Build complex toys and simple tools
by Tony Karp
Doctor: I've given you a very thorough checkup, Mr. Jones. The best thing for you would be to give up drinking, smoking, and sex. Yes, Mr. Jones, that would be the best thing.
Up until now, the Raw vs JPEG debate has been rather one-sided. In this article, I am going to attempt to level the playing field by presenting some arguments in favor of JPEGs and showing some of the problems with Raw format. You will find that JPEGs, like Rodney Dangerfield, "don't get no respect." If you mention that you prefer the convenience of shooting in JPEG format, you will probably get that sort of response.I will start with a statement that represents the central philosophy of my argument.The image quality of the JPEG files produced by the Panasonic DMC-FZ18, with a few one-time tweaks to the camera settings, is as good or better than the average person can achieve using Raw format and the subsequent processing involved.One of the factors that makes this debate interesting is that the DMC-FZ18 has internal processing that automatically fixes the camera's faults when saving its files in JPEG format. In my last two articles, I talked about how the DMC-FZ18's barrel distortion and color fringing were fixed transparently. For Raw shooters, you're going to have evaluate each and every picture to quantify the presence of these faults and then fix them on your own by tweaking your Raw development software.After these posts, I received a few comments pointing out how these faults could be easily fixed by using the manufacturer's software or another program. But why bother? Why spend this effort doing something the camera is already doing on its own? And, since the in-camera processing is finely tuned to fix these problems, there's always the chance that your finest efforts won't be as good.When automatic transmissions first became available, they were inefficient and lacked the performance of manual transmissions. But automatic transmissions got better and better and, for the average driver, are now as good as a manual transmission and far more convenient. But there are still some who insist that the manual transmissions are better and refuse to even try driving with an automatic transmission.When Raw format was first made available, it was superior to JPEG format in a number of ways. But Raw format has, by definition, stayed the same, while JPEGs have gotten better and better. The JPEGs produced by the DMC-FZ18 are very high quality, the camera settings can be tweaked to make them even better, and they automatically fix a number of faults. But there are people who will buy this fine camera and go directly to Raw processing without ever testing the JPEG format to see how good it is.So while JPEG quality has gone from good enough to very good to excellent, the Raw crowd has been too busy exchanging their favorite Raw developer settings to notice that their time has passed. In their search for the ultimate in image quality their interest has become an obsession. At some point we have to realize that pictures are more important than pixels.The dark side of the raw We've heard all of the advantages of shooting in Raw format. Here are some of the disadvantages.The first problem is that the proponents of Raw processing make it sound easy. It's not. You're going to have to fiddle and tweak every photo you take, fixing the camera's problems on your own, until you get a result that compares favorably with the JPEG. This can be a time consuming process. At, say two minutes per picture, you will spend over three hours processing just 100 pictures. Even if you do it faster, it's still going to consume time that could be better spent elsewhere.Raw files slow you down when shooting. Forget any sort of action sports, burst shooting, or even just taking pictures as fast as you want to. The FZ18's Raw storage speed is pretty fast, less than three seconds per shot, but that's pretty slow when compared to JPEG. And as for the Raw storage speed on my older digital cameras, you basically take a break after every shot.Raw files increase the complexity in file handling. I shoot JPEGs. There's just the one file, which contains the image and the technical data about the picture. I'll take one of these files and put it into one of the many photo-editing programs I use and start playing. Each time I get a new result, I save it as a TIFF. Life is simple. It's just JPEGs and TIFFs.Not so for the RAW shooter. We start with the Raw format file (different format for every camera) and put it into the Raw "development" software. You can save your developed image as a TIFF, and it will also save a separate little file with information about the picture, also in a proprietary format. Now I have three files instead of one. But what if you've used another program to correct the lens distortion? Now you have four files for your one picture. And all of this to get to the point where I started with my JPEG file.Raw files are memory hogs on both the camera and in the computer. If I pop a 4 gigabyte card into my DMC-FZ18 and set the camera For JPEG Fine, it says there's room for 1000 pictures. More than enough for a day's shooting. If I set the camera to save in Raw format, it says 229 pictures, less than 25% of the number for JPEGs, and certainly