M8.2 and M9, are ironically among them. The JPEG images from these cameras are downright primitive.
****Pixel-binning is a software/firmware algorithm to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of an image sensor by merging data from adjacent pixels. The compromise improves image quality but results in less image data.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Bill Mitchell: "AMEN! Three cheers and a tiger."
Featured Comment by Jim Allen: "Your analogy of buying a meal from a nice restaurant and taking it home to cook it yourself kind of struck me like a good solid smack. What a perfect description. I never thought to look at it that way, and have been pretty firmly in the 'just shoot Raw' camp. For a long time. Not a placard-waving demonstrator mind you, just always shot Raw by default, having read many recommendations to do so in the not too distant past. I've always set the point and shoot cameras I've owned to shoot 'fine' JPEGs without a second thought, and sometimes have been quite taken with the images thus produced. I've always assumed I needed to sit there in front of Lightroom as a kind of after shoot ritual with my DSLR work. Not always eager to give up the extra time required either. I feel a bit like an idiot for never even really trying out the JPEG capabilities of my Canon DSLRs. I think I've set them to take small JPEGs for Ebay once or twice, but that's it. HMMmmm. I think I'll try your advice and see what I see.
"Thanks for the article, it really was an intriguing read. Long have I wandered in the forest, and suddenly the trees come into focus."
Featured Comment by h.linton: "Interesting idea. I was actually thinking about this very thing this past week and after some thought realized that the only advantage (to my mind) would be the extra capacity on the CF card which is not an incentive to change. I get your logic though, but, in the digital world that I inhabit, it's the post-processing 'signature' that I create myself that I'm most interested in—not what some camera manufacturer might come up with."
Featured [partial] Comment by Zeeman: "There is another consideration though—one does not always know, at the time of image capture, how the image might eventually be used. It is no stretch to imagine that a photographer might take a photo, 'sleep on it,' and retrospectively decide that it looks better in black and white."
Featured Comment by marek: "The flip side is that a good Raw converter at home (perhaps from the very same camera company) is like having the 5-star Michelin chef living in at home listening to our every culinary desire?"
Featured Comment by John Krumm: "I shoot Raw, but when teaching middle school students (as I was this morning) we always have the DSLRs (Oly 520's) set to JPEG. The files look great in Aperture, and it's all so much easier to handle. There's an art to getting perfect jpegs, adjusting contrast as needed, watching specular highlights...it can help your Raw shooting in the end, since it forces you to think about the light more."
Featured Comment by Peter Silvia: "In keeping with this train of thought, Antonin Kratochvil is interviewed here and says that he shoots JPEG."
Featured Comment by K.H.: "Shooting JPEG is the equivalent of taking your colour film to the drug store for some body else to print it for you, shooting in Raw is like having your own darkroom, in my opinion."
Featured Comment by Murray Lord: "I liked what Gianni Galassi posted on his blog a while ago: 'I'm allergic to Raw formats and I expect a good camera to properly do its job, which is to take a photograph and properly process it into a usable file, instead of subcontracting this task to the photographer.'"
Featured [partial] Comment by Ed: "I compare .jpg to .mp3 files. They are great for listening to music in a bus, but not perfect for use on a 40,000 dollar sound system. Not perfect for editing either. But having said that, if you are happy with the end result there is no need to go elsewhere and indeed new in camera engines are improving."
Featured [partial] Comment by Roy: "Hmm. Shooting JPEG only is effectively to intentionally restrict your options. Given that shooting Raw and JPEG simultaneously is a cost free option—card space excepted—the argument is no argument at all."
Featured Comment by Nico Burns: "I still see very little disadvantage to shooting Raw+JPEG. I have a 16GB SD card, which allows me to take about [?] Raw+JPEG images before I run out of room. Hard drives are also fairly cheap. IMO having the Raw there just-in-case is definitely worth it those couple of times you need it."
Featured Comment by Jeffy: "JPEG makes me money."
Featured Comment by Jeff Johnston [no relation —MJ]: "Will anyone call me a sissy if I use in-camera JPEGs?! Yes."