The Craft of RAW and JPEG in Photography

RAW group 3X 700wI got an email from fellow photographer Hugh Nourse asking for some clarity on shooting JPEG, especially when a lot of photographers tell you that you "have to" shoot RAW.

Okay, first off, I shoot RAW ... and JPEG! Given the size and low cost of high capacity memory cards today, that is not a problem for me. I want the RAW for the processing power I get with it. I want the JPEG for the instant access to quality images. I can always access JPEG files, even on a computer that does not have the ability to open RAW files, plus I can quickly get a print from a JPEG file from any place that does printing. JPEG files are "finished" files (that does not mean you can't adjust them, though), RAW files are "unfinished."

One of the prevalent myths, and a sad part of how some digital photographers treat other photographers, is that one is not a “real photographer” unless he or she shoot RAW. That is just a sad, mean-spirited thing to say or even imply. This would be like telling the classic nature photographers, Eliot Porter or Galen Rowell, that they were not "real" photographers because they shot transparencies (which are processed in an automated fashion) and had darkroom masters do their printing. JPEG is a bit like transparency film and RAW like negative film.

A high quality JPEG is every bit the equal to a processed and exported RAW file in terms of final tonality, color and sharpness (I am not referring to how much processing is, was or could be done, only to what you actually see in the final image). The difference is simply that the camera processes the JPEG file, whereas the photographer processes the RAW file. Since the JPEG file is already processed and then saved to a format that is less pliable in processing, you are limited in how much processing you can do to a JPEG file before you start having problems. That said, camera manufacturers have put a lot of research and effort into developing the best possible automated processing of the digital image to create the JPEG file.

RAW has a huge range of processing available, especially in the bright and dark areas that is unavailable for JPEG processing (it is available to the camera when it does the processing, though). That offers so many more possibilities for good processing, but that hardly means shooting JPEG is bad or makes you less of a photographer. There are quite a few top pros who shoot JPEG simply for the speed and convenience of a "finished" file. 

RAW files are designed to be processed. They typically have the “wrong” values for dark and light areas, not because you did anything wrong, but because these “wrong” values are "right" for processing. In addition, you will never get optimum sharpness from your camera and lens unless you sharpen your RAW files appropriately. (This is not about the quality of your lens or camera, but about how sensors deal with light.) JPEG files are usually sharpened by the camera. 

The three photos of a Kentucky spring woods at top and below show a JPEG straight from the camera plus unprocessed and processed RAW images. The JPEG image (left at top and first below) is a fine image by itself. The middle, unprocessed RAW is a bit dull (totally normal – manufacturers build in that "dullness" to make the file more "processable." And the last photo is a processed RAW file.

RAW JPEG 1RAW Unproc 1RAW Proc 1You can set up your camera to have it create JPEGs processed to your liking. Most cameras allow you to choose and/or adjust the picture “modes” or “styles”. You can usually choose things such as neutral, landscape, portrait, etc., plus you can tweak them to a custom setting by adjusting things like contrast, saturation and sharpness. None of this applies to RAW. In the early days of digital when RAW was a pain to use and Photoshop seemed impenetrable for most photographers, I often taught this so that photographers could create different settings for different conditions, such as one for sunny days and one for cloudy days.

So, if you do none or minimal processing to images, especially if you prefer to take them straight from the camera, then JPEG is going to be best for you, regardless of what others say (most of whom have never made a test to compare a high-quality JPEG with a RAW file). If processing is important to you (and it is to me because I know that cameras often see the world differently than we do), then RAW is the way to go. But whatever way you choose, just do it and enjoy it, then forget what others say you "have to" do!

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The Craft of Exposure in Photography IV

Exposure Part IV - 3The craft of exposure is also related to how the image is processed and what you want from the photo. One thing that is really important to keep in mind is that image processing should not be regularly used to "fix" bad exposures. While we all make mistakes in exposure at times and need to correct such shots, using Photoshop or Lightroom as a crutch for bad exposure is a poor use of craft that will degrade the quality of an image. It also means that anyone doing that is essentially throwing money away because they are not using the camera's sensor at its best (and sensors are one of the most expensive parts of any digital camera, especially with larger formats such as 35mm-full-frame).

Some photographers don't like to spend any time working on images in the computer. They should never be shooting RAW and only JPEG files. RAW files are meant to be processed and one will get a worse image from an unprocessed RAW file compared to a JPEG file. A well-exposed JPEG file can give a photo with superb image quality. Camera manufacturers have put a great deal of effort into how a camera processes a RAW file to create the JPEG file. It is an automated processing, but it is very good.

