JPEG Revisited

JPEG Revisit 1JPEG Revisit 2Quick, which one of these two butterfly photos is JPEG and which is RAW?

Like most of you, I have been working with RAW files for quite a while. I really started using them all the time when Lightroom came out, because with Lightroom, working with RAW files is so easy to do.

Recently though I found I have a reason to check out JPEG files again. I was working on my course, The Art of Choice, and I was getting frustrated. I was using so many photos that they were taking me a long time to work on. RAW Files have to be processed because that's what they are designed for. They are not designed to be used straight from the camera. In fact, you will not be getting your optimum image if you do use them straight from the camera.

Now I have been shooting RAW plus JPEG for quite a while. There are advantages to doing this; for me, it was mainly that you could always access the JPEG files, anywhere, with any device that recognizes photos, even if you were making some quick prints at Target. Okay, I had drunk the Kool-Aid, too, that you always had to use raw files.

JPEG files are processed in the camera. I decided to find out how good that processing was. If the JPEG files looked good, they might save me some time.

And in fact they did! I was actually very surprised, pleasantly surprised at how good the JPEG files looked. (Okay, I should not have been surprised. Camera manufacturers put a lot of effort into the processing of the JPEG files so that they do look good. That helps them sell more cameras!)

JPEG Revisit 3 JPEG Revisit 4Not much difference! And this is a very small part of the image. If you look really, really closely, you will see a slight difference, but it is too small to be really seen by a viewer of the whole image. The top image was recorded as JPEG, the bottom, RAW.

Needing to only do minimal processing on them, I sped up my workflow by quite a lot in Lightroom. Lightroom works the same on JPEG files as on RAW files, i.e., no actual processing is done to the images until they are exported from the program. That means you can make adjustments and readjust as much as you want without any image quality loss due to your changes.

(There is a thing you have to know about using JPEG files with Lightroom. You have to tell Lightroom to recognize JPEG files along with the RAW files when you import your files, otherwise it will only import the RAW files. You do this in the General tab of Preferences.)

JPEG as RAW LightroomDoes this mean that I am giving up on RAW files? Of course not. But knowing that I can count on JPEG files for certain things, means that I have an additional tool that is very valuable to my workflow. JPEG files are great when the image is very close to what you want it to be. In other words, you're not doing a lot of processing on it. RAW files, on the other hand, are important when you have to do a lot of processing, especially bringing out detail in the dark or bright areas.

That said, I am really quite impressed with how my cameras process JPEG files. In many cases, I like the color better than what I could get if I processed the image in RAW. And in spite of what you might hear, there is no arbitrary quality difference between a good JPEG file and a RAW file. The difference between the two is a difference in capability, not quality. JPEG files simply have limitations on how much you can do to them once they're in the computer. RAW files, on the other hand, offer much more capability in this area.

JPEG Revisit 5 JPEG Revisit 6JPEG Revisit 7 JPEG Revisit 8Top is JPEG, bottom is RAW.

One place that you will see this RAW capability quickly is if you do a lot of processing of skies. Digital files often have trouble with sky because of the infinite variation of tonalities. JPEG skies can quickly come apart when you are doing any amount of processing on them. Raw files will take quite a bit more processing without showing those problems.

JPEG Revisit 9 JPEG Revisit 10

It is a little hard to see, but the sky in the lower image, the RAW file, is smoother and the brightest clouds look better. Look at the right half of the upper JPEG image, and you will start to see some streaking in the sky due to the limitations of the JPEG file.

So for me, I intend to now always import both my RAW and JPEG files. Yes, this makes more of an effort for sorting through the images in Lightroom, but it offers me a tool that is so beneficial in speeding up my work and sometimes in getting better looking images. I can use the JPEG files when they don't need much processing and when I like the colors better there. Plus I have the raw files available whenever I need them for stronger needed processing. (A quick tip for dealing with this double amount of files – tell Lightroom in the Library module to sort the images by file type so you can go through either just the JPEG or just the raw files, mark them appropriately, then go back and sort them by the time they were shot.)

