The RAW vs JPEG Debate Needs to End… Again
I read a couple of articles over the last several days that bothered me, both of which stated that you must shoot RAW. These articles come up often—it’s nothing new. I’ve written about it before, and even before that. The sentiment of “only amateurs shoot JPEG” and “you really should shoot RAW” get old. Those are tired, worn out statements that are largely based on “truths” that are no longer true. My hope with this article is to simply provide a counter-point. This blog and all of you who use Film Simulation Recipes are a strong testament that speaks louder than this article ever could, so I’ll try to keep it brief.
First, I want to make this very clear: do what works for you. If RAW works for you, do that. If JPEGs work for you, do that. If editing JPEGs works for you, do that. If film works for you, do that. Or any combination of those things or anything else, do that. Whatever you have found that works for you, that’s what you should be doing. If what you are doing isn’t really working for you, try something else. There’s no right or wrong way to do things, just different ways, some of which work for some and some of which work for others. Different strokes for different folks, right?
One reason why I think the “RAW vs JPEG” debate keeps coming up is because more-and-more photography consumers (not photographers, but those who view photographs) detest photo manipulation. Photoshop has become a bad word. Whether it’s a photo contest where the winner exceeded the editing allowed by the rules (and so has their title stripped), or the magazine cover where the girl no longer looks like how they really look, or the picture in the news where things were added or subtracted to change the meaning of the image, or the image that’s just been edited so much that it’s no longer believable—whatever the story, sometimes photography consumers feel that photography is dishonest, and the manipulation of an image equals a manipulation of the one viewing it. There appears to be a lack of honesty by photographers, particularly when they edit so much. You might agree or disagree with this sentiment, but the sentiment is real. I know this because I once defended Steve McCurry’s use of Photoshop, and because of this someone accused me in a college paper of wanting little girls to have low self-esteem.
I think a lot of these “RAW is better” articles and videos stem from a response to this sentiment, which is fine. I don’t blame anyone for trying to defend what they do when someone criticizes it. Trust me, I get it. Where I do have a problem is that many times in the defense of RAW the JPEG photographer is insulted. The argument is, “I have to shoot RAW because JPEGs suck.” Or, “Only amateurs use JPEG.” It’s as if the JPEG shooter must be put down in order to make the RAW shooter feel superior. That’s just lame. Yes, there was a time early in the development of digital camera technology where the straight-out-of-camera JPEG was no good and so RAW really was the only viable option for quality images, but that day has long passed, especially for (but certainly not limited to) those who use Fujifilm cameras. That argument is old and tired and no longer based in truth. It once was true, but now is a myth. Perpetuating that myth helps no one. Insulting people definitely doesn’t help.
Of course, Ansel Adams is always brought into this. Well, he was the darkroom master, so obviously he manipulated his photos to a significant degree. Usually an Ansel Adams quote is included, which proves the point that you should never rely on straight-out-of-camera pictures. Adams never would have. Except this ignores his work with Polaroids—he loved Polaroids, something a lot of people are unaware of. There’s a whole chapter (entitled One-Step Photography) in one of his books where he discusses the benefits of not having to use a darkroom. Ansel Adams is hugely inspirational, and his words are highly motivating, but I don’t think he would be strictly a RAW shooter and staunchly against straight-out-of-camera JPEGs—it is a disservice to the legendary master to just assume he would be against JPEGs.
The real arguments that should be made to defend the use of RAW are these:
– It’s my art, and as the artist I get to decide how it’s created. I understand that not everyone will like it, but a lot of people seem to, so I’m going to keep doing it my way.
– I capture undeveloped digital images that, like film, must be developed through a process, and I have a specific process for it that works well for me.
– Images have been manipulated to create the final picture since the beginning of photography—over 150 years!—so what I’m doing is nothing new and well within the traditions of the art.
– I enjoy using photo editing software, and adjusting the pictures is half the fun for me.
Notice how all of those arguments are strong, and none of them insults anyone. Unfortunately, there will always be those who disagree, and you’ll never change their minds. Perhaps just being as honest and straightforward as practical will help. If you swapped the sky with another sky, just say so. If you removed people from the frame, don’t hide that fact. Don’t make the manipulations that you did a big secret, which makes people believe that you’re hiding something from them. Or do keep it a secret—it’s not really any of my business what you do or don’t do, and I don’t really care. It’s your art, after all, so you get to decide what you do and what parts of your process you want to keep a mystery.
My process is straightforward. I program Film Simulation Recipes into my cameras, and I use camera-made JPEGs that are unedited (aside from minor cropping and straightening). While I basically don’t edit anymore, I certainly used to. I used to be a RAW photographer. I used to spend up to 30 minutes on each picture in software. That process worked alright for a time, but my current process works for me now. It saves me so much time, it makes creating photographs more enjoyable, it allows me to be more in-tune with my camera and the scene (because I have to get it right in-the-field or else), and I still get the look I want—the aesthetic I would have made if I had edited a RAW image in software. I love it! But I fully understand that it’s not for everyone. If it works for you, great! If it doesn’t work for you, great! If it works for you sometimes but doesn’t other times, great! You’ve got to do what works for you, and ignore those who say that there’s only one “right” way to do things.
The “RAW vs JPEG” debate needs to end. Photography consumers don’t care how you achieved your picture, except in those cases where people feel that they were duped by a heavily manipulated image. I suggest being upfront about how much editing you did, if you did a lot—but that’s up to you, and is between you and your audience. Otherwise, nobody cares if you shot RAW and edited in-software or if it’s a straight-out-of-camera JPEG, or anything else in-between. One process isn’t better or worse than another—they each have advantages and disadvantages, so it is simply a matter of if what you are doing works for you or not. If it works, that’s awesome! If it doesn’t, then try something else. Mic dropped, debate over.