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JPEG vs. RAW

October 8, 2014

People ask "Should I be shooting RAW or jpeg?" frequently enough that I generally throw out the canned answer of: If you like to sit in front of the computer managing files instead of shooting, then shoot RAW. This makes jpeg shooters feel better about themselves because, let's face it, if you're asking me that question, you're more than likely not shooting RAW. There are a lot of armchair photographers and pixel counters out there who will vehemently defend shooting RAW with vigor generally reserved for theistic arguments or Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a relative you barely know about climate change/gay marraige/Obama/etc. Rather than trying to sound like a pompus photographer pushing the latest and greatest photo editing software or camera, I generally defer and make the question-asker feel better about their decision by giving them an option either way. The pros and cons. You could call me a professional waffler.

 

"When it comes down to it, a boring shot in RAW is no better than a boring shot in jpeg"

 

 

Unfortunately, I have been purposefully misleading people because I didn't want to make them feel trapped behind the 8 ball. I really, truly want shooters to care more about their composition than how they edit their photos. When it comes down to it, a boring shot in RAW is no better than a boring shot in jpeg. However, since we live in a digital world controlled by 1s and 0s, it's time to start acknowledging the beast we've created and work with it. Shooting RAW is the only way I will shoot and has been for a while.

 

There was a time early in my photographic journey where a) I didn't have a lot of money b) I spent all of my money on cameras and lenses and didn't want to upgrade to the latest photo editing software c) I was very naive. During that time, I shot almost exlusively in jpeg because my software was outdated and I had no way of editing my new camera's RAW files. I was in a pickle. Sadly, I made a decision then that would affect my library forever.

 

Eventually I found a way to convert my new RAWs into a universal Adobe DNG file, which still gave me the non-destructive editing power of a RAW file, without the necessity to have the most up-to-date Photoshop or Lightroom. Although my workflow had progressed, it didn't change the shots I had already captured in jpeg.

 

After time, and probably exacerbated by backups over several volumes, I've encountered more than a few old jpegs that have become corrupted and essentially useless. Anything that is a jpeg could be corrupted tomorrow. I have now come to terms with the death of my images. I realize that I could convert all the jpegs to TIFF or .psd files, but who really has time for that? Do I have enough memory to hold the massive memory expansion this would entail? And also, do I really care that much? The best shots I've ever taken have all been taken since my full conversion to RAW.

"I have now come to terms with the death of my images"

 

Yes, I've cherrypicked the most important jpegs and saved a copy as a TIFF or .psd, however, I'm sure I'll miss an image with high sentimental value and eventually that image may be lost. What is a photographer to do? Do we fret over something that doesn't really exist or do we enjoy it while it's still vibrant and colorful?

 

This all started because one of my very best images, a shot of a good friend kissing a California gray whale, became corrupted. The feeling in my stomach was akin to losing a passport. I paniced. What are the chances that just this image from a series of about 5, saved amongst 10s of thousands of other images, could be affected? Luckily, I had a copy on another drive that had not been overwritten with the corrupted file yet.

 

This image still lives on, but the plight of others has enlightened me to the temporal limitations of digital photography and the importance of a careful workflow. Shoot RAW. Stay updated. Backup often. Accept that some memories, both physical and digital, are ephemeral and fragile.

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