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Oh, Just Call It an Environmental Shot

Merritt Environment 5If you are out with a group of photographers, small or large, photographing wildlife and experiencing the wild animals in their home, sooner or later, you will likely hear someone say something like, "Oh, just call it an environmental shot." I have heard this all too many times. The speaker is usually referring to the challenge of not being able to get close enough with their gear to get the wildlife big in their shot. And this is a disparaging "joke" about wildlife photography.

Merritt Environment 3I think this is a really unfortunate comment that hurts good nature photography. A good environmental shot is an important shot to show a subject in context with where it lives. No close shot can ever do that (close shots are important for other reasons). And that context is critical to understanding the life of that wildlife subject (or other nature subject).

Merritt Environment 2This was demonstrated so clearly to me while watching Planet Earth II. The BBC Natural History Unit has completed another Planet Earth series, though it is not available in the U.S. until late March. I got my copy from Amazon.com in the UK, though the univerally playable Blu-Ray version seems to be no longer available.

The BBC Natural History Unit works hard to give context for the wildlife it features. There is a sequence about the Nubian ibex that took my breath away, not because of the animal, but because of the way it interacts with its cliff environment. There would be no way to appreciate that without seeing "environmental shots." If you don't know the Nubian ibex, you can see a bit about it at this page from the San Diego Zoo. Notice that most of the photos only show close shots, which do tell you what the animal looks like, but you learn little of its life. There is one photo of a young animal among the rocks that starts to give some context.

When you can't get close enough, it is okay to simply say, you can't get close enough. It does nature photography little good to flippantly call that "an environmental shot." You can get excellent environmental shots that communicate something unique about the nature of your subject. But to do that, you have to recognize an environmental shot as important and work to get a good one.

One challenge to the environmental shot, though, is that it won't always "read" well small. Sometimes a small shot will not be fully appreciated by a quick view, even to the point of the viewer seeing the scene, but not the animal. This is why it is important to work to be sure the animal shows up well in the scene. That means looking for contrast that will help it stand out.

Merritt Environment 1

All of the photos here were recently taken at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a wonderful place to see, photograph and experience wildlife.

I have a new self-paced course available now, The Art of Choice. This is that crazy project I mentioned before that took me way too long to complete. I am pleased with the result, and there is a ton of photos to illustrate, but I just kept going in wrong directions for me. I was never quite happy with how it was going together until I literally had to have a talk with myself. I had to stop doing what I was "supposed to do" based on some imaginary criteria that weren't completely true to me. I had to find my best self and put it out there in the course. I think I finally did that. You can find more about the course on my overview sort of website, www.joyofnatureandphotography.com. And if you use the code, bats, you'll get $15 off the regular price of $67.

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Live View

Live View 4Most cameras now have Live View, meaning you can see exactly what the lens sees in real time. Even though many, many photographers have cameras with Live View, I am finding that many are not taking advantage of this technology. I think every photographer can benefit a lot from using Live View at times. Today, I would be unhappy using a camera without Live View. I especially like Live View with a tilting LCD, like that found on my Lumix cameras.

Live View 1If you haven't used Live View (and I mean really used it, not just tried it once), here's what's great about anyLive View:

1. Sharper photos with slow shutter speeds – this alone makes Live View worth using. One challenge with slow shutter speeds is that as the mirror of the camera moves up and down, you get vibration that can degrade image sharpness. Even on a tripod with a mirrorless camera, you can have camera vibration issues that affect image sharpness. This is at its worst with telephotos and close ups. When you take photos with Live View, you have no mirror bounce because the mirror is already up. I consistently get sharper photos this way.

2. Better focus – on most cameras you can magnify what is seen through Live View so you can very precisely focus on something in a scene. I use this all the time for focusing on details in a landscape or when I am shooting close-ups from a tripod. I have also used it for wildlife when they are in a constant location and distance from the camera. With a little practice, it is very easy to use this focus aid quickly.

