Tag: digital negative

An open letter to Freeman Patterson regarding jpegs and raw files

Freeman Patterson is one of the most renowned and respected natural environment and outdoor photographers in Canada and around the world. Many photographers have learned greatly from this master of seeing, some of us from as far back as the 1970s. His work is equally remarkable when done in his own backyard of Shamper’s Bluff, New Brunswick or in the drylands of Namaqualand, South Africa.

Periodically through the year, Freeman sends out a newsletter in which he discusses life and philosophy and photography. I find them meditative and inspirational and read them when I have an opportunity to sit and ponder and enjoy.

So, it was with some shock, and a little dismay, that I read the following in his last paragraph of his most recent newsletter, dated May 2019, Images, Ideas and Reflections:

1/ It’s my long-term observation that most digital cameras have far too many functions and are far too complicated for the needs of most amateurs and, in fact, many professionals. 2/ In my view, always shooting RAW is a sheer waste of battery power, storage space, and processing time. Although some very well-known Canadians professional photographers agree, many amateurs seem shocked when I say this. When do I shoot RAW? Only when I feel there is some possibility that I will make a 20×30 or larger print, which is extremely rare. For me, the old K.I.S.S. principle still applies – keep it simple, stupid. Never let your equipment or the way you use it interfere with your spiritual life!

(Underscores are that of the original author).

Now, far be it for me to take on a legendary photographer such as a Freeman Patterson, but I simply could not sit by silently with a blanket statement such as “always shooting RAW is a sheer waste of battery power, storage space, and processing time” and “When do I shoot RAW? Only when I feel there is some possibility that I will make a 20×30 or larger print, which is extremely rare.”

Here is my response…

Dear Freeman,

I’m just wondering if what you wrote in the last paragraph of your most recent letter – the part about jpegs vs raw files – was put there to see how many people have read to the end, you can download them with  sodapdf.com!

I very much enjoyed reading your letter, as I always do, as much as I have enjoyed your photographs and teachings since the 1970s, that is, until I read the last paragraph.

While I agree “most digital cameras have far too many functions and are far too complicated”, and “Never let your equipment or the way you use it interfere with your spiritual life!”, I am rather dismayed by your blanket statement in support of jpegs over raw files: “always shooting RAW is a sheer waste of battery power, storage space, and processing time”, with little explanation beyond “Only when I feel there is some possibility that I will make a 20×30 or larger print”. Limiting the creative potential of a photographer is deceptive, limiting and, frankly, unprofessional as an educator.
While your notions of less is more deeply resonate with me, the limitations created by a machine-created digital file may be helpful for simplifying photography in the short term, a decision to only shoot jpegs can be unnecessarily restricting in the long term.
A jpeg is like a Polaroid print or a machine print from Blacks or a Kodachrome transparency. While each could be considered fine enough quality for display as artwork, they are, essentially, end points, with much less ‘room’ for further enhancements once they are created. A photograph should represent the photographer’s complete vision – one realized through field techniques and processing techniques – not only field techniques and that of a machine with ‘under-the-hood’ computer algorithms. 
So, I can only wonder if you were addressing those photographers who believe that what the camera spits out is the end product. Is this a remnant of your transparency days when the slide was very much an end product? One can alter a Polaroid, machine print, transparency or jpeg, but it will only lead to further image degradation – fine if that’s your style, but not as a blanket end result.
Polaroids aside (they were a niche art market unto themselves, pursued beyond snapshots by only a small minority of photographers), transparencies and machine prints would have been a suitable end product to non-darkroom workers. But stop for a moment and try to imagine an Adams black-and-white as a machine print?!? While his field techniques were legendary, his printing of each negative is what made each scene “sing”. A jpeg would never stand up to the modern-day equivalent of an Adams darkroom session.
Digital image files today are the negatives of before: an opportunity for a photographer to refine and/or extend their vision beyond what the camera machine produces. And, given the ubiquity of digital editing apps, and photographers willing to pursue the technology, it hardly seems appropriate to limit their future potential growth by recommending bog-standard jpegs. Again, I’m not referring to whole scale digital manipulation, stretching photographs beyond the recognizable; rather, I’m speaking of the myriad subtle enhancements to already finely crafted images that breathe life into the product of a machine – the same manipulations I once enjoyed working with in a wet darkroom (colour and b&w).
When it comes to digital editing, working within the confines of the colour space and compression of a jpeg is like playing tennis (or basketball or football/soccer) on a court with cement walls for out-of-bounds lines. In severely limiting a player’s freedom of movement, racquet swings become much more conservative and the game much different! Due to a jpeg’s limited 8-bit colour space, even tweaking it a little may drive colours out of gamut during processing. Furthermore, subtle highlight details also suffer due to file compression algorithms in jpegs. Granted, printing processes and screens are also 8-bit, but with raw files, the photographer has the option to adjust colours during the editing process, within the larger colour space of a raw file (Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB), then bring them back to the once again limiting 8-bits of the printing process (or screen visualization) in ways they see fit, not an algorithm.
Creativity can start from a finished product, but the potential is limitedWorse, the decisions regarding colour, sharpening and compression are not made by the photographer, but by an automated process, pre-determined by a committee of software engineers, to produce the best possible average of averages. It’s not looking at the content, the scene the colours and is ignorant of end use. While the product of these software decisions, the jpeg, is of high quality, it is still handcuffed into only reduced quality through editing, not improved quality.
Granted, you know this already, which makes it even more surprising you would recommend it. I see the role of teachers as ones who inspire students to go beyond, to encourage exploration and discovery, not to hamper them with built-in algorithms. The books and prints of your work are not the product of blind acceptance of the decisions of software engineers, neither should a photographer’s photographs.
I shoot with a full frame sensor camera, a 1” sensor camera, and an iPhone. Believe you me, the 1” sensor files definitely benefit from being captured in raw format; the iPhone files even more so. The image quality difference between processed raw files and jpegs from all three cameras is significant on screen and in print. As sensor size is reduced, that difference becomes even more obvious. For example, even subtle image processing on a jpeg can result in obvious and unacceptable banding across otherwise clear blue skies.
So, I can’t help wondering what, exactly, you were getting at by endorsing jpegs for all photos that are not likely to end up being printed to  20”x30” or larger. I’ve been successfully photographing and selling for decades and I still don’t always know when a photograph might be printed large like that. I would rather err on the side of caution and spend a little more of my time capturing in raw then making a few quick edits to it (even automated edits!), knowing that I still have the raw file that, at some later time, I can take to the next level if I should choose to go back to it to further improve it.
I’m just very thankful that I can go back to the raw files I made 18 years ago in Tanzania with an early digital camera – a 5mp Minolta 7hi – and still make improvements with today’s editing apps, something I cannot achieve in the same way even from high quality jpegs made with the same camera. They’re good, don’t get me wrong, but they are not nearly as good as what I can do with the raw files. I can also go back to my 4×5 negatives and make silver gelatin prints, if I choose, or scan them into digital files.
You see, that’s the difference between raw files and jpegs – raw files have the potential for further improvements jpegs, not so much. One never knows what the future holds.
With great respect,
Terry McDonald
www.luxborealis.com