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RAW or JPEG? - Out-of-Camera or Lightroom?

Are you a fan of Out-of-Camera (OOC) images? Do you aim to "get everything right" on scene? Are you out with a single prime lens and use the film emulations inside your camera, preferring the black-and-white ones? Or are you the type of photographer that finds joy in developing each and every image? The discussion comes up every week in social media. Now, that more and more photographers restrict themselves to smartphones, it gets even a new twist. 

My answer is clear. I shoot RAW. So let me explain a few reasons, why I do that. I will, by no means, try to convince you to do the same. If you are happy with what you do, and it works, do it!

  • First, it is clear that images need to be processed. The transfer from RAW to JPEG has to be done somewhere. You can leave that to the camera, slightly guided by a few settings for saturation, sharpness etc., or you can do it yourself. Obviously, the latter provides a lot more control. But it also needs more control. 
  • I also like to have two versions of an image, done with different processing. That is impossible in the camera. The RAW is simply lost. Once the image is sharpened by the camera, often over-sharpened, it can no longer be unsharpened. To change the color balance of a JPEG is possible, but only within very tight limits. 
  • I can very well understand any hesitation to start the computer for image processing, or even just for viewing. Most of us are sitting in front of the screen too long and too often. For me, however, it is plain fun to develop images, not a burden. If I did weddings or sport events for the newspaper, I'd be happy to avoid this, and only select the good results. But I care for each single image I keep. So, I am willing to start Lightroom and spend a few minutes on each image.
  • Not only do I like editing images, I also think that it is necessary to do so for my style of photography. I want to focus on a specific motive, presented in the composition, color and style, that works the best. I cannot always do that in the field, or it would be far too much hassle. It is so much fun to be out there. Don't spoil it with setting up your camera more than necessary. And there is enough to care about when taking an image. There is always some adjustment, some crop, color or light change, that I rather want to do later.
  • Why do I crop images? I know the theory about a single prime lens and never cropping an image, or at least keep the original aspect ratio. I do not subscribe to that. I use a zoom to be able to show exactly what I want to show. Not all motives are in 2:3, so I crop to a working area. My favorite ratio for landscapes is 16:9. That does work well on most screens, especially on TVs. For portraits, I often feel like cropping off some space below or above the person. If you need the image for a specific print size, it is good to have the RAW available to select the format you need, isn't it?
  • When I ask friends or other viewers about my images, the most frequent claim is that they do not give enough context. If you look at the image above, it could be taken anywhere. Context is what interests many non-photographers the most. But to me, it is just as boring as the technical details. I do take pictures with a context. I.e., the image is about a specific subject or specific group of persons, a specific time, and taking by me while I was there. But I try to take them in a way that would be interesting to anyone who does not have the context. To achieve that, I cannot help but carefully develop my images, even if they are taken while passing by.
  • Finally, we need to talk about image quality, disregarding color adjustments, dodge and burn, crops, spec removals. Can't those modern cameras or smartphones with all their AI and processing power achieve the same or even better results than me in Lightroom? I don't see this. Concerning smartphones, the small sensor size is restricting the IQ. It is okay in good light and viewed on a small screen. But I can see the difference even on my moderately sized screen. I admit that many of the images I took with a smartphone (and developed on the phone!) are nice, and I like them. That would apply even more to in camera JPEGs of a modern camera. But things can go terribly wrong if the light is not exactly right.
So far to my reasons to shoot RAW. If you don't, have fun with what you do! I have no doubts that a good photographer can get a good image without my tedious process. But to summarize my points, I find it easier and more rewarding to edit my images in post. I prefer not to know what a smartphone or my Nikon might have done to the scene below.


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