AKA Shooting Without A Safety Net
I’m no stranger to the JPEG format. Like most photographers, my first digital images were captured in the Jpeg format. It is the easiest capture format to work with. And if you correctly adjust your camera settings during capture, a Jpeg image can be hard to differentiate from a regularly processed Raw file. But this post is not about which format is better. There’s a lot of posts online on that subject, including my own past blog post "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF?"
Rather, I would like to share my own JPEG adventure this summer. As loyal readers of my blog already know, I purchased a new camera this year. As a result, my photography has been a bit more experimental this year as I try to get used to how my new camera captures images. Not just physically, with its different layout, but how this new sensor renders color and dynamic range.
While I have often used JPEG for my concert and wrestling photography, I would usually choose to capture my nature imagery in the RAW file format. So, as a starting point when using my new camera my first images were captured in RAW. After downloading these images and attempting to process the RAW files, I got an unpleasant surprise. I already knew that I would need to use a new program for my RAW processing as the newer ORF (Olympus’ RAW file format) files could not be processed in my rather old version of Photoshop Elements. Rather than updating the program or purchasing another, I decided to use Olympus’ own software, Olympus Viewer 3. Three advantages of the program are: 1. it’s free. 2. You can apply Olympus Art Filters to the RAW images 3. Because it’s the manufacturer’s own software, it was developed to provide the kind of quality images that the camera was designed to capture. But like many camera manufacturers’ RAW processing software, it is a bit on the slow side. That was the surprise.
Although past experience with their previous versions of this software were similar, I had hoped that this newer version would be faster. I tried a few other RAW processing programs, but liked the Olympus results best even though the other programs proved to be faster. Perhaps with more tweaking I may have found settings that would have rendered more pleasing results, but I was more interested in getting to know my new camera this year than learning about new software.
Feeling a bit annoyed about the RAW editing situation with my new camera, I decided to try capturing my shots in the RAW + JPEG setting, which saves both RAW and JPEG files for every capture. I noticed that a lot of the images I was capturing with the new camera didn’t need much enhancement during computer postwork so I figured I could just capture both file formats at once and only process the RAW files of the images that needed additional exposure or color corrections. Shooting this way is a favorite way of many photographers. It will eat up space on your memory cards, but memory is cheap so it’s not usually a huge issue. It did become an issue for me on a recent trip to NYC, but that is a post for another time.
So during spring and early summer, I shot RAW+JPEG for almost everything. It worked well for the most part, but because I spent so much time experimenting with different settings during RAW processing, I was ending up with far too many images to sort down later during the second part of my editing process (see my past posts: "Go With The (Work)Flow" and "Raw To Fully Cooked: How I Develop My Raw ImageFiles.") There were so many of them and it started to become tedious. I was starting to feel like the drudgery of it all was crushing my love of photography. I wanted to be outside taking photos, not sitting inside sorting and editing those photos. Surely there had to be an easier way.
While outside on a lovely summer day, I decided that I would play around with my camera’s art filter settings. My Olympus OMD EM5 has settings which applies a variety of artistic effects to your images. If shooting RAW+JPEG, the effect is applied to the JPEG only. The RAW file will have default settings that will render a more natural image (contrast will be set at 0, color saturation at Natural.) Any of the art filter effects can be applied to the RAW image during postprocessing, but the JPEG images will be as captured so you can not apply the art filter effects to those JPEG images nor reverse them if the image was captured with an art filter applied. For this reason, a RAW+JPEG capture makes sense when using those art filters. And while that can be a good thing, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just better to make an artistic decision on the spot and stick with it rather than being stuck with way too many versions of the same image to sort through later on when deciding which images you want to share online or print.
So I got an idea, why not just try dropping the "safety net" of RAW, and just capture the image in the JPEG format. This was a big step on my part, this meant committing to my settings. If I wanted a "straight" version of a particular scene, I was going to have to take another photo and risk that the light, focus, or bokeh may not be as pleasing and thus may end up not being useable. That would mean I would be stuck with only the arty effect version and if I later changed mind it would be too late.
But I’m the experimental type, so I accepted that fact. With rare exception, I have been spending the rest of the summer in JPEG capture mode. I shot RAW for a few sessions because I needed to work quickly and wanted to make sure I could more easily change color balance or fix exposure later if necessary, or maybe even add art filter effects to a few special images. And one other time I captured RAW when I was short on time, and wanted to capture the image so that the JPEGs had an art filter effect applied, but then I could later batch process the RAW files to also have the straight versions on file. I have really been enjoying the freedom that capturing in JPEG has given me. I have been spending less of my time fixing images in the computer, and more time outside taking them. And that’s how I like it!
If you are a heavy volume shooter, why not give JPEG a chance? Here are a few tips to help you capture high quality JPEG images:
White balance takes on greater importance when capturing in JPEG mode. This is truer for some cameras than others. Past experience has proven that some cameras’ JPEGs are much more flexible in postprocessing than others. My Olympus 5000UZ digicam’s JPEGs have very little flexibility for postprocessing. There is very little room for error as the images will quickly loose detail and show digital artifacts. My previous dslr, an Olympus E1, can handle color corrections better but can only take small changes in exposure fixes before artifacts start appearing. My Olympus EM5 however renders JPEGs with more flexibility. I have been pleasantly surprised by this fact many times.
