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The Great RAW vs JPEG Debate

I actually think this whole issue, and this page, should not exist. The debate about shooting RAW or JPEG is such a contentious one, far more than it has to. There are strong opposing views, and when debating them, most people online seem to turn into angry 15 year old boys.

When it comes to photography, particularly commercial photography, it is the final image that counts. How that image came about, whether it was shot on 35mm film, instant film, a phone, a full frame DSLR or started life as a RAW or a JPEG is 100% irrelevant. How ludicrous is this debate is illustrated by how ludicrous the idea that an amazing photo by a highly skilled photographer couldn’t win a major competition just because they didn’t shoot RAW or whatever. Jared Polin tends to get pretty passionate about shooting RAW (check out this video), but if he was a judge of a completion and saw an amazing image, would he disqualify it against a lesser image just because it was shot on JPEG and not RAW? I’d like to think not.

My Video Rant on the Matter

It is always the emotional impact of the image that counts. Full stop. Look at Napalm Girl taken in 1972 was a Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Trang Bang, and arguably turned the US public sentiment against the Vietnam war. Guess what? It was shot on high ISO grainy Kodak film, and albeit with a Leica Rangefinder, look at the image: it is shaky, arguably the focus is off, and if it could have been a digital photo probably would have been processed in Adobe Lightroom to boost contrast and enhance details.

Napal Girl

That said, it is also about the enjoyment of the photography process. This is where I will own up. I shoot RAW most of the time. I like the flexibility of being able to introduce different colour tones, convert to black and white, change my contrast etc. In short, I love the editing process. It is fun. And, most of my images on this site started as a RAW. I’d like to think I am a good editor and can push the RAW files to their limits.

But then, a great point that Eric Kim makes, is that shooting JPEG is like shooting film. Now, film was very editable, and is. You can scan your negatives to a lossless format and edit almost like the image is a RAW. But, film can also give you a final image, that you can take, and have a print in your hands pretty quickly. Much like the way you can take a JPEG image and print quickly. This was illustrated to me recently when I took a photo of a group of friends when on a holiday. We all loved looking at it on the screen on the back of the camera. ‘Can we print a few copies?’ Someone asked pointing at the local chemist. Ah. Problem. I couldn’t do that cos I’d only shot RAW. That’s why I fully agree with Eric, shooting JPEG gives you a final image, that might not be exactly as you would edit, but is great in its own way and can, almost magically, evoke that feeling of wonder and enjoyment in people looking at your images.

Sometimes, the cameras processing settings that send out JPEGs to your card are just right, better than I could imagine.

Post Processing a RAW to a JPG

Often when I am editing, I am always making similar initial fix ups to shadows or highlights. If I shot more JPEG maybe I’d think more when setting my exposure like I would have when shooting film. Shooting RAW has made me think less when taking photos. Funny really, and it is why I agree with Eric so much: watch his videos or read his blogs and you’ll see he takes his time with his images, he only tends to take 1 shot of something and quite often gets it right first time. Jared on the other hand tends to take number outs photos of the same thing maybe using the rapid fire unnecessarily. Eric’s images to me, evoke emotion.

So, forget about shooting RAW or shooting JPEG, worry about getting it right in camera. Get your framing right, practise getting the moment right, but ultimately, just enjoy producing an image, and enjoy the result, no matter what your process. Don’t let this silly debate have any bearing on your photography.

One Response

  1. I guess you are familiar with the thoughts of Ken Rockwell about this matter. Ken keeps on being harassed by RAW priests who do not tolerate JPEG shooters for ‘serious business’. It is good fun to read. Nowadays I steer clear of the RAW vs JPEG fights, it’s not worth the anger.
    I put my D7100 in 13 MP mode and always make it produce ‘Normal’ Jpegs. I sometimes make 16×24 inch prints on my A4 printer and they look great. Just like Ken says: you virtually never need more than 12 MP.

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