4 min read

JPEG Only?

JPEG Only?

I'm very much one for decluttering and streamlining all facets of my life. And this means my photography as much as any other. One topic that I have been drawn to of late is that of the RAW vs JPEG debate. Hardly a new discussion, I hear you say. But the answer to this long-standing argument could also be the answer to the simplification of my photography.

The benefits of shooting RAW are well documented – the resulting files retain 100% of the unprocessed data allowing for greater flexibility and possibilities in post-processing. They can be thought of as digital negatives that can be used as a starting point for many different creative interpretations of the same image, the retained data allowing for this favourable leeway. The processed JPEGs, in contrast, are like receiving your prints back from your local retail lab. Perfectly adequate but lacking the input of the photographer's unique vision in post. Edits can still be made but with nowhere near the margin afforded by RAW files.

On the other hand, the advantages of JPEGs come to the fore when you consider what type of photographer you are and what aspect of photography you most enjoy. Does the pursuit of taking photos or creating images bring you more pleasure? There is a distinction, I'd argue. For an old film photographer such as myself, the joy of photography is in the actual taking of the photograph. Following the shift to digital in the early 2000s, I found I gained little pleasure sitting in front of a computer screen editing images in Photoshop compared to the fun I'd had creating prints from negatives on an enlarger in a darkroom.

When shot correctly, JPEGs should need very little editing. A tweak of the exposure, possibly. But that should be about it in the vast majority of cases. When you combine the "get it right in camera" philosophy with the processing power of your modern camera system, the resulting JPEG images should be more than acceptable 9 times out 10. For anybody who would rather avoid sitting in front of a screen tweaking sliders or, worse, whose images could sit on a hard drive and never see the light of day due to their disdain for the editing process, this is a philosophy worth considering.

There's also the question of storage and the welcome bonus that comes with not having to find disk space for all those chunky RAW files – particularly burdensome if you shoot RAW + JPEG, as I have in the past. When shooting JPEG only, storage requirements reduce significantly. The need to "get it right in camera" also forces you to think more carefully and efficiently before pressing the shutter. This results in a less "happy snappy" approach (another unwelcome side-effect of the transition from film to digital) and fewer images to upload to your computer.

Unlike other genres of photography, we arguably have less control when it comes to shooting landscapes. You are at the mercy of your immediate environment, the lay of the land, the weather and the light. It's not like you can just throw in a bit of flash or a reflector to tweak your frame. With this in mind, the argument for shooting landscapes in RAW becomes somewhat stronger, allowing for maximum control in post. But I tend to come at this argument from the other direction. If the conditions at the time of shooting are less than favourable, then is there any honesty in falsifying things in post-production? Adding colour to what was an otherwise drab, uninspiring sky or removing elements from the composition that were very much there in reality? I'd argue that this undermines the very philosophy of the pursuit of photography. Digital art, on the other hand...

Where RAW files do come into their own is when the editing process is as important, if not more so, an aspect of the photographer's workflow as the actual photography itself. It's no secret that many landscape photographers' finished images rely heavily on post-production. This was born out by the recent International Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards which were widely criticised for the finalists' heavy use of post-processing. This again raises the question of the distinction between photographers, image makers and Photoshop artists, a much wider debate that will have to keep for another article.

If "Photoshop art" is your thing, then RAW is the way to go. And when shooting any genre of photography in a professional capacity, I'd argue you have a duty to your client to capture in RAW. But on a hobbyist or amateur basis, I feel that technology is at a point where we can finally forgo this overly stringent "rule". The dynamic range of modern cameras is of a standard that could only be dreamed of at the advent of digital photography, a time when shooting RAW was most definitely in every photographer's interest, given the limitations of the early DSLRs.

I shoot my landscapes using the Fujifilm X Series. I have an old X-E1 and a much newer (yet still technically obsolete) X-T20 with a couple of lenses between the two. I've never been one for having the latest and most advanced kit and I find these cameras, while dated, more than cater to my needs.

One of the beauties of the Fujifilm X Series is the presets/film simulations. Within the menu, I can assign a preset to my JPEGs that simulates one of the old analogue Fujifilm film stocks, such as Provia, Astia or Velvia. There is even a website where I can download "Recipes", as they're called, that additionally adjust these existing presets to simulate non-Fujifilm emulsions, such as Kodachrome 64. I can further tweak any of these presets or recipes to my specific taste. This capability enables me to push the processing power of my camera and further reduce the need for time in post-production, allowing me to focus on my actual photography.

I know what you're thinking, this all sounds just fine in theory. But how does it play out in reality? Can I really get away with dispensing with RAW shooting, relying solely on my photographer's eye and the processing power of my camera? How will my new JPEG-only philosophy play out in the field?

Over the course of the coming weeks, I'll be putting my theory to the test and conducting a number of test shoots pitting RAW, JPEG and a selection of the film presets against each other using my Fujifilm X cameras. Be sure to check back next month when I will report my findings.

By Matt Reid