The Raw Fallacy

I've just seen it again. The statement that you shouldn't shoot raw because it takes too long to process. 

This idea pops up on photography discussions all the time, typically after someone who's normally a casual shooter—a few images a week—suddenly goes on an extended, exotic vacation and ends up with thousands of images they need to process when they get home. Then you get the "it takes forever to process all these images, and presets don't solve the problem" statements that plague these discussions. 

A bunch of things are going on under the covers here that need to be fleshed out: 

  1. Camera settings were inconsistent. When someone says that their raw images are all over the place to the point where presets or batch processing doesn't get them close to a final look, the camera was probably not shot consistently in the field. Exposure was varied and inconsistent, for instance. Maybe white balance was set wrong for some of the images. These are shooting problems that result in processing problems. Solve the shooting problem and you don't have a processing problem.
  2. Camera settings were ignored. This is probably the biggest raw fallacy of all: that you don't have to pay any attention to camera settings if you're shooting raw. You should, because the advice you get from the camera—histograms and highlights, for example—is derived from the embedded JPEG that was recorded in the raw file. These days, there's a lot of "automatic" stuff floating around inside your camera. Auto white balance, auto range boosting (ADL, DRO, etc.), auto contrast, auto sharpening, auto everything. Every one of those automatic things impacts the photo data in some way. White balance, for instance, is used to pre-condition raw files in the Nikon world. So yes, if the automatic white balance system isn't quite getting things right, the raw data underneath isn't optimized, either. Moreover, raw converters may be picking up a wrong signal about what the light conditions actually were. So, yes, another shooting problem that results in a processing problem.
  3. You can solve the raw processing problem with one command. Just use Instant JPEG from Raw (there are other ways to extract the JPEG from a raw file, but this is probably the best solution for the folk that are complaining about raw processing problems). But you might be thinking there could be a problem here. Yes, indeed. If you thought that you were shooting raw because you could just change settings after the fact, you probably also thought that means you could ignore settings (#2). I just got done saying that people were creating a processing problem by starting with a shooting problem, and the embedded JPEGs you extract with one command may very well have the same problems that is forcing you to post process every raw file individually. Oops.

So, if you didn't catch it: don't create shooting issues that turn into processing problems.

That means that, no matter whether you shoot JPEG or raw, you want to pay attention to exposure, white balance, and things like the creative settings (Picture Controls on Nikon cameras, Creative Styles on Sony cameras, Picture Styles for Canons). In fact, pretty much any control that would impact what the image looks like as a JPEG should be set specifically when you're shooting, even if you're shooting raw. Otherwise, you lose the ability to get a "perfect" JPEG by pulling the embedded one from the raw file.

Unfortunately, there are lurking gremlins you need to be aware of. For instance, Nikon's Active D-Lighting (ADL) changes the exposure for both JPEG and raw files. Basically, when ADL is active, the camera underexposes (to preserve highlights, which will be adjusted by the EXPEED engine in the camera), and the camera also boosts the blacks and shadows for the JPEG because it knows that there is plenty of dynamic range left at the bottom of the sensor's abilities. You'll have to do a lot of post processing work to achieve the same look from your raw file if you shot it with ADL turned on (if you were to look at RAW+JPEG image set taken with Nikon ADL, the JPEG will look "correct" and the raw file will look underexposed). Thus, some knowledge of what your camera actually does behind the scenes is useful. It's why I write books ;~).

So if you have to set the camera as if you were shooting JPEG all the time, why would you shoot raw at all? 

  • You don't throw away data. The JPEG compression throws away a huge amount of data, often 80% or more. If you're at all critical about your image quality—particularly if you need to print photos or your images will be used by others—you just don't want to throw away that data. One thing I've learned in 30 years of processing digital images (yes, that number is correct) is that our processing software gets better with time. If you don't have the original data, you can't always take advantage of those gains.
  • You don't end up with compression that can't be removed. You have to be careful about this one (e.g. use Lossless Compressed on Nikons), but basically if you shoot JPEG the image has been compressed, and compression artifacts can and often do appear if you later start trying to move values around in post processing. 
  • You can correct (some) mistakes. In the heat of shooting, you don't always get everything set optimally (though this should always be your goal). We've all done the brain dumb thing of forgetting to reset our camera after some previous extreme shooting situation (e.g. setting high ISO, or setting a specific white balance, etc.). If we only shot JPEG, those mistakes wouldn't be correctable; certainly not as correctable as when we shoot raw.

Which brings us to shooting RAW+JPEG. On the Nikon cameras, I generally don't bother with this. That's because there's a full size JPEG BASIC image embedded in the raw file (#3 above), and Nikon's JPEG BASIC really doesn't sacrifice much in visual quality despite how aggressive the compression is. If I need the JPEG, I'll just extract it from what I shot. 

There are a few clients where I'll shoot RAW+JPEG—typically sports—because they want the entire batch of JPEGs instantly to post to social media. In those cases, I shoot raw to my primary card, JPEG to the secondary card, and just hand them (or download) the secondary card when I'm done. 

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