Build complex toys and simple tools
by Tony Karp
Restoring lost shadow detail in JPEG images
There are many myths surrounding the supposed superiority of raw shooting over working with JPEGs. If this were about text, raw would win hands down, since there are many more articles about how raw is better than JPEG. Unfortunately, it's about images, not words, and there is very little in the way of images to support the many claims of the raw shooters.

One of the central themes in the raw vs jpeg debate is the idea, put forth by the raw crowd, that JPEG images are sort of like Kodachrome slides -- whatever comes out of the camera, that's it. Your pictures can't be edited to fix up any faults, so if you're shooting JPEGs, you better get it just right when you shoot the picture or all is lost

Sometimes I wonder if the raw advocates have ever tried shooting JPEG, and if they ever gave it some sort of a fair trial. It's a shame that a lot of people will purchase a new camera and head straight to raw processing without ever seeing what they could get from JPEGs.

You're missing something, guys. Here's an example of what you can do with a JPEG image. It was shot on my Panasonic DMC-FZ18. It's a picture of Black Branch where it meets Bull Run.
Original JPEG image of Black Branch is way underexposed - Restoring lost shadow detail in JPEG images - - art  - photography - by Tony Karp
Here's the original shot of Black Branch. It's way underexposed. Since this is a JPEG, the conventional wisdom would be to drag the file to trash can. Can't be saved. If only I'd shot it in raw. But it's a JPEG, so all is lost.
JPEG image of Black Branch after processing in LightZone - Restoring lost shadow detail in JPEG images - - art  - photography - by Tony Karp
Not so fast. After putting the picture into LightZone 3.2, I used the "Relight" tool as a first approximation to open up the shadows without throwing away too much of the highlight detail. Then, some more tweaking resulted in this image. Not bad for an old JPEG that started out looking pretty hopeless.
JPEG image of Black Branch after final processing in LightZone - Restoring lost shadow detail in JPEG images - - art  - photography - by Tony Karp
But wait, there's more. Here, I brought up the colors a little bit, lightened the picture still more, and boosted the contrast and detail. Using masking, it would be possible to work on bringing out the best in smaller areas of the picture, but I wanted to see what could be done with just a few simple adjustments.
As I've shown, there's a lot of detail hiding in an image that seems destined for the trash can. All it takes is a few tools, a little patience and a little experience. So don't be afraid to set your camera to JPEG. You can get results just as good as the raw shooters, and with a lot less work.

Some notes. The original image was shot at ISO 125. Bringing out the shadow detail the way I did is equivalent to "pushing the speed" of a film. Here, the ISO in the shadows has been pushed to at least 3000 to get this detail. The FZ18 produces very noisy images at the higher ISOs, whether you're shooting raw or JPEG, so the results, seen closely, are noisy. In this picture, the noise gives the picture a painterly aspect that's very pleasing, so I guess I was lucky. In any case, I was able to take an unusable image and render it usable.

Almost every picture, whether raw or JPEG, no matter how neatly you nailed the white balance and exposure, still needs work after you get it on the computer. It's a chance to move an image from good to great. For me, it's easier starting with a JPEG, as I can use any album software I want and any photo editor I want. They all work with JPEG. I can even set a folder to display thumbnails if the images are JPEG. All around, it's a lot easier, and a lot more fun.

Here's the main reason why you can't do a valid raw vs JPEG comparison. Manufacturers keep introducing new camera models, and each new generation has better and faster JPEG processing. So whatever comparison you see this week, won't be valid when the next model comes out.

For instance, Panasonic produces a number of "superzoom" cameras, which now include real wide-angle lenses. On most digital cameras with lenses this wide, there is significant barrel distortion (rectangular objects become barrel-shaped) at the camera's wide angle zoom setting. In addition, many cameras of this type also produce significant color fringing that shows up as green or purple fringes in high-contrast areas of the image.

Somehow, the engineers at Panasonic worked their magic and made both of these problems vanish during the in-camera JPEG processing. It's transparent. People who shoot JPEG format with these cameras don't even know that their camera has these faults, since they never see them in their finished images.

People who shoot raw with these cameras have another story. They can fix these problems on their own when they "develop" their raw format images, and they can have endless discussions about which third-party software does the best job of fixing things the JPEG users don't even think about.
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