RAW, cooked, and other options
Two things happened recently, which motivated me to write this article. The idea that "Fuji is cheating with ISO" has resurfaced; but this time, a number of interesting observations were made in regards to in camera RAW files. And I also had a look at my (rather limited) photo sales from last year. And was surprised to discover half of them were coming from in-camera JPEGs.
I almost always shoot a combination of RAW+JPEG and decide what to use, and what and how to process, afterwards. I have somehow changed my views on RAW vs. JPEG use during recent years. Actually, a couple years ago I published an article in my previous blog, which was decidedly pro-RAW, in terms of methodology and practice. Now, I'm inclined in viewing this matter in, hopefully, broader terms. And, to be absolutely honest, I now find the "I shoot RAW" mentality -which was even made into a kind of a cult in recent years, full with assorted T-shirts- kind of hilariously childish.
It's very common, in online discussions, to compare OOC JPEGs to film slides and RAWs to negative film. I can relate to this kind of comparisons. After all, chemical-based photography has been dominant for close to two centuries; as a result, we are used to utilize relevant metaphors for anything photography-related. The rationale here is that, negative film has a lot more processing latitude, esp. in highlight regions, in relation to color-positive film.
Although this makes some kind of weird, limited practical sense, and is perhaps somewhat romantic-sounding, it is also a quite restricted comparison. Although RAW is a "latent" image format, if you consider it in terms of image information it potentially carries, it is also much more, simply because it is a binary file. It makes more sense to me, to compare JPEGS and RAW files to their data analogies in the computer world. You can say RAWs are like source code (perhaps with some pre-compiled headers) which need a compiler to make an executable file. While JPEGs are precompiled libraries used through an interpreter.
Things get strange soon enough, if one actually considers what's in RAW files and the realization they are not... "raw enough" after all.
For example, RAW files usually contain lens correction info, used by conversion applications to eliminate distortions and chromatic abnormalities. It is also common knowledge that, most camera makers, actually "cook" their RAW files for optimal results.
Highlight response in the original (and, probably, the latest version of) Olympus' E-M5 is one example of this in-camera raw manipulation. Several manufacturers possibly incorporate noise reduction in their RAW file creation. It's important to remember, that there are several points in the image creation process where changes can be implemented to the initial sensor capture.
Another important aspect of RAW files is that they are proprietary and, thus, severely undocumented in most cases. We have previously referred to different RAW-processing options producing wildly different results with some cameras. This proprietary nature is the pet gripe of many photographers, and not without reason. Unfortunately, no consensus on a common intermediate file (such as a previously proposed DNG format) was ever reached between manufacturers, and it's easy to see why, when you consider the freedom a proprietary format provides in manipulating data to a "marketable" optimal result. It wouldn't be such a great service to photographic evolution anyway, in my opinion, should camera manufacturers could agree upon a universal "extended information digital image" format, to replace proprietary RAW files. That would just be like moving goalposts once again. People would again try to find ways to get "better conversion results" by, perhaps, hacking camera firmware. In short, this would just add another layer of complexity.
On the other hand, we have "real" picture formats with JPEGs being the industry standard. Please let us remember that a camera capture, in 12, 14 or 16 bits, has to, at least, be translated to a universally viewable picture file before it can be called "a photograph". JPEGs seem to be one of the "weakest" options in terms of quality containing highly compressed information. There are certainly cases where dynamic range considerations make out of camera JPEGs inappropriate for the intented use. But please let's remember this is due to the embedded second layer of in camera processing, after actual RAW creation/manipulation.
Let's not forget this: in camera JPEG creation, largely uses the same algorithms that any computer-based RAW conversion application does. It's just that, supposedly, in-camera JPEG creation is not powerful enough for some cases. Or is it?
In fact, many users seem to forget that cameras incorporate a number of extended JPEG creation settings. As an example, I've read complaints about Fuji having "softer looking" JPEGs (even among different models); Fuji also has comprehensive options in-camera for JPEG creation (even directly converted from RAW). In another example, Olympus cameras not only have a huge selection of WB options, but also several CUSTOM used-defined ones.
But, in defense of OOC JPEGs, the main attraction is probably in-camera "filters", "film simulations" and such. Which brings us back to analog metaphors once more.
I have spoken through recent years with literally hundreds of professional photographers. Especially the older ones among them, having a solid career build during the film era, were almost exclusively JPEG shooters. For many of them, JPEG shooting was akin to choosing a particular film for a particular instance. Luckily, modern cameras not only provide a multitude of "simulation" options, but also, in many cases, the ability to "bracket" them for achieving different looks from the same capture. In any case, what these people say is this: "we don't have either the time or the inclination to do extensive computer-based image manipulation". They are, by and large, the same kind of people that didn't develop their own negatives "back then". Which, perhaps surprisingly for a lot of people, include a huge number of photographic icons, in genres as diverse as fashion, photojournalism and fine art photography.
To be blunt, think of it this way: the number of people manipulating their own pictures, actually skyrocketed with the arrival of widespread digital photography. Suddenly, everyone and their dog became an image processing expert. Ring any bells? I'll go out on a limb here and state that I prefer even the cheesiest (modern) in-camera JPEG filters over monstrosities I've seen through the years, created through Photoshop and other expensive image manipulation applications.
Options: it's nice having as many of them as possible. Today, even the most basic options can be quite satisfying for the majority of uses: we can make our photography lives both interesting and easy at the same time.