not enough for a day's shooting. Yes, you can carry another card, but that's an awful lot of space for these few images.Now say that you put your 229 Raw files on the computer, develop them, and save them as compressed TIFFs. We're now talking about roughly 28 megabytes per picture, even before we've begun to explore post processing. Your 229 "developed" files, along with the Raw originals will take up about 6.5 gigabytes, compared with the approximately 850 megabytes required for the equivalent number of JPEG files.Between the time lost in the shooting, the larger memory and disk space requirements, and the extra processing required the folks who shoot Raw format tend to take fewer pictures in a given situation. This may, in fact, be a good thing. But with Raw format you won't have the freedom of choice that the person who shoots JPEGs has.But there's yet another factor. If I use three different digital cameras and save my files as JPEGs, I can treat them all the same, putting them together in the same album program and using the same software to post process them.But if I have three digital cameras and decide to use Raw format, the situation changes dramatically. Each camera will have a different Raw format. Each camera will require different software and different processing. Each camera will have faults such as lens aberrations and color fringing that will have to be treated specially for that camera. And the Raw-processing software that comes with the camera may have its own album program, so it will be a real problem if I want to store these files together with the pictures from my other cameras.And what sort of Raw processing, and what special Raw-handling software will your next digital camera require?Now, if you decide to shoot JPEGs, what are you going to do with all of the time saved by not fiddling with Raw processing? Well, you could be out taking pictures. Or, you could be working on your JPEG files in a photo editing program, polishing them to their final glory. The Raw shooter has to jump a number of hurdles before even getting to the point where the JPEG user begins their work.If you've been searching this page for extreme blow-ups or some other photos that prove my point, don't bother. There have been numerous examples of the superiority of Raw format posted in the online forums. Most of them are enlargements showing how, with Raw processing, you might get a one percent improvement in overall quality.But none of this matters. What matters is that you, as a photographer, are more than capable of making this judgment on your own by examining your own photographs.Here's what to do. Go to a place that you are familiar with, one that you have photographed before. Go out one day and just shoot in Raw format. Go out on another day and just shoot JPEGs.Now work with these files and compare the results on your own. Most examples demonstrating the superiority of Raw format are done by experienced photographers who have put a lot of time and effort into this, so don't be surprised if you can't match their results. What you should also evaluate besides the technical quality of the results is whether Raw processing suits you personally and how it suits your own requirements. Did you find any benefit that was worth the effort involved? Will you see a real difference given the size of the prints you usually make? Is it worth the added complexity? Is it worth the extra memory and disk space requirements?You may find, like me, that the DMC-FZ18's JPEGs are all you need.
Addendum: If you've read this far, thanks for your patience. I just wanted to review the main points.1. This article is not about the superiority of the Raw or JPEG format. It is about having a balanced discussion. 2. Raw shooting is being sold by some as a miracle cure for whatever ails your pictures. Shooting Raw is not as easy as it sounds. I have attempted to point out some disadvantages that aren't normally discussed.3. The Panasonic DMC-FZ18 produces very good JPEGs and you really ought to try them before going directly to Raw. As a bonus, the DMC-FZ18's JPEG processing automatically fixes things like barrel distortion and color fringing that the Raw folks will have to fix on their own.4.JPEGs are not written in stone. You can apply the same sort of corrections to them that are used to justify Raw.5. Rather than relying on tests or demonstrations by others, you should try this comparison of methods for yourself and then make your own decision. You should evaluate not just the results, but the complexity and effort you took to achieve them.6. There are only so many hours in a day. You can spend them learning the various settings in your Raw software or you can spend them learning to use the various settings on your camera. Which will yield the biggest dividend?
And finally, something to meditate on.If the Raw format is so good and so important to quality, how come there is no industry standard for Raw files, as there is for JPEG and TIFF files? How come every manufacturer has their own format for Raw? And given this, how come there's a different format for individual camera models from the same manufacturer? It's like the early days of computers, before there were standards for things like fonts and printers.
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