The FZ18's ability to save files in Raw format has caused a lot of buzz in the online forums.
There's a myth in the world of digital photography that you have to save your images in Raw format in order to get pictures of the highest quality. Then you can tinker with them on the computer to squeeze the most from every picture file. The downside is that Raw files take up much more space on the camera's memory card, storing them takes more time and can result in delays when you're shooting a lot of pictures, and "developing" your Raw images into finished pictures can take a lot longer than you thought it would.
There was a time when cars with manual transmissions could outperform those with an automatic transmission in both performance and economy. The downside was that the manual transmission was a lot harder to learn and use, especially when in driving in heavy traffic. What happened was that automatic transmissions got better and better, while manual transmissions stayed about the same. Today, automatic transmissions offer convenience while yielding the same economy and performance as a manual.
The same thing has happened in the world of digital cameras. At first, saving image files in Raw format offered an advantage over JPEG in terms of image quality. But improvements in sensor design and in-camera software have lessened this advantage to a great degree. As a result it gets harder and harder to show the advantage of Raw over JPEG in all but the most extreme cases.
So I'm going to propose the idea of shooting in "medium," which will yield most of the benefits of shooting in Raw, while keeping the convenience of shooting in JPEG. We'll see that the first 10% of the effort takes you 90% of the way. I shoot in JPEG format, and so do a number of professional photographers that I know.
There's another reason for this proposal. People who are new to the world of digital photography are bombarded with all sorts of information about choosing and using digital cameras and it's sometimes hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. A lot of the talk on the online forums centers around the use of Raw processing. So it's easy for a beginner to get the impression that this is the only way to use their digital camera.
So let's try shooting in "medium" with the DMC-FZ18. We'll start with noise. In the old days, we called this grain. In digital cameras, noise is like the static on a bad phone line, adding random bits of data that aren't part of the picture.
I think that any discussion of noise should also examine the quality of the noise as well as the quantity.
For instance, my Minolta A2 had a very unusual noise pattern at the higher ISO ratings. Not only was there a lot of random noise, but it also formed a pattern of stripes that ran lengthwise in the picture frame. Pretty much impossible to fix.
Some noise is ugly, while other noise is charming, resembling film grain. In the old days, grain added a verisimilitude to a photograph taken by available light.
Some noise is easy to remove in post processing, even when there is a lot of it, while other noise leaves artifacts behind when you try to remove it.
Some noise generates dots of random color, while other noise is the same color as the subject.
Some noise occurs only in the shadows, while other noise occurs uniformly over the whole image.
Some noise obscures detail, while other noise may be lessened in areas where there is detail.
Most of the time, you'll want your digital photographs to be as noise-free as possible. But there may be times when you want to accentuate the noise to look like film grain and add a texture the picture.
My first photographs with the DMC-FZ18 didn't impress me that much. They seemed to lack the crisp, sharp look of pictures I took with my old DMC-FZ5. Looking through the FZ18's menus, I found an item labeled "Pict.Adj." Selecting this item brought up a list of four items that could be fiddled with. The one that interested me was "Noise Reduction."
So I set it to -2. This turns off most (or all) of the in-camera noise reduction. The next set of pictures that I took were a lot sharper, with plenty of crisp detail. It's better to fix whatever noise is in the picture when the picture is in the computer. The tools are better and it can take as long as you want. The in-camera noise processing obviously has to work a lot faster and won't do as good a job.
The noise in the FZ18's images was already quite low. Almost zero noise at 100 ISO. Noise at 200 ISO shows up mainly in the shadows, but you still get plenty of detail. At 400 ISO, it's still useable and may be preferable to using flash in situations where natural light is preferred.
It all depends on what size prints you're going to make, and what you consider as noise. If you're just making small prints you may not have to fix the noise, but the opportunity is always there if you need it.
So the first step in shooting in "medium" is turning off the in-camera noise reduction. It gives sharper noise that's easier to clean up in post processing, and it will yield more detail and less smearing.
In the next installment, we'll apply shooting in "medium" to getting the right exposure.
An old photographer's joke
Old photographer A: You'll get better results if you shoot in Raw.
Old photographer B: I tried shooting in the raw, but the neighbors complained.