I have read a lot of articles and writeups about folks who advocate shooting only RAW file formats and those who shoot JPEGs only. For the most part, I say – to each his own. It doesn’t really matter to me what others shoot with. There is one aspect however, beyond the number crunching, beyond the print comparisons, that is often overlooked – the future. I think that beginners and experienced alike need to be conscious of what the implications of their file format choice not only means to them today, but also 10, 15, 20 years down the road. I believe the current albatrosses that hang around RAW capture’s neck are the limitations on the technology of output devices – print publications, monitors, and most printers can barely touch reproducing all of the possible data that a RAW file captures.
To understand this better, perhaps you have seen dynamic range comparisons like the following…the human eye data I have seen range anywhere from these values to as much as 16,777,216:1 (24 stops). More information here.
A JPEG file is currently only capable of producing 8 bits. Most cameras shooting RAW can capture 12-14 bits. Looking at the dynamic ranges, you could easily come to the conclusion that 8 bit capture is more than suitable for most print applications of today. That’s fine – math doesn’t always equate to visual perceptions. Even if printing comparisons on a high quality inkjet, the driver may already downsampling to 8 bits to print the image, chances are you may not see a difference. Chances are most people wouldn’t notice, so why worry about it? Some relatively small dynamic range photographs may not even need all of that data.
The key words are when it comes to print devices and monitors of TODAY. We are already seeing printers emerge that are capable of 16 bit printing and high end monitors capable of exceeding the Adobe RGB color space that will eventually trickle down to others. I think a good analogy of this situation is music audio quality. Professional musicians will typically record at the highest possible audio quality. There are headphones and speakers out there now capable of reproducing the most subtle details from those recordings. Someone listening on a $20 pair of headphones may never tell the difference between a low end or high end recording. The output devices of today, oversimplified for sure, are more like the $20 headphones trying to reproduce all of the data from a high quality recording.
But what happens when higher quality output devices are more commonplace? Will we regret not having the data available to take advantage of those higher quality headphones? Perhaps it won’t matter – a good song is a good song to many people. But there are some that can and do appreciate higher quality recordings if they are accessible to them and they can notice the difference. I am certain there are people that wish they had better recordings of songs made during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s no matter how much they were enjoyed at that time. Just look at the more recent evolution of MP3s from 128kbs to 256kbs on iTunes. It was once thought that 128 kbs was “good enough” to save on storage space for the typical consumer. Now there is demand for better.
Would you be throwing out data ignored by the devices of today that might be appreciated on the headphones of tomorrow? It is something to think about.
The image at the top of this post is of a Coastal Brown Bear wandering the shorelines of Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska. The photograph was captured by a Nikon D700, 14 bit RAW file, 24-70 f2.8 AFS Lens, ISO 1250 and post processed blending exposures in Photomatix Pro, using luminosity masks in Photoshop CS3, and some slight detail enhancement by Topaz Detail on a Mac Pro.