You may have already decided that JPEGs are the perfect fit for your photography, or perhaps that they are not for you at all and you would prefer to use raw instead. Either is fine.
Like most of the choices photographers are presented with (such as zoom vs prime or DSLR vs mirrorless) there is no right or wrong answer; there are just different options that suit some users and shooting situations, but not others.
More realistically, just as you would choose different lenses for different subjects, you might now appreciate the merits of switching between JPEG and raw depending on what you’re shooting.
If you’re the kind of enthusiast who likes to shoot ‘artistic’ photography for personal enjoyment, you will most likely want to use raw for post-processing your shots.
But equally there are other occasions when JPEG is more appropriate, such as casual outings with family and friends. This is particularly true if you want to share your pictures immediately, either on social media or to give away copies.
JPEGs are much better now
When I started shooting digital I invariably shot in raw, and my first digital camera couldn’t even record a JPEG alongside.
For years I kept to the same practice of shooting raw exclusively, not least to maximise the use of precious storage space on my CF cards.
The JPEGs my older cameras produced weren’t all that good anyway, so I never used them. But more recently with cameras that make much better JPEGs, I’ve changed my mind.
Now I shoot with the expectation of being able to use the JPEG files, although I still record raw files alongside them.
So what, technically, makes a camera good at producing JPEGs? Attractive colour rendition is a given. And while all cameras can come up with perfectly good-looking output, some have a little more magic than others (just as certain film emulsions did before them).
Consistent auto white balance is crucial, unless you’re prepared to mess around with changing presets all the time.
Likewise, accurate metering is critical, while dynamic-range-expansion tools let you make the most of the data your camera’s sensor can record.
Make use of your camera’s tools
Lots of other features can help with JPEG shooting.
Viewfinder gridlines and electronic levels keep your horizons straight, while live histograms and overexposure warnings are useful to avoid clipping highlights.
Here, high-quality electronic viewfinders can deliver some real advantages, since they not only give an accurate preview of your shot before you press the shutter, which encourages you to override the camera when it gets things wrong, but they can also overlay useful information.
No camera makes perfect JPEGs, of course, and different brands have different strengths.
In this article, I’m picking out my own favourites, but please don’t feel slighted if your own favourite brand didn’t make the list. After all, everyone’s preferences are different.
Of all the camera brands, Fujifilm gets its JPEG processing mostly right most of the time. Indeed, the original Fujifilm FinePix X100 was the first camera with which I was happy to use JPEGs as a matter of course.
The firm’s subsequent switch to using its X-Trans sensor has brought clear benefits at high ISO settings, although some photographers are unhappy with how fine detail is described.
The excellence of Fujifilm’s JPEGs is down to a combination of factors, but is led by the company’s superb Film Simulation modes. Where most companies have just one or two colour profiles you might realistically choose to use without further processing, Fujifilm has a whole stack.
Personally, I have a preference for its Soft/Astia mode, but I know other photographers who are more inclined towards its ProNeg modes for their excellent skin tones and muted colours, or the Vivid/Velvia setting for pepping up their shots.
Crucially, the differences between Fujifilm’s modes are relatively subtle.
Velvia isn’t as over-the-top as many other manufacturers’ vivid or landscape modes, and while the Astia mode is perhaps a little more neutral than Standard/Provia, they are really only slightly different ways of balancing colours. This reflects the fact that the firm still employs colour scientists with decades of experience from the days of film.
Fujifilm’s high ISO output is also unusually clean, striking a great balance between suppressing noise while retaining colour and detail.
Because Fujifilm cameras mostly use fully electronic viewing, it’s relatively easy to avoid exposure errors, and the DR200 mode is great for holding onto a touch more highlight detail in bright conditions.
On the other hand, the shadow tone adjustment setting is very limited compared to adaptive tools like Sony’s Dynamic Range Optimisation.
Auto white balance tends to be pretty well judged too, although it can sometimes lean a little towards the cool side. But when necessary this can be overcome using the in-camera raw converter that’s available on most recent Fujifilm models.
Olympus has a strong reputation for attractive colour rendition, and this is backed up by reliable auto white balance that tends to keep images attractively warm.
Shoot in the default Natural mode and you’ll get good-looking, colourful JPEGs even on dull, grey days. Compared to Fujifilm, Olympus’s colours tend to be a touch richer and more saturated, but without looking unreal.
Olympus also excels in more creative areas. Features such as its special-effects Art Filters and Color Creator mode positively encourage you to experiment with how your JPEGs will look, and crucially everything is previewed live in the viewfinder while you shoot.
More recently, Olympus has taken this idea a step further in the Pen-F, with completely new colour and monochrome creative modes that place lots of control over how your images will look literally at your fingertips
This can inspire a different approach to shooting, encouraging you to react more creatively to the scene in front of you at the time. It won’t necessarily be for everyone, but I’ve found it refreshing.
Calling Fujifilm and Olympus the class-leaders is all very well, but neither of them makes a DSLR or a premium zoom compact with a 1in sensor. If you want the best-looking JPEGs from either of these types of camera, then personally I’d choose a Canon.
In truth, when it comes to DSLRs there’s not a lot in it. But I find Canon to be more consistent than either Nikon or Pentax when it comes to metering and white balance.
Its colour output is attractive too, with an especially fine rendition of skin tones. Nikon comes a very close second, with Pentax benefiting more from shooting raw.
When it comes to its 1in sensor compacts and mirrorless models, much the same applies, but here Canon’s exposure and white balance consistency becomes uncanny. So if you’re after a small zoom compact, for example, and don’t want to shoot raw, then the PowerShot G7 X Mark II could be a better bet than a Sony Cyber-shot RX100-series camera, despite their other accomplishments.
Panasonic’s ever-improving processing makes its compacts worthy of consideration for JPEG shooters, too.
In-camera raw conversion
This may sound counter-intuitive, but in-camera raw conversion is a really useful tool for JPEG users.
With the best will in the world, automatic systems can’t get things right all the time, and all cameras will occasionally under or overexpose or pick the wrong white balance. So it’s great to be able to tweak the processing settings and make a reworked JPEG, without having to go home and transfer your files to a computer.
With high-capacity 64GB or even 128GB cards now eminently affordable, there’s little practical penalty to shooting raw and JPEG unless it slows down your camera.
Thankfully, most brands now include in-camera conversion, although some limit the feature to their higher-end models, and a few still stubbornly refuse to include it at all.
Normally you can expect to be able to change colour mode, white balance, brightness, contrast, saturation and noise reduction before saving the edited file.
Unfortunately, the small screens on most cameras make it difficult to see what’s going on, but some manufacturers (such as Panasonic) do a good job of previewing your settings changes live as you make them. Others, such as Olympus, force you to update the preview manually, which is a less useful approach.
The take-home message from all this is simple: if you want your cameras to produce the best-possible JPEGs, then this should have an influence on the brand you choose. There’s no point in getting lots of fancy features if your camera fails to produce pictures you like on a consistent basis.
But of course JPEG quality is just one factor – there’s equally little point in buying a camera that’s seriously lacking in other aspects of its operation just because the JPEGs look prettier. It might be an important aspect to consider, but it’s far from the only one.