Is raw overrated in the modern world? Are the JPEG sceptics justified? Tim Daly looks at what the truth is
On a DSLR there are usually three or more image-quality settings such as Low, Medium and High, (or Basic, Normal and Fine), which are designed to enable you to cram more images onto your memory card.
These settings relate to levels of JPEG compression rather than image size, which, rather confusingly, can be referred to as Large, Medium or Small.
JPEGs captured with Low or Basic quality settings will give you the greatest data savings, but with the poorest image quality.
In addition to compression savings, many DSLRs have two or more options of compression type, such as Nikon’s Size Priority JPEG, which creates files of a uniform data size regardless of subject matter, or Optimal Quality JPEG, which responds to the unique characteristics of each image, maintaining maximum image quality, but with less data saving.
Best camera settings for JPEG
Set your Image Quality to JPEG fine
Choose the Large option in your Image Size menu. The pixel dimensions will be the biggest available on your DSLR
If available on your DSLR, select the Optimal quality compression setting
Swap your colour space to Adobe RGB – the biggest and best palette for shooting JPEGs on DSLRs
Dynamic Range adjustment
If available on your DSLR, switch your DRO (Dynamic Range Optimiser) option on. Nikon’s is called Active D-Lighting
Dynamic range adjustment level
Set DRO to Normal for everyday shooting situations, or High for high-contrast scenes
Another option is to use the dynamic range optimisation (DRO) settings on your DSLR.
These advanced controls allow you to get the best out of deep shadow areas without losing detail in bright highlights in the same image.
Confusingly, DRO is described differently by different manufacturers: Nikon calls it Active D-Lighting, Canon refers to it as Auto Lighting Optimiser and Sony calls it Dynamic Range Optimization, for example.
DRO generally works by applying a contrast edit on the fly, reducing the density of the shadows and clipping highlights to prevent them from blowing out.
Compared to raw files, JPEGs record a scene in 8-bit per colour channel rather than the larger 12- or 14-bit used by raw. JPEGs therefore can be unforgiving of minor shooting errors such as exposure and white-balance mistakes.
So, you’ll need to be spot on when measuring exposure, and cautious of dense shadow areas in your compositions.
What’s more, dark shadow areas are very difficult to edit in JPEG files, so if you are faced with a contrasty subject or contrasty lighting, make two bracketed exposures at +0.3 and +0.6 using your exposure-compensation setting, or through your DSLR’s auto-bracketing controls.
Switch off presets
Unlike raw files, camera settings are ‘baked’ into JPEGs and are impossible to extract later in your workflow, so switch off all unnecessary presets in your camera-shooting menu and keep sharpening on the lowest setting available.
Change your colour mode from sRGB to the larger Adobe RGB and you will capture more colour, too.
White balance is also baked into your JPEGs and is much less editable during post-production when compared to a raw file, with fewer tools and processes available.
For most daylight shooting situations, you can safely use the Auto White Balance setting, but for artificial lighting you should also shoot extra frames using the corresponding camera presets to see if these provide better results.
By following these steps, you’ll get the best out of your JPEGs.
How much colour do you need?
Shot in-camera, JPEGs are created from a palette of 16 million colours using the 8-bit scale of 256 steps for each red, blue and green channel.
Raw files easily exceed this using 12-bit palettes, making 4,096 steps for each colour channel, or even more. Yet, despite the advantages of raw, most subjects can be captured effectively using 8-bit JPEGs.