Because a JPEG file is processed and it then loses processing range (compared to RAW), exposure is critical, especially for the bright areas. Everything I have said in this series on Craft of Exposure applies to JPEG, but it can be even more critical because there is little "wiggle room" if you do need to do added processing. If you aren't sure, then do some bracketing of exposure.

With RAW files, you will be processing them in the computer because a RAW file typically has elevated blacks (the darkest areas are deliberately recorded as not pure black) and low contrast so as to make processing work better. This does not mean, again, that you can be sloppy in exposure. I once read some photographer saying that RAW was the silver bullet of photography, that with it, you could be way off on exposure and still get great shots. That is bad advice. Exposure is limited by the capabilities of the sensor, not by the use of a RAW file.

Bad exposure of dark areas, of bright areas, is still bad based on how the sensor handles it, not whether RAW is used or not. A good example of this is an underexposed image with many important dark tones that are underexposed because the photographer was overly worried about detail in the bright areas and exposed them darker. When the image is processed to proper brightness, there is not enough tonal range and chroma (the color of a digital image file) to give proper color and tonality to those dark areas, plus they will pick up unnecessary noise (no matter what camera is used).

We need to expose for what is important in the scene, then process the photo to bring out other detail that the sensor has trouble handling. In this photo of the stream in Malibu Creek State Park near Malibu, California, I had to expose to be sure the brightest highlights on the stream still held detail. Processing that only to optimize overall detail neglects the very real challenge that the sensor often does not see the world the way we do. The photo (left) looks underexposed and the light on the stream is unbalanced.

Exposure Part IV - 1+2 700In the image on the right, I did some selective processing in Lightroom to control the brightness of the highlights throughout the stream (plus I did some adjustment to the greens) while keeping dark areas dark. Now the pattern of the stream, which is what I saw, is revealed compared to the more limited version as first captured by the camera, plus it now looks properly exposed (though you will notice that the highlights at the bottom are the same in both versions which comes from proper exposure).

That said, we do have some creative choices available for exposure. For example, say you have a bright subject that you want to dramatically show off against a very dark, even black, background. Underexposing the image so that the bright subject is middle toned (rather than bright) will throw the dark areas into very dark exposures that will not render well for detail or color. But that is exactly what is needed. So when you process the image, the bright areas can be brightened properly AND the dark areas can be kept dark without color.

That's what is going on in the landscape at the top of this post, also in Malibu Creek State Park. The bright sky and dark leaves made this tricky. I exposed so I would have good detail in the bright sky and the low mountains in the sun here. Then I processed the image to make sure those areas were properly bright, then darkened the leaves to ensure they stayed black.

A different example: You are photographing a subject in the shade with a background in the sun. You don't need to expose to keep the background properly exposed. You expose to make the subject look good. Then what happens is that you have proper color and tonality to the subject with a very bright, overexposed background, which sets off the subject nicely (this does not always work if that background causes problems for the composition). You can even process the image to get a great looking subject against a background processed to be even brighter for a dramatic and unexpected image.

That's exactly what I did for the shot of the ancient bristlecone pine below. The bright, overexposed areas of the background are unimportant in terms of detail, plus they offer a nice bright tonality to outline the tree trunk.

Exposure Part IV - 4Exposure does need to serve you and your subject. The combination of the right exposure for the conditions and your needs with the right processing will result in high image quality and a great looking composition.

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The Craft of Exposure in Photography III

Exposure Part III - 1There are many ways of exposing for a scene, from autoexposure modes to manual exposure, multi-point metering to spot metering and so forth. All work, and all have advantages and disadvantages. I am going to discuss how I expose, especially related to the past two posts on the Craft of Exposure I and II.

Many photographers of my generation use manual exposure, and that can work well. Where this gets to be problematic is when they insist that the only way to get good exposure is manual exposure and that everyone has to learn and use it. That is simply neither true nor productive. (Now understand, I am not in any way saying that manual exposure is bad, wrong, etc. In fact, it can be the best way of exposing in certain situations. I am simply saying that it is not a necessity and that other ways of exposing can be faster and better for most photographers today.)

I use aperture priority autoexposure, and I have used this for many years now. I am also discovering that a lot of pros use it as well because it works very well as long as you understand how exposure works and how to control it. Simply using any autoexposure mode without adjustment is not going to consistently give you optimum exposures.

