Tag: image quality

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

Want to learn all about JPEGs?

This is required reading for anyone shooting JPEGs or saving photos as JPEGs for printing or for the web.

It’s a blog post from Jeffery Friedl – the man behind all the great Lightroom plugins. He offers not just sound advice based on personal experience, but photos to back it all up.

Enjoy!

Nikon D800 – “Should I upgrade?”

I have been asked by a number of people about whether they should upgrade to a Nikon D800. They are understandably attracted by the amazing potential that this camera holds for higher quality digital photographs and video. Once they get past the shock of its price, they start thinking about that state-of-the-art 36mp sensor – bigger has to be better, right?

Well perhaps, but not for everyone. There are a few things you need to consider before jumping on the D800 bandwagon:

  1. How often do you enlarge photos to 16″ or more? The 36mp sensor in the D800 is 7360 x 4912 pixels. At 300ppi, it will produce uncropped prints of 16.4″ x 24.5″ or at 360ppi (for Epson printers) uncropped prints 13.6″ x 20.4″ in size. If you are making prints this size or larger on a regular basis, then the D800 is for you. Some have asked, “But wouldn’t downsizing from this file size result in better prints as well?” Quite possibly, yes, but the difference at print viewing distance would be minimal and perhaps only visible to someone who really knows what to look for (which is not the vast majority of people who buy large fine art photographs). By the way, I am speaking in terms of uncropped prints, because a photographer who is working towards mastering the craft will routinely compose to either fill-the-frame or at least fill one dimension to allow the other dimension to be cropped. Do you do this as common practice? If not, then perhaps the D800 is not for you.
  2. Do you shoot raw or jpeg format? Many pros shoot jpegs as that’s what their job demands: grip and grins that need to be processed and sent out immediately or news hounds that don’t have time (or the necessity) for post-capture fine-tuning. Even many wedding photogs are still shooting only jpegs. While it may be controversial for me to say this, but if you are shooting jpegs and you are not a pro – in other words if you are shooting jpegs because they are more convenient than doing some post-process work on your photographs – then the D800 may not be for you. The D800 is all about image quality. The photographs you are capable of producing will not improve with more megapixels, only their size will increase. If you are not willing to put the time and effort into fine-tuning raw image files, then the shortcuts you take in producing jpegs may well prevent you from taking full advantage of the benefits the D800 offers. Don’t get me wrong – the D800 produces amazing jpegs, but if it’s only jpegs you want – pre-processed and pre-sharpened with a truncated colour depth – then the D800 is not the ideal machine for you.
  3. Are you prepared for full-frame? This goes along with the next question. Your 18-55mm or 18-200mm zoom will not cut it on the D800 unless you use the camera only in DX mode. If that’s the case, you’d be better off with a D7000. If you are not prepared to upgrade your DX lenses to FX, then don’t consider a D800.
  4. Do you have lenses that will resolve to 36mp? Most of the kit lenses and cheap zooms produced by Nikon and the various 3rd party lens manufacturers will not resolve 36mp well enough from centre to corner to take advantage of the D800 sensor. While they will capture 36mp of data at full-frame, they will not resolve detail in ever one of those 36mp, even if the detail is in the original scene. Like the previous question, if you are not prepared to invest in lenses that resolve 36mp of detail, then you should rethink your decision to buy a D800. For more information, have a look at the work lensrentals.com is doing or the discussions on the Luminous-Landscape Forums here and here.
  5. Is your technique refined enough to get the quality from 36mp you are expecting? A number of D800 users have, in just this short time, realized that to get the most out of the D800 you need impeccable technique. Hand-held shots do not seem to be as sharp as they were with 12mp because even the smallest of movements are now being recorded. Diffraction at f/16 and f/22 is more noticeable. You may find that working on a tripod becomes the norm when using the D800 – would you be happy with that? You may also find (as other D800 users have) that each lens will need its autofocus fine-tuned. As well, many D800 users are making active use of live view for focussing. Are you prepared for that kind of precision?
  6. As a corollary to Q 6. (and there is no insult intended) – would you recognize the additional image quality provided by a D800? Many photographers are quite satisfied with their on-screen results and the prints they are producing. In your current photography, do you recognize that you have reached the image quality potential of your current system? If not, then the D800 is not for you. Do you recognize the flaws in IQ with your current system and wish to go beyond what you can currently achieve? If so, then perhaps the D800 is the way to go.
  7. Are you prepared to buy larger, faster memory cards? A standard raw file from a D800 is almost 75mb. your current 4GB card that may hold nearly 300 12mp raw files will now only hold 53 D800 raw files. Even the jpegs at highest quality are over 20MB in size. You will need to invest in larger capacity memory cards with faster write speeds, not just for raw files, but for video as well.
  8. Is your computer system and image management application up to processing 36mp files? Further to Q. 7, that 75mp raw file you’ve just captured will open in Photoshop at over 200MB – and that’s before you add any layers! Is your system up to manipulating these files? Realistically, however, most serious photographers  will have already migrated to  using a non-destructive workflow offered by Lightroom, Aperture and Capture One. But even there you will notice a speed hit, particularly when it comes to generating 1:1 previews (don’t do this upon Import, but rather only as needed) and when retouching. Be prepared for a slower work-flow!

Your investment of $3000 (+ tax!) for a D800 body may end up costing you a whole lot more if you haven’t thought things through thoroughly. You will need larger, faster memory cards; you may need a few new lenses or at least one of the more expensive high-optical-quality Nikkor zooms (and the circular polarizing and other filters for them); you may need a new computer system or at least a pile more ram. You may also need to invest in Lightroom, Aperture or Capture One to avoid the humungous file sizes generated by a Photoshop workflow. And, if you haven’t already adopted a non-destructive workflow, that may also be a learning curve you need to take on.

My decision to move from my 12mp Olympus to the D800e was not taken lightly. Nor was it taken without a hard look at (a) what style of photography excites me; (b) where I would like to go with my photography; and (c) how well my technique, workflow and equipment fit the requirements of a D800. As I have said before in posts, I come from a background of using manual, mechanical 6×7 and 4×5 cameras with prime lenses. I am quite happy to use a tripod and slow my methods down to squeeze  from every scene as much image quality as possible– in fact, that’s where I thrive. For me, using a D800 will be like going back to my medium and large format days but with the added convenience of digital processing and printing, video capture and, when needed for extra reach from a telephoto, DX capture at 15mp.

I am greatly excited by the prospects and am anxiously awaiting the arrival a D800e body.