Question: What's the difference between photography and the Olympic diving event?
Answer: In Olympic diving you get extra points for degree of difficulty.
I think that it all came together yesterday while I was talking with an old friend who lives up in New York City. He told me that he had just gotten a brand new Canon G9 -- the latest and the greatest in point-and-shoot cameras, rumored to be the best in its class.
He'd had it for a week, so I asked him what sort of pictures he'd taken with his new camera. "I haven't used it yet," he told me. Why not, I asked? "I have to wait until I can get the latest version of Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw that support the G9." So why not just shoot some pictures at the highest-quality JPEG setting? "The results won't be as good," he said.
The analogy that he gave me is that shooting JPEG is sort of like shooting slides, whereas shooting in Raw is like shooting negative film, which gives more flexibility in producing the finished image.
So Raw-is-best may be true for the G9, and if it is, shame on Canon. But what about other cameras, specifically my new Panasonic DMC-FZ18? And since when did everybody decide that the only way to get good results from these supposedly hobbyist cameras is to shoot in Raw format?
Stepping into the Wayback Machine, we travel back to the late 1950's. A photographer like me would choose negative film for black and white, and slide film for color. The choice is based on economics rather than aesthetics.
Fast forward to 1997, when I took up photography again. Now negative color film is practical. It has more latitude than slides, and I can scan the images into my computer and work with them there. But it's still a pain. I have to take the film to be processed and I have to scan every image into the computer, while adjusting the scanner for best results.
In 2001 I bought my first digital camera. Wow! Shoot some pictures, hook the camera to the computer, and in just a few minutes all my images are ready to work with. Yes, they're JPEGs, but it's all this camera produces, so I'm guilt-free.
Jump another six years forward and I have a Panasonic DMC-FZ18 which shoots both Raw and JPEG. So I try shooting in Raw and wow!, I'm back in 1997. All of the fun is gone. Now I have a "workflow," and I can agonize over which software package is better for "developing" my Raw images. Now I can fiddle and tweak each image just to get to the point that's as good as the JPEG from the DMC-FZ18.
So I finally reach several conclusions:
1. With a few adjustments to the settings, the DMC-FZ18 can produce JPEGs that are as good or better than can be produced from shooting Raw. The combination of tweakable settings and in-camera processing are hard to beat.
2. With even the simplest of photo editing programs, the FZ-18's JPEGs can be easily tweaked to make up for problems with noise, white balance, and exposure.
3. Shooting in Raw format is a pain. It slows you down when you're shooting, it slows you down when you're working with your pictures on the computer, it's a memory hog on both the camera and the computer, it requires special software, and it adds greatly to the complexity of your photography without a real benefit that makes it worth the effort. To me, it takes a lot of the fun out of photography.
But wait, there's more.
Take a look at the two pictures below. They were both shot with my Panasonic DMC-FZ18. Both of these pictures are crops, of identical size, cut from the upper-left corner of the original image.
The left-hand picture, shot in Raw, was "developed" in SILKYPIX software, included with the camera. The right-hand picture was shot in JPEG Fine, with these settings: Contrast -2, Noise Reduction -2, Sharpness +1. While the Raw version looks zippier, the JPEG version is actually more accurate. But that's for a different discussion.
What's far more interesting is that a close comparison of the two pictures reveals the fact that the DMC-FZ18 is doing something magical to the JPEG images without telling us. Other than differences in image quality, these two pictures should be identical. But they're not.
Start by looking at the picture of the train on the left side of the Raw version. Notice that the top of the train picture is wider than the bottom. Some sort of distortion here. Now look at the JPEG version. The sides are square with no distortion. Notice also that the shelf at the upper left corner of the picture seems tilted down on the left side in the Raw version, but is straight in the JPEG.
It looks like the DMC-FZ18 is working some sort of in-camera magic to fix things. Further tests showed that the DMC-FZ18's lens has significant barrel distortion at the widest angle (I will be posting more pictures that show this clearly). This is corrected by the in-camera processing while saving as JPEG.
In addition, looking along the left side of the two pictures reveals that the JPEG image has been cropped slightly when compared to the Raw version. Not to worry, the JPEG version correlates very closely with what you see in the DMC-FZ18's viewfinder.
This adds a whole new dimension to the Raw vs JPEG debate. Up until now, we've assumed that both versions would be identically sized and the difference would be in the individual pixels. (I tried this comparison on my Kodak P880 and both Raw and JPEG were exactly the same size, so the DMC-FZ18 may doing be something new.)
The Raw processing for the DMC-FZ18 will now have to include distortion correction, something the JPEG user gets thrown in for free. It also complicates the use of Raw processing software because it will have to be matched to this specific camera and lens. It also complicates the testing and reviewing of this camera. How can the reviewer accurately report on the presence of barrel distortion if it occurs in Raw and is significantly less in JPEG?
What's interesting in this debate is that the proponents of Raw processing have posted so few comparison images that demonstrate the clear superiority of their method. I'm not talking about giant enlargements of tiny areas that show the minute differences in sharpness. What I'd like to see is full-frame comparisons that really show that Raw processing is better than JPEG. (And while you're at it, show how you handle this distortion thing.)
Until that day, I'm shooting guilt-free JPEGs on my Panasonic DMC-FZ18.