I use aperture priority for two reasons: depth of field and shutter speed. You might wonder why I don't use shutter-speed priority autoexposure for shutter speed control.  The reason is simple. I always gain the fastest shutter speed possible for the conditions if I shoot at the maximum aperture (or close to it) for my lens. This is what many sports photographers do. If you use shutter-speed priority, you can run into the problems of having a slower shutter speed than necessary (because it is locked) and changing depth of field (even one f-stop change can change the look of a background). I can also quickly get the slowest shutter speed possible (for water blurs, for example) by using the smallest f-stop on my lens.

I will choose an f-stop based on if I need more depth of field (narrow f-stop/large number, such as f/16), less depth of field (wide f-stop/small number, such as f/4), middle f-stop when depth of field has little effect (including shooting at infinity focus or a wide-angle lens for anything beyond 10 feet or so, such as f/8, which gives optimum sharpness for lens and faster shutter speeds to minimize camera movement), narrow f-stop when I need a slow shutter speed, or wide f-stop when I need a fast shutter speed.

Because I have paid attention to exposure for many years, I then adjust the exposure compensation to deal with specific conditions (I "guesstimate" to start): less or minus exposure for dark scenes (the meter wants to give them too much), more or plus exposure for light scenes (the meter wants to give them too little), less exposure for scenes that have small areas of important bright tones, more exposure for scenes that have small areas of important dark tones.

Exposure Part III - 2I take a picture and check to see the results. With experience in interpreting your camera's LCD, it is possible to see if your exposure is right, but understand that many cameras will make the LCD playback brighter if the image is dark and darker if the image is bright. The key is to look at bright areas – are they bright and do they have detail? That does take some practice.

Often, I will look to see that very bright areas are starting to "clip" and show the blinking highlight warnings. I want bright areas to either blink or just stop blinking. I will typically increase exposure until something bright starts to blink and then just decrease exposure a slight amount with exposure compensation until the bright areas stop blinking. (This does not include areas that should be blinking, such as bright sun highlights, either from the sun or reflections of the sun, or other bright areas that should not be controlled.)

This is faster and more accurate than manual metering (unless you spend a lot of time metering separate points in a scene). This actually matches Ansel Adams Zone System of exposure because it is essentially exposing the bright areas to be as bright as possible and still hold detail (placing in a high zone), which then means dark areas will gain as much exposure as is possible for the conditions. However, just because no bright areas blink does not mean you have correct exposure. That can happen with all underexposed scenes and can cause severe problems in the dark areas.

For the photo of spring woods in Kentucky's Audubon State Park at the top, I exposed so that the bright sky just started to blink, then backed off that exposure until it just stopped blinking. The sun still blinked (and should have). This meant that the sky was as bright as possible to still hold good detail and that the leaves of the trees got enough exposure to have good color and tonality.

The image of the white flower (rue anemone) from the same location is tricky. The soft light can fool you into thinking that exposure is not critical. But the very white flower and the darker greens cause the exposure challenge. It is very easy to expose this so that the white flower is overexposed and loses detail and subtle color. The detail in that flower is critical. But if the image is underexposed, then the greens will start to lose some of their chroma (the color component of the digital image) and pick up noise if the image is adjusted to correct for the underexposure. So here, I exposed so that the white flower was on the edge of overexposure (blinking highlights), but the exposure compensation turned until there were none on the flower.

You can also use the histogram, and you don't need to know a lot about the histogram other than being able to see the right side. The right side (the bright side) should have no gap or a minimal gap between the end of the histogram and the right edge. A large gap is serious underexposure and can cause the problems discussed in I and II of this series. (Don't worry if the right side has a spike for bright sun highlights like in the first photo of this post.)

(Side note: I know there are purists who will say that both the blinking highlights and histogram only refer to a JPEG image, which is true, because the camera has to convert the RAW image in order to display it. However, this use of these aids does work and does allow you to keep bright areas bright with detail and color. I do not believe in strong "exposing to the right" to slightly overexpose highlights. While you can recover detail in such areas in Lightroom and Camera Raw, you are retaining brightness detail but you will lose subtle colors that cannot be recovered. The technique I describe means you always retain those colors.)

When do I use manual exposure? When I have to follow a subject that is moving across a background that changes, but mostly it does not. A good example of this is shooting native bees coming to small flowers. They will stay in the sun, but as you follow them from flower to flower, the background can change from bright flowers in the sun to dark shade deep in the interior of the plant, and that will make any autoexposure change exposure when it should be keeping the same exposure on the bee that is the same and in the same light.