3. You see your image as a photograph, rather than something targeted by the viewfinder – you literally have a little photograph on the back of your camera to view, rather than sighting through the viewfinder. This makes the camera act like a little view camera. The difference between seeing a photo versus targeting a subject is significant. I see big gains in better compositions from photographers doing this.

4. You see exactly what the sensor sees – when you look through an optical viewfinder, you see the world as your eyes and brain perceive it, not as the camera records it. Live View shows you what exposure, focus and white balance actually will look like in a photograph.

A tilting LCD makes this even better:

1. You can put your camera low and still see what the camera is seeing – you can even put the camera on the ground for an unusual point of view and you don't have to lay on the ground to see the LCD or look through the viewfinder.

2. You can put your camera high and still see what the camera is seeing – it is not uncommon to set up a tripod that is perfect for the view, but the viewfinder is higher than you can see through. Tilt a live view LCD and that is no longer a problem.

3. You can shoot at any height without straining your back – good nature photography often requires us to put the camera at heights other than the easy eye-level. At other heights, it can be awkward and hard on your body to see through the viewfinder, so a tilting live view LCD is very, very handy.

Live View 5

 

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Validation in Photography

Validation 3Validation is one of those things that we all seem to crave as humans, yet it often causes us problems. This is especially true for photography and other arts because there is no easy way to evaluate how "good" it is.

I have had photographers say to me in portfolio reviews that they want to win a contest or "get published" because that would validate their work. I have to always tell them that such things are fun and nice to receive, but they are not really validations of anything other than a specific group of judges of that particular contest or a specific editor of a particular publication likes your work.

I have also had photographers show me work and tell me that this or that photo won a prize at their camera club or some other venue. This is implied as support for the value of the photo (though no one actually says that). Again, that's fun, but that should not be the value of your photography.

It can be hard at times, I understand, but your photography should be yours and its ultimate validation something that comes from within. If it doesn't, then you are in essence apologizing for most of your photography because it hasn't had "outside validation." You are apologizing for who you are.

You, like all of us, are a unique person with unique ways of seeing the world that are always important just because of the uniqueness. As Jen Sincero (author of You Are a Badass) says, "It's about respecting yourself instead of catering to your insecure need to be liked...When you love yourself enough to stand in your truth no matter what the cost, everyone benefits."

Validation 4The need for validation rears its head in other aspects of photography, too. This is one area that I have too long suffered. Whenever we feel that someone else must use the software we use, the gear we own, the techniques we favor, read the books we do, we are often simply looking for approval, for validation of what we do. This is not the same as genuinely offering something that truly fits someone else's needs, but often, when we/I think deeply, we/I find that there is that common but unhelpful need for validation.

Ultimately it comes down to the stories we tell ourselves: "My photography is not real/good/adequate until someone else says it is" or "My gear is not right for me unless someone else uses it too" and so on. Breaking free of the validation trap starts by recognizing the stories we tell ourselves then challenging them. Are they really true?

Treat yourself and your photography this year with the love it deserves. Have fun with it, enjoy your time in nature with a camera, then take any "outside validation" as nice and fun, but not necessary for you to succeed as a photographer.

Validation 5

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Stretching Focus on Close-Ups

post-focus-1One of the challenges of close-up and macro work is that depth of field is very shallow. That can be good for backgrounds, but bad for the subject. But if you stop the lens down, the background can start to get distracting yet the subject still isn't as sharp throughout as you might like.

So I tried something completely different simply because the technology did not exist before. I can shoot with the lens set to a wide aperture so the background stays out of focus, yet I can get the subject all in focus! That is focus stacking, not new technology, but to make it work, my camera has something new in technology. It is pretty cool.

post-focus-3Last year, Panasonic introduced what was called "Post Focus" for a number of their Lumix cameras. What this did was to take a number of photos continuously while changing focus slightly between every shot. This allowed you to choose the "best focus" later, but what seemed most interesting to me was the potential for focus stacking.

Focus stacking takes multiple photos shot at different focus points and combines them so that all of the sharp parts show up in one photo. This allows deeper subjects to gain sharpness throughout even when depth of field is shallow. Many close-up and macro photographers have been doing this by manually changing focus as they shoot. Post Focus does this automatically.

