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Monday, March 31, 2014

What You Can Learn From Shooting JPEGs

RAW files need more processing than you might be providing

This Article Features Photo Zoom


Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
I've been a RAW shooter for several years now, but that doesn't mean I've mastered every aspect of the format. I try to learn new things about my tools and techniques every day. I already knew that when working with RAW files you have to do some things manually that happen automatically with JPEGs. Most notably, you have to make manual adjustments to color, contrast and sharpness during the conversion from a RAW file to a shareable JPEG or TIFF.

These manual edits are generally no problem for me, as I've incorporated them fairly seamlessly into my workflow—just as countless other RAW shooters have. But the other day when I accidentally shot a whole assignment with my camera set to capture JPEGs, I learned something in the processing of those images about what I'm doing—or more specifically, not doing—when it comes to processing my RAW image files.

The first thing I noticed was contrast. The straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs had a much nicer overall contrast than what I had been doing to my RAW files. I attribute it to a subtle loss of some details at the shadow and highlight ends of the contrast curve, but the bottom line is, the contrast looked nicer than what I was used to. The JPEG's blacks were "crushed," and the highlights really popped. Apparently, I don't add enough contrast in my RAW processing, and specifically, not enough crushed blacks on the shadow side of the histogram.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
The next thing I noticed was sharpness. "Man, these pictures are sharp!" was the exact phrase that came out of my mouth. One might even say too sharp, in fact, once I added my mild RAW sharpening on top of the already sharpened JPEGs. Straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs by default have sharpening done to them, and it's clearly much stronger than the sharpening I typically apply to my RAW images. Now when I lament that another photographer's photos may look sharper than mine, I know why: I don't sharpen enough when I process my RAW files.

The color in my JPEGs was particularly nice, too. The scene was fairly muted, but it sure seemed like it was more vibrant and saturated than I was used to. This is probably because JPEGs have picture styles applied in camera that RAW files don't, and those picture styles have a huge impact on color. Picture Styles, also called Picture Controls, have names like Portrait, Landscape, Faithful, Neutral, Monochrome and so on. The camera is smart enough to know that color shouldn't be treated the same way for every subject, so how come I'm not that smart? I need to remember that some subjects look better with more saturation, while others require just the opposite. Those JPEG picture styles are the perfect reminder that appealing colors come in all shapes and sizes, and what my RAW files provide is probably a bit too plain.

So what's the takeaway from my accidental JPEG experience? Maybe I'll start shooting JPEGs along with RAW files so that I have a reference for processing my RAW files. You know, to start with an idea of what my camera thinks my images should look like. Or maybe I'll just shoot JPEGs on occasion to remind myself about how they look. The real takeaway is the reminder that RAW files really are just "half baked" when they come out of the camera. They require additional processing to be ready for print. And if you go long enough without seeing what your camera does to a JPEG, you might forget (as I did) just how powerful that JPEG processing can be.

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