The Power Of JPEG

The two primary shooting formats for digital cameras are JPEG and RAW. JPEG is a file compression format that offers superb image quality when used correctly, while RAW is an excellent format for photographers who either need it or like working with it, but it isn’t for everyone.

I largely shoot with JPEG and only shoot RAW when I need it for its greater tonal range or for dealing with problem situations. My images have appeared regularly on these pages and in my books, so obviously JPEG is a quality format. Newspaper photojournalists largely shoot JPEG, and so do many pros.

Because JPEG is such an important file format, I thought it was time someone provided pointers on how any photographer can get the most from it. There’s no question that following many of these tips will improve RAW capture as well.

Why Shoot JPEG Anyway?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that RAW offers superb benefits of increased adjustability for image files, and some photographers simply like working with all the adjustment possibilities it features.

RAW isn’t the “pro” format and JPEG the “amateur” format, nor can it do miracles, however. Once exposure is beyond the range of the sensor, RAW offers no benefits over JPEG. Whether shooting RAW or JPEG, it’s always good technique to shoot it right from the start. Adjusting a well-shot photo to make it look its best is always less work and more profitable than fixing a problem shot.


As a compression format, JPEG takes a file and reduces its saved size by removing redundant data. It then rebuilds that file to its original size when opened in the computer. JPEG has a number of important advantages to the photographer that are well worth considering:

Quality. Images photographed with JPEG settings take advantage of in-camera processing. On most digital cameras, this processing is quite remarkable, and will give you a file that’s like a processed RAW file without any extra work. This processing takes the 12-bit sensor data (used by RAW, too) and smartly converts it to the 8-bit JPEG file with some remarkable algorithms. You get none of that with RAW.

Size. This is the obvious benefit; generally, you’ll get two to three times the number of images on a memory card by shooting high-quality JPEG compared to RAW.

Camera Speed. These smaller file sizes display faster on camera and computer, boost the number of shots that can be taken consecutively, and often increase the shooting speed of a camera.

Workflow Speed. JPEG files transfer faster from memory card to computer, to start. Then when you work on them, you go directly to the image-processing program without having to use an intermediary converter (whether that’s the manufacturer’s, an independent brand or Adobe’s converter in Photoshop). One qualification: Once you open a photo file in the computer, never resave it as a JPEG file. That will lead to lower quality. Save it as a TIFF or use the native file format of your image-processing software.

Disciplined Shooting
I firmly believe that you get the best photos by paying attention to detail as you shoot and not by hoping to fix it in the computer later, as some photographers advocate. JPEG doesn’t have the “fudge factor” of RAW. While you can “fix” a lot in the computer, extreme adjustments don’t sit well with JPEG.



JPEG shooting focuses you on getting the best shot from the start. This goes beyond simply dealing with a requirement of the format (JPEG is technically a compression scheme and not a format, but its usage in digital cameras is as a format, so we follow that convention). When a photographer focuses on getting the most from every shot, he or she will check all the details-which often are missed by sloppier work that can be “fixed in the computer.” Even a well-experienced RAW master can’t make an incomplete RAW photo match a well-executed JPEG image.

Getting the photo right in the first place is important for another reason-less time in front of the computer until I have an image I like. This is an essential workflow issue for me. Photos that aren’t quite right can take too much time to correct.

Use High-Quality Settings
Choose high-quality settings for JPEG. JPEG also has a “high” setting for compression, which makes for very small files, but this throws out a lot of data, which can result in significant quality problems. JPEG can offer you detail that will match any RAW file, but only if you choose the highest quality settings. These will give you slightly larger file sizes, resulting in fewer photos on a memory card, but still far more than RAW.

So as a rule, use the highest quality settings your camera offers, both in JPEG choices and megapixels. After all, this is what you purchased with your camera, so why not take advantage of it!

Exposure And Light
Keep this in mind: JPEG’s 8-bit files have the most difficult challenge keeping up with RAW in the darkest and lightest tones of a photo. Pay attention to how your exposure is reacting to the dark and light areas of the scene. This can be a critical lighting issue, so be sure important details have the light they need.

You’ll need to make some decisions. If the brightest parts of a scene are critical, expose so that detail is retained. If the darkest shadows are most important, make sure your exposure captures that detail properly. Dark area exposures have a big effect on both JPEG and RAW files because significant underexposure will increase the appearance of noise in those areas.



Many digital cameras have an overexposure warning (bright areas blink) that can be helpful in seeing problems with bright areas. However, the way to be certain of your exposure in important parts of your composition is to take a glance at the histogram (see “The Magic Of The Histogram,” PCPhoto, October 2004, for an extensive article).

The histogram quickly gives you a visual indication of where your tones are falling. A glance at the right side shows highlights-the graph should slope to the bottom just before the end is reached.
More exposure moves the graph to the right, less moves it to the left.

