A photo finish debate

One hallmark of a professional DSLR camera is the ability to capture RAW image files — that preserve every detail an imaging sensor is capable of gathering the moment a photograph is taken. Yet working professionals wielding the latest and greatest in megapixel-magnums still choose to throttle back to the more common image format know as JPEG, which slims down data-size of each photo by half or more, but in doing so, slims down image details and processing options. Here are two takes about why two pros choose one format over another.

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Job: Professional nature photographer and writer
Top choice: JPEG
As far as exposure correction goes, yes, it is true that RAW gives more latitude. But we’d be poor professionals if we can’t get within a stop of the correct exposure at the get-go, and JPEG offers at least one full stop, if not more, in correction. I do shoot in RAW and JPEG at times and have compared many, many images. Most of the time, the difference in detail between the two is so minuscule as to be unimportant, even indistinguishable, although admittedly there are times that it can be noticeable. I find that the difference is most noticeable on cloudy days and poor light, and for that reason, I do sometimes shoot RAW.
RAW does wonders when it comes to white balance in images. But given the wide range of filters and color correction available in post processing, “white balance” changes are easily simulated. And of course, you can change white balance at the time of shooting JPEG, which is easy and effective.
Now, if a person is a landscape photographer like my friend and OWAA member Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, taking great time to set up a shot, and taking just a few frames of it, why not shoot RAW? I’m guessing she does, and I would, too.
But shooting wildlife, I shoot hundreds of images a day. I do so because there will always be that one where the animal’s expression is perfect, where the blade of grass blew sideways and doesn’t cover that eye, where the wings of the duck are perfect so that the speculum shows. I’m simply not about to process that many RAW files, nor have my camera pause, nor have my hard drive clogged. Even my super-fast, i7, filled to-the-brim-with-RAM computer runs noticeably slower when working with a folder full of RAW files. It drives me nuts. And at the output size (even a double truck) that my clients use, the extra trouble of shooting RAW is unnecessary. I have no clients that request RAW files these days, and in converting that image to a JPEG for them, unless there was a great difference in the original RAW vs. the original JPEG, that difference is virtually lost when converting the RAW file to a JPEG anyway. Even in my print-making, at very large sizes, I see no advantage.
So are RAW files better? Theoretically, yes. In actuality, sometimes. In daily use for the purpose of so many of our OWAA members? I see no need, except under certain circumstances.
If someone wants to shoot RAW, I would never discourage them from doing so. Much depends upon on how the image will be used. But I still maintain that for the vast majority of working pros, JPEG not only is adequate, but often the best way to go. ♦
—Michael Furtman has been a full-time writer and photographer since 1982. He was one of the first pros to make the transition from film to digital. Furtman is a contributing editor for Ducks Unlimited Magazine, principal photographer for Puddler magazine and a contributor to many other publications. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota.

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