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The Craft of Exposure in Photography II

Exposure Part 2 - 1The craft of exposure means understanding how to control exposure so that important bright areas are bright and have detail and color, dark areas have the best detail possible and the overall image is exposed to render the most important parts of the scene appropriately. We need to break down that sentence because there are key craft elements in it.

Important bright areas are bright and have detail and color. That qualifier, important, is significant. When digital first came out, there was a lot of bad advice going around that with RAW, you should hold detail in bright areas by underexposing them because you "could always recover dark detail in the computer." A distinctly bad idea because it ignores how exposure affects the sensor as I discussed in the last post. While such an exposure can be brightened, the dark areas never have proper exposure and will have all of the problems described last post for underexposure.

So you need to decide if bright areas are important for detail or not. For example, bright clouds in a landscape are important, but bright highlights from a sun's reflection are not. Then you need to expose bright areas to be bright because that's what they are and because that will ensure you are using your sensor optimally to deal with dark areas. So the leaves in the spring scene above are exposed to be bright, and there are some leaves in the background near the sun (top right) that are overexposed. But those back leaves are not important for detail and should not be exposed for that.

That's where the dark areas have the best detail possible comes in. Since sensors have limitations in the range they can handle from black to white, and we can't overexpose important bright areas, that limits what we can do with dark exposure. We can't simply give more exposure to the dark areas if that pushes the important bright areas out of the range of the sensor.

We deal with that by keeping bright areas exposed to be bright, which then leaves room for the dark areas to get the best exposure possible for the composition. In a sense, that means that we cannot compromise on bright areas, but we can keep them bright so that dark areas are not too dark (within the limits of the scene brightness and the sensor). This is exactly the case with the lichen and moss seen below. The lichen has to be exposed to be bright, but not overexposed, in order for the darker moss to get enough exposure.

Exposure Part 2 - 3The overall image is exposed to render the most important parts of the scene appropriately. This is also an important part of the craft of exposure. We always need to look at what is most important to a scene and then be sure that it is exposed appropriately. That means that dark parts of a scene are exposed to be dark, bright parts exposed to be bright, and middle-brightness parts of a scene are exposed to be middle-toned.

That does not mean, however, that you meter a dark part of the scene, then a bright part, then take an exposure in the middle. That is not what middle-tones or middle brightness mean. A traditional term for this brightness is middle gray, the tonality that exposure meters actually strive for. It is not an average of the bright and dark areas, but a distinct tonality of its own that fits in the middle range of brightness to the sensor and our eyes.

If you were to average the brightest and darkest parts of the next photo, you would have a terrible exposure. The important part of the scene is the bottom where the wild ginger has its flower. That has some dark areas around the flower itself, but the image is exposed to ensure the flower is exposed properly for good detail and color. That means the bright areas at the top of the frame are going to be bright.

Exposure Part 2 - 2In the next post, we'll look at some specific techniques to help you craft a good exposure quickly and easily.

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The Craft of Exposure in Photography I

Exposure Part I - 1We are going to look at exposure in terms of craft in several blog posts and how that affects your ability to get the optimum photo that you need. Exposure is often simply talked about in terms of whether you use auto or manual exposure, whether you overexpose or underexpose, or some other arbitrary technological aspect of this important part of photography.

Now I believe that technology should serve the photographer and not the other way around. The key to craft in exposure is choosing an exposure based on what you need from an image, not on the technology available to you or how someone else says you "must" photograph (which I have heard and I suspect you have, too).

In order to make technology perform for you in the service of craft, there are some things to know about exposure that will influence your choices. A common discussion about exposure (and I have done this, too) references the fact that exposure meters are designed to render whatever they meter a middle gray. That isn't bad information, but if we stop there, we have frozen ourselves in the past, in film. We need to know more.

We'll start looking at RAW and JPEG files. Exposure affects them differently. A JPEG file has less of a range of tonality in the dark and light areas of a photo compared to RAW. That means that JPEG tends to be more sensitive to over or underexposure. That said, that does not mean you can be sloppy in your craft if you are working with RAW. RAW is still based on what the sensor can or cannot do, on its capabilities, so how a sensor responds to the world is very important, regardless if you shoot RAW or JPEG.

Overexposure for a sensor means that bright areas are beyond its capabilities.

