Q&A: Why should I shoot in RAW + JPEG

Why should I consider shooting RAW + JPEG even if I’m a beginner?  Well that depends on you?  Do you plan to print and sell your work?  Are you delivering images to someone that hired you?  Do you plan on getting serious about photography in the future?  Are you starting to use Photoshop along with Lightroom and getting into actions, advanced selections, or luminosity masks?

If I knew when I started that I was going to eventually really get into learning the “digital darkroom” the way I was into my B&W enlarger and attempting to expose paper creatively, I would have shot RAW + JPEG on many occasions that I just shot JPEG.  I would have archived the RAW photos of what I considered the best photos to CD or DVD and saved them forever, going back with the different versions of digital software as it improves and seeing what kind of detail or drama that could be enhanced.

Why, let’s face it, some of what you and your friends consider your very best photographs are some of the easiest you were ever able to take.  What I would call a snapshot in many cases, but a perfect snapshot image just happens sometimes.   You jumped out of your car or happened to be standing in just the right spot, and grabbed a moment.  You lifted your lens or looked through your camera at just the right time and captured that perfect sunrise, sunset, bird or action shot as a quickie pic as you were just passing by.  Maybe it was just your father’s or mother’s photo at a sporting event, or your kids in just the right light with a perfect smile or funny face. But it was a shot of something you love, because that is why you took it.

JPEG files use lossy compression or irreversible compression and that means once the camera takes the initial image and decides what it wants to keep and what it wants to throw away, the data is gone…  You may have lost all your highlights,  all the detail in your shadows or some of the dynamic range that the JPEG creation code, thought was insignificant to the image.   Your 12-50 MB RAW image just became a 3 MB image of a white bird on display taken with the intention of being a high key exposure and the JPEG made a bird ghost image.  JPEG files can be adjusted, but to make a really professional printable image that pops, some minor or major editing may be needed.

I fully believe that getting the exposure correct or even creatively correct in camera is or should be the goal and/or aspiration of every serious photographer.  Don’t get me wrong, I shoot 99% manual out of preference, and I have learned to drive by or walk upon a scenic, low light situation, night time action shot, long exposure situation, or any outdoor available light subject and in 90% of the cases or more, I can set my camera to capture the exposure, and can “see” where I “need” to stand to make the most of the existing light and compose the shot I like I see it captured before snapping a shot, and then take a shot and be confident, I’m within and F stop or two of what I want to capture, before I lift the camera.  If possible, I also try to take a few followup shots from other angles just in case… but after lots of practice, many times that first shot is the one I like the most.  But if you don’t see the subject from the “other side” you may miss some incredible light to capture something unique.

I was not always adept at reading the light and getting the shot I wanted the way I wanted.  Every now and then, I come across a shot from years ago that was shot as a JPEG with auto white balance,  that I really liked that I could have cleaned up to make a fine print in Photoshop with a minor tweak and the more I learn about Photoshop, the more I could fine tune.  But I’m finding that JPEGs having already disposed of the extra information stored in the RAW file not used in the rendering of the file, can make that small tweak a major job or impossible when editing a JPEG.

That being said, I also am working on learning the ever increasing capability of the digital darkroom or Photoshop.  Photoshop is my number one goal this year for improving my photography skills, and the second is portraits which ties into my deep exploration of Photoshop.    Even the great photographers darkened the corners and the skies to bring out more contrast in images on the enlarger before developing the image on a specific paper to get the look they were looking to produce.

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