My Lumix GX8 was capable of it with a firmware update. I did that update last fall, but never took the time to try out this technology until now.

It takes a little getting used to. You press the shutter and the camera takes over, changing focus as it goes, and you can see this on the Live View. Then you have to save the photos individually.

You can end up with a lot of photos. I put them into Lightroom and quickly weeded out the excess (photos that had little visible change), then adjusted the first image and synced those adjustments to all of the images.

Next, I sent the images to Photoshop from Lightroom, using Edit In with the Open as Layers in Photoshop command (select a group of photos, then right-click any one of them to see Edit In). There, I used Auto-Align and Auto-Blend (Stack) to merge all the images as one.

These photos are of manzanita flowers – manzanita is a California native plant that typically blooms about now. Below are two photos showing the original limited depth of field and then the final shot. There are a whole mess of photos in between the two "originals."

post-focus-1post-focus-2 post-focus-3

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Experience and Photography – What You Experience as You Photograph

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville, Florida

I have been thinking a bit lately about how important experience is for me in how I photograph. I'm not talking about one's experience as a photographer. I'm talking about what one experiences as you photograph.

I recently rediscovered my copy of Great Photographic Essays from LIFE. I had had this book from years ago because I had always been impressed with LIFE magazine growing up. In reading through this book, and yes I was reading it not just looking at the pictures, it made me think how important experience, that is, how one experiences the world, was to my photography. For almost all of the photographers shown in this book, their experience of the world was what they were photographing, what they were sharing with the rest of the world. They were not concerned about creating fine art, about winning contests, about impressing other people, but about using their photography to communicate something that was special to them about the world they were experiencing. (This book has long been out of print, but you can find it used at low prices from AbeBooks.com or amazon.com).

This made me think how important this has always been to me. I think it probably had something to do with some of my college education that included learning photojournalism. Photojournalism really is about what is happening in the world around you, how you experience that, and how you translate that experience through your photography. This applies to all parts of our amazing world, not just the bold and dramatic.

Spring cherries in bloom, California

Spring cherries in bloom, California

When I think back at much of the work that I have done in the past, the things that really made me feel best about working as photographer, writer, and editor were the things that encouraged me to engage and experience the world in new ways. I've always loved learning new things about the world around us, especially in nature, and anything that I can do to better experience that world, to connect me better with that world, is something that I really enjoy. Plus I find it gives me my best photographs, both in terms of what satisfies me and what seem to connect well with others.

Now I know that not everybody is going to think of photography that way – that's OK. I am simply sharing one approach to photography, an approach that is important to me. Some people will see the world as place for raw material for them to deal with in their photographs as fine artists. That's fun for them. Some people just want to create interesting, beautiful photographs for the wall, or images to win contests, or to impress other people. If that's what turns you on about photography, good for you.

Native bee on San Diego sunflower (a small Southern California native flower)

Native bee on San Diego sunflower (a small Southern California native flower)

I'm not saying that I don't want to create interesting, beautiful images. What I am saying is that the experience of engaging the world through my photography is the starter for me. How I  then create my images, what I do with the craft of photography to better communicate through my images, to have better composition, to make sure that my technique is appropriate, is all about controlling my photography to better show off the world as I experience it.

I know that there are other photographers who feel the same way. I sometimes fear that this approach to photography is being lost by the overbearing influence of Facebook and social media on photography. Those places for photography tend to emphasize the ephemeral, the quick glance, the dramatic and colorful, resulting in mostly a quick, more cursory look at images.

I believe there is real value in sharing your experiences of the world through your photography. We all see and experience the world a little differently than others. That experience helps other people connect with you, connect with the world, and often provides new insights for someone else. And you know something interesting? I'm finding that my work connects better with people the more I share my experiences rather than simply showing off a bunch of pretty pictures.

Your experiences are worth sharing. Especially in today's world that can be so polarized and divisive. Photography is one way of bridging that gap because it is such a universal language. When we share our experiences, we share our humanity and that is something that has a great chance of connecting with others.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

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