Exposure Part I - 2Exposure Part I - 1Bright areas then lose:

  • Detail
  • Color (while the above photo might look "okay", it isn't – notice how the rocks in this overexposed photo are losing color)
  • And become white blobs (while the above photo might look "okay", it isn't – notice how the clouds in this overexposed photo have lost important detail and are blobs of white)

Underexposure for a sensor means that dark areas are beyond its optimum capabilities.

Exposure Part I - 3Exposure Part I - 1Dark areas then lose:

  • Detail
  • Tonalities become less well separated
  • Color suffers
  • Noise increases
  • The image looks dingy, murky and muddy (which is definitely seen in the underexposed version of this scene).

Good exposure for a sensor means that key, important detail for your subject is rendered bright enough to allow the scene to be clearly discerned and understood by a viewer.

Two important things to note regarding craft from that last paragraph: exposure is related to what a sensor can and cannot capture, and it is about creating an image that affects a viewer the way you want it to. Understanding and controlling those two things appropriate to your scene and your needs are what craft and exposure are all about. We'll look at that control in the next posts.

The scene shown here is from the Santa Monica Mountains west of Los Angeles.

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Photographic Craft as Communication

Craft in photography, for me, ultimately comes down to communication. It is not simply how well you use the tools of the medium, but how well you use them to connect with others, to communicate something important to you to someone else. George Bernard Shaw has a great quote that is definitely related: "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."

It is really easy to be seduced by cool techniques, great new gear, and other shiny objects of photography, so that we lose sight of this important part of photography. Ultimately, unless you are the only one looking at your pictures, how your image is crafted to communicate to a viewer is important.

To illustrate this, I want to share an ad I saw in a magazine recently. Even though it is well designed and crafted to fit some arbitrary design standard, it is not crafted well for communication, even though that is truly its goal. I really like Olympus gear, I think they have some of the best lenses in the industry, and so it is sad to see an ad like this miss so badly. But let's look at the ad and then see how we can learn as photographers from it.

Oly ad

First, lets 's look at it strictly as communication. What does it say? "You can't get shallow depth of field with mirrorless cameras." Yes, there is a "Myth:" there, but this is really what someone will read.(A note: When seen full size, this ad shows even stronger what I am saying here.) If someone believes this, then the words reinforce the idea. If someone does not know this, then suddenly, they are thinking that mirrorless cameras can't give shallow depth of field.

This so fits Shaw's quote from above. I have spent my entire career working on communicating effectively through photography and words – one of the cardinal rules is that people respond to positive statements better than negative ones, i.e., telling someone what something is, is more powerful than telling someone what it is about. In addition, you communicate by what the audience hears/sees, not what you say/show.

Okay, suppose you get someone to really put the "Myth:" together with the statement and then go to the "Fact: See photo above." Well, the photo does have a sharp subject and an out-of-focus background. But any one aspect of craft, such as shallow depth of field, rarely works alone in a photograph. The background has a very strong pattern of light and dark. One thing I always like to say is that just because something is out-of-focus does not mean it is out of the viewer's mind. Bright areas and contrasty areas will always, always, always attract the viewer's attention.

So regardless if the background is out of focus or not, this strongly patterned background will compete with the subject and give the photo the impression that it is not really shallow depth of field at all. Shallow depth of field is not communicated at all, but in fact, the opposite is because of the way the image was crafted. In fact, the background pattern even competes strongly with the light and dark pattern of the pileated woodpecker's head.

As a long-time user of Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds (MFT) gear, I find this ad's message a bit troubling on another level that also relates to the craft of photography. Because of the focal lengths used for this format (the sensor size is the same for both, though the mounts change), it is indeed more difficult to get shallow depth of field. Depth of field is affected by f-stop, distance to the subject and focal length. Shorter focal lengths, which are needed for this format, do have inherently more depth of field. The longer focal lengths used for 35mm-full-frame have inherently less depth of field. It is easier, on the other hand, to get more depth of field with MFT gear like this Olympus system.

Deep or shallow depth of field is controlled by how a photographer chooses those elements of depth of field to craft his or her image. You don't simply get shallow depth of field by using a wide aperture. I can easily get shallow depth of field with MFT by using a wide aperture (f-stop), more of a telephoto focal length (focal length) and finding an angle that puts the background farther away from the subject (distance). I can then easily get deep depth of field by using a small aperture, more of a wide-angle focal length and finding an angle that keeps the background closer to the subject. Those are decisions that are all about craft.

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