Shoot RAW or JPEG? It Depends on Light

In ancient times when film was the only photographic method, the rule was “expose for the shadows, develop and print for the highlights.” The process was created and promoted by the legendary Ansel Adams as the Zone System. It applied primarily to black and white and involved considerable darkroom alchemy to produce a full range of shadow and highlight detail in a finished print.

In the digital darkroom the rules have changed. Modern masters of digital alchemy recommend exposing for the highlights and letting the shadows fall where they may. This is because it is much easier to pull detail from underexposed areas. Highlights that are over exposed will be blown out to pure white with little or no recoverable detail.

The Advantage of RAW and When to Use It

A further recommendation is to always shoot in raw. This is a reasonable suggestion that offers considerable advantages, but only under certain circumstances. Most photographers are perfectly content to shoot in jpeg and settle for images that come directly out of camera. This approach works fine for the vast majority of digital photos.

So why shoot raw? The only reason is to provide greater latitude to manipulate and improve the image in post processing. A raw file has been compared to a film negative where all the information is there and just needs to be brought out in the print. The comparison is accurate in the fact that a film negative is only the first step in image creation that you would never display. The same is true of a raw file. It may look reasonable, but raw files always need post processing to bring out the best the image has to offer. And you can’t share a raw file without converting it to a standard image format like jpeg or tiff.

The technical details of raw vs jpeg are described in this excellent article. The purpose of this blog is to detail the “why” of shooting raw and point out some informative YouTube tutorials that demonstrate the “how”. A major justification for shooting raw is a combination of low light and high dynamic range.

When the sun descends below the horizon, fabulous sunsets appear. Wonderful “golden hour” and “blue hour” light offer great photographic opportunities. But conditions are often difficult with bright sunset sky and dark foreground. Cityscapes with street lights present a further challenge regarding exposure and color balance. All of these issues can be dealt with in post processing and a raw file contains more information for greater control.

Post Processing Tutorials

There is a tremendous amount of information available on line for image manipulation in Photoshop and Lightroom. A particularly informative Lightroom guru is Serge Ramelli. His YouTube tutorials are nothing short of amazing. He shows how to turn a dark, under exposed photograph with significant light problems into an image that is absolutely fantastic. This Paris night scene demonstrates exactly what can be done with some Lightroom magic.

This is not to say that all this post processing magic can’t be done with a jpeg file. But shooting in raw does allow greater latitude for image manipulation in Lightroom and Photoshop. So if lighting presents a challenge and it is obvious that the photo will require significant post processing, then definitely shoot in raw.

If, on the other hand, lighting is even, exposure is simple and the image is fine straight out of camera, then go with jpeg. In today’s digital darkroom the choice is yours.

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