Glance to the left side to check your shadows. The graph should slope to the bottom just before the end is reached there, too. If the graph is cut off at the left, shadows are “clipped,” meaning they have lost detail. If there’s a gap, that can be okay if your highlights are within range; you can adjust that in the computer to bring your darks down, which gives you better color and tonalities anyway (plus less noise). However, if your highlights are jammed at the right, you need less exposure to move the whole graph to the left.

White Balance
I rarely shoot auto white balance for three basic reasons: it doesn’t consistently give me the best colors (either from an accurate or creative point of view); it gives inconsistent results when shooting multiple images in a scene where you change your angle to the subject and lens focal length; and it’s usually based on a smaller color temperature range than the camera is capable of handling. Auto white balance’s inconsistency is due to the camera’s attempt to adjust to the different things it sees on the sensor, which leads to definite workflow challenges in trying to match photos later.

I recommend shooting with presets that work for your scene, such as daylight for daytime shooting, incandescent for indoor work, cloudy for shade a

nd cloudy days (plus for sunrise and sunset), fluorescent for those lights and so forth. Experiment to see what you like best; I like the flash setting for a lot of daylight exposures, for example.



Learn to use your camera’s custom white balance as well. This is the best way to get accurate, brilliant colors from every situation. Most cameras deal with a greater range of color information from a scene with this setting than is possible with auto white balance. Custom settings are based on the camera measuring the color of light as it’s seen on a white or gray card. Every camera does this differently, however, so you’ll have to check your manual. But you may be surprised at how rich colors can seem from custom white balance compared to other settings.

If we’re discussing optimum quality with JPEG, we need to talk sharpness. The number-one cause of a photo’s lack of sharpness isn’t poorly designed lenses, but camera movement or shake during exposure. This does more than make a photo look blurry; at minimal levels of shake, the photo might not even look too bad, but image brilliance and crispness will suffer, dulling the shot.

Hold the camera as firmly, yet comfortably as you can. That means no flying elbows, no light-fingered grips and no one-handed shooting. Press the shutter firmly, but never punch the button.

Be aware of your shutter speed. When the camera is shooting automatically, this is easy to overlook. Be wary of shooting anything under 1?60 sec., and if you’re using a telephoto focal length, that shutter speed needs to get much faster to maintain sharpness.

When your speeds drop, look for ways to stabilize your camera. Image-stabilizing technologies such as the IS (Canon), VR (Nikon) and OS (Sigma) lenses and the unique AS chip solution from Konica Minolta all help you get sharper images at slower shutter speeds. You also can brace your camera against a solid object or use a beanbag. A beanbag with a tripod screw is a great accessory, but the only one I’ve ever seen is The Pod from Adorama.

For tripods, avoid those cheap, flimsy models found at mass-market retailers; they can cause as much vibration as they might stop. To buy a tripod, set it up to full extension, then lean on it and see how stiff it is. For lightest weight, look into a carbon-fiber unit (although these are more expensive). Both ballheads and pan-and-tilt heads work well. Choose a head that’s easy for you to use.



Shoot For The Medium
It wasn’t that long ago that photographers chose a film based on certain characteristics that they liked, shot with it and learned to get the most from it. There was no discussion of the limited color tonal range of Fuji-chrome Velvia versus the extended range of any print film. Pros, especially, learned what the film could and couldn’t do, then exploited its capabilities within those limits.

The same idea can be applied to shooting digitally. If you like all the shooting and workflow advantages of JPEG, ignore those who say you must have a bigger tonal range. It’s possible to shoot for the medium, just as one would shoot based on the advantages and disadvantages of a film, the focal length range of your lens or the ISO capabilities of a camera. You can get outstanding images from JPEG that will match RAW if you shoot to make the most of the JPEG format.

Many new digital SLRs offer the ability to shoot both RAW and JPEG at the same time. This gives you the advantages of both (but you still need to set the JPEG for its highest quality if you want it to offer a comparable file to RAW). The disadvantage is that you use up a lot more storage space, and you’ll go through memory cards faster. Plus, there’s a change in workflow needed to deal with the additional files.

You could shoot something in JPEG, of course, then change to RAW for a second shot, then go back to JPEG and so on. That’s somewhat laborious, however. Canon has an outstanding solution, but even they don’t seem to recognize it. On their advanced compact cameras such as the PowerShot Pro1 and G-series cameras, you can take a picture while the camera is set to JPEG capture, then when the review image shows up on the LCD, you can tell the camera to record it as a RAW file without going through any menus (just push either the Function or Flash button).

This is a great idea, as it lets you take JPEG images for most of your shooting, yet as soon as you feel you need a RAW shot, simply instruct the camera to create exactly that. Yet Canon hasn’t put this into any of its digital SLRs nor has any other manufacturer. Hopefully, they will realize how much this could help average photographers make the most of their cameras.