When I started my modern journey into photography, I simply shot in JPG. I was happy with the results, and the images I was able to produce. It was only later that I was introduced to a now good friend and he said: "You should always shoot RAW! You can edit so much more if you do.". It's not hard to find many 'beginner' videos all touting the value of RAW for post editing, and how it's the step from beginner to serious photographer (and editor).
Today, I would like to explore why I have turned off RAW on my camera bodies for good. This is a deeply personal decision, and I hope that my experience helps you to think about your own creative choices. If you want to stay shooting RAW and editing - good on you. If this encourages you to try turning back to JPG - good on you too.
There are two primary reasons for why I turned off RAW:
I have always been unhappy with the colour output of my editing software when processing RAW images. As someone who is colour blind I did not know if it was just my perception, or if real issues existed. No one else complained so it must just be me right!
Eventually I stumbled on an article about how to develop real colour and extract camera film simulations for my editor. I was interested in both the ability to get true reflections of colour in my images, but also to use the film simulations in post (the black and white of my camera body is beautiful and soft, but my editor is harsh).
I spent a solid week testing and profiling both of my cameras. I quickly realised a great deal about what was occuring in my editor, but also my camera body.
The editor I have, is attempting to generalise over the entire set of sensors that a manufacturer has created. They are also attempting to create a true colour output profile, that is as reflective of reality as possible. So when I was exporting RAWs to JPG, I was seeing the differences between what my camera hardware is, vs the editors profiles. (This was particularly bad on my older body, so I suspect the RAW profiles are designed for the newer sensor).
I then created film simulations and quickly noticed the subtle changes. Blacks were blacker, but retained more fine detail with the simulation. Skin tone was softer. Exposure was more even across a variety of image types. How? RAW and my editor is meant to create the best image possible? Why is a film-simulation I have "extracted" creating better images?
As any good engineer would do I created sample images. A/B testing. I would provide the RAW processed by my editor, and a RAW processed with my film simulation. I would vary the left/right of the image, exposure, subject, and more. After about 10 tests across 5 people, only on one occasion did someone prefer the RAW from my editor.
At this point I realised that my camera manufacturer is hiring experts who build, live and breath colour technology. They have tested and examined everything about the body I have, and likely calibrated it individually in the process to make produce exact reproductions as they see in a lab. They are developing colour profiles that are not just broadly applicable, but also pleasing to look at (even if not accurate reproductions).
So how can my film simulations I extracted and built in a week, measure up to the experts? I decided to find out. I shot test images in JPG and RAW and began to provide A/B/C tests to people.
If the editor RAW was washed out compared to the RAW with my film simulation, the JPG from the body made them pale in comparison. Every detail was better, across a range of conditions. The features in my camera body are better than my editor. Noise reduction, dynamic range, sharpening, softening, colour saturation. I was holding in my hands a device that has thousands of hours of expert design, that could eclipse anything I built on a weekend for fun to achieve the same.
It was then I came to think about and realise ...
Photography is a complex skill. It's not having a fancy camera and just clicking the shutter, or zooming in. Photography is about taking that camera and putting it in a position to take a well composed image based on many rules (and exceptions) that I am still continually learning.
When you stop to look at an image you should always think "how can I compose the best image possible?".
So why shoot in RAW? RAW is all about enabling editing in post. After you have already composed and taken the image. There are valid times and useful functions of editing. For example whitebalance correction and minor cropping in some cases. Both of these are easily conducted with JPG with no loss in quality compared to the RAW. I still commonly do both of these.
However RAW allows you to recover mistakes during composition (to a point). For example, the powerful base-curve fusion module allows dynamic range "after the fact". You may even add high or low pass filters, or mask areas to filter and affect the colour to make things pop, or want that RAW data to make your vibrance control as perfect as possible. You may change the perspective, or even add filters and more. Maybe you want to optimise de-noise to make smooth high ISO images. There are so many options!
But all these things are you composing after. Today, many of these functions are in your camera - and better performing. So while I'm composing I can enable dynamic range for the darker elements of the frame. I can compose and add my colour saturation (or remove it). I can sharpen, soften. I can move my own body to change perspective. All at the time I am building the image in my mind, as I compose, I am able to decide on the creative effects I want to place in that image. I'm not longer just composing within a frame, but a canvas of potential effects.
To me this was an important distinction. I always found I was editing poorly-composed images in an attempt to "fix" them to something acceptable. Instead I should have been looking at how to compose them from the start to be great, using the tool in my hand - my camera.
Really, this is a decision that is yours. Do you spend more time now to make the image you want? Or do you spend it later editing to achieve what you want?
Photography is a creative process. You will have your own ideas of how that process should look, and how you want to work with it. Great! This was my experience and how I have arrived at a creative process that I am satisfied with. I hope that it provides you an alternate perspective to the generally accepted "RAW is imperative" line that many people advertise.