But nonetheless, it is still always better to get the white balance set correctly during the time of capture when shooting in JPEG mode. I have a lot of experience shooting so setting correct white balance in normal lighting conditions is not usually a problem. If it becomes a problem, I can always choose to switch to capture RAW or RAW+JPEG. Sometimes I like the way scene looks with different white balances, so I may decide to a shoot another series of the same subject with a different white balance. If I find myself dong that too much, I again will switch to a RAW capture setting. But the whole point of shooting in JPEG for me was to cut down on excess variations of images and save myself processing time, I have been finding myself committing to some of my artistic decisions and not shooting as many "safe" shots as I may have done at the beginning of the spring season.
Because I’m experienced, I often choose to manually choose white balance. Auto white balance can work in some situations, but it is too often confused by a subject's color and can pick the wrong color balance. This is true regardless of camera manufacturer – no matter how much they try to improve it. If shooting JPEGs, it is better to choose one of the white balance presents or for more experienced users, to manually enter a white balance number. A neat feature that many cameras have is a white balance bracketing feature. Like exposure bracketing, the camera will shoot a series of images with different white balance settings as specified by the photographer. Read your camera’s manual to find out how to correctly set white balance in your camera.
Lock In Your Exposure
Like white balance, exposure also gains greater importance. RAW files offer more flexibility in correcting exposure errors. So when shooting JPEG, make sure you get the exposure correct at the time of capture. Shooting JPEG these past couple of months has actually improved my photography as I now pay more attention to my exposure and white balance settings. It’s not that was a sloppy and careless shooter before, far from it. But sometimes just getting the exposure close enough was good enough because I knew I could take it the rest of the way in RAW processing. Now I am trying even harder to get it right in camera, and I have found that many of my newest images need absolutely no enhancements of any kind after capture. It is not only a time saver, but a necessity if you are capturing images in the JPEG format and want the highest quality images possible.
Use your camera’s highest quality JPEG setting, the one that offers the least compression ratio. Using higher compression rates will fit more images onto a card, but the image data will be compressed resulting in loss of detail and an increase of digital artifacts. It is very important to choose the lowest compression rate for the highest quality images.
As far as any other picture settings, that is a matter of personal taste and what gear you are using. For most photo situations, I like "middle of the road" type settings: Contrast 0, Sharpness 0, and Saturation/Picture Mode: Natural.
Each camera, photographer, and subject is different so you may decide on different settings. Some people like all those settings set to negative numbers such as: contrast –2 sharpness –2. To me, that produces too soft of an image. But that is the entire point, to capture a soft image that can later be manipulated into an image with more contrast and sharpness later. Some feel it renders a more beautiful look than shooting it that way in the first place. But I feel that if I need to do all that work later to enhance this soft JPEG image, then I might as well just shoot in RAW. My goal is to capture an image in camera that is as close to the finished image as possible. I’ll even occasionally set the contrast at a plus (or negative) setting if the scene warrants it, and will also increase or decrease color saturation as necessary. Some hot colors, like a bright red, need to be toned down a bit if any texture of the object (usually a flower petal in my case) to show through.As far as the sharpness settings, I leave that at 0 and just add sharpness later on a per use basis after resizing for printing or display on the internet. Adding sharpness can introduce digital artifacts to the image, degrading image quality. This is not usually a problem if you are going to print at the files native resolution, but if you are going to upsize for printing or downsize for the web, it can be a problem. Some say setting the sharpness to a negative number and then adding sharpness later is the way to go, but it’s not a setting that I choose as I am happy with the images I have been producing at the 0 setting.
Many cameras have special features and effects. Read your camera’s manual to find out what your camera uniquely has to offer you. I use an Olympus OMD EM5. Among the unique features it has, I particularly enjoy its art filters. After all, that was what got me shooting JPEG this summer.
Sometimes the effects can be gimmicky, especially when overused. But when used purposefully and with restraint, it can be a way to capture a stunning and artsy image in camera. The pinhole art filter has become a favorite of mine because it does in camera what I typically create in postwork which is to darken the edges and enhance color. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the darkening is too obvious or distracting or the image ends up being too contrasty. But when it does work, it is quite a wonderful thing. And no postwork required.
A special feature many cameras have is live view. In my case I have both an LCD live view on the back of my camera, and an electronic viewfinder. I have my camera set so that the display will change with changes in settings to the exposure for a what you see is what you get view. I also have the option of viewing a live histogram which can aid in exposure. Live view and my EVF are two more features that have helped with my JPEG experiments this summer. While it’s very possible to set exposure without the benefit of live view, it sure does make it faster and easier. Plus when using art filters, I can preview the effect in the viewfinder which helps me to visualize the finished image and choose the best composition.
Read your camera manual and experiment with some new effects and techniques to help you capture hiqh quality JPEGs.
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