Another case for RAW – the Future

By Tuesday, January 5, 2010grafphoto
coastal brown bear panoramic Geographic Harbor Katmai

Wandering the Geographic

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.

Dynamic Range

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.

Join the discussion 34 Comments

  • Hi Mark:
    Love your website and photos…great shots..although I still shoot Velvia with an F6,I follow digital with great interest and curiousity. I found this jpeg/raw converstaion interesting as I have always wondered where I will end up with my Velvia slides?? So far the technology has only made things better and better for me…hope it keeps going. Would really appreciate any thoughts on this.
    Thanks alot
    Wolf Wichmann
    Vancouver Canada

    • Mark says:

      Thanks Wolf. I know what you mean, I have so many slides I haven’t scanned yet. As long as slide scanners don’t disappear for awhile, I think we are safe. That Paul guy above, as much as he loves his JPEGs, he still shoots film also. So there is enough options out there for everyone I think.

  • Hi Mark:
    Love your website and photos…great shots..although I still shoot Velvia with an F6,I follow digital with great interest and curiousity. I found this jpeg/raw converstaion interesting as I have always wondered where I will end with my Velvia slides?? So far the technology has only made things better and better for me…hope it keeps going. Would really appreciate any thoughts on this.
    Thanks alot
    Wolf Wichmann
    Vancouver Canada

  • Richard Wong says:

    I should also add that I shot some jpegs so I could get a bigger buffer when rapid-firing shots. I doubt that would be much of an issue to shoot RAW files in rapid succession now.

  • Richard Wong says:

    Another way to look at it is you might shoot jpeg when you are an amateur or if you only currently output at smaller sizes. When the day comes that you want to become a pro or make large prints then you will be kicking yourself. Photographers might have no desire to do either but you can never know what the future holds. I shot jpegs a few years ago because there were no good RAW converters yet nor was it common to shoot in RAW, and also because as a poor grad student I coudln’t afford bigger memory cards (1 gb). In some ways I wish I had started shooting digital a few years later when the technology had become more mature.

    • Mark says:

      Hey Richard, I think you might provoke the ire of some pros that are shooting JPEG and printing large. Keep your head down. 🙂 I wasn’t really stating that you cannot print large with JPEGs, because I have, and know others have. I was really poking at the dynamic range of current output devices over anything else.

  • aswirly says:

    RAW rules! Man, you took the RAW case to a whole other level. I haven’t considered the future, but I always shoot in RAW for the simple reason that it isn’t compressed like jpeg and offers great control in post process.

  • Derrald says:

    What ever happened to the Targa format?! Now, that was a file type!

  • Hell… I would be happy to just a get a great image RAW or JPEG !!!! 😉

    Way to stir the pot Mark !!

  • Steve Sieren says:

    Mark, I’m strongly a believer of utilizing the RAW format for my own personal use. One thing that does scare me is the day may come to where it can be impossible read a RAW file. Everytime there is a new camera LR sends an update just so we can convert the files. I have too many files that I would need to convert DNG if that would be only way to see a file in the future.

    One great thing about jpegs is amount of files you can get in a burst compared to RAW but that the only plus I see.


  • Earl says:

    Hey Mark, after this post how about a post on religions and then maybe one on politics. LOL 😉

  • Mike Moats says:

    I also like that we’re seeing all these jpeg shooters coming out of the closet 🙂 most are affraid to admit that they shoot jpegs because the raw shooters gang up and belittle us. 🙂

  • Mike Moats says:

    Hey Mark, I totally agree on the hard drive failure, so I have all my images on three lap tops I work with, and two external hardrives and more drives offsite, so I could have a couple drive go down and still have plenty of backup. I have thought about using the online backup systems but I have to even wonder about them, whats to say their system might not fail, so do I have to now use another online service to backup the first one, it’s nuts! We will always be dealing with tech upgrades and changes, and just have to roll with the punches as they come. I would like to think that when the time comes that our jpegs will be able convert with any new systems, but if not, I’ll have to get out and shoot more. 🙂

    • Mark says:

      Mike – are you going to be the bulldog not letting go of my leg on this post. 🙂
      There is no question about the viability of JPEG simply as a file format. It would be the same with RAW vs. DNG, etc. That wasn’t really what I was getting at. It could definitely be converted to something else, but the data is already gone should it ever be deemed useful. No getting it back.

      Agree with you on the backups – with the key point being that a single backup isn’t really robust enough, and many suggest that two different media is mitigating problems. I don’t do that personally – rather rely on multiple HD copies, but I can see some of the piece of mind it offers. If we only had a write-once media that we could count on being readable in 20 years. Maybe the “clouds” is ultimately the place.

    • Robert Malin says:

      use an external hard drive even 2 if you want over kill but if you have your images on your computer hard drive and an external hard drive i would have to say you are safe.
      The only recommendation i would make is to have a fire proof safe to store your external drives in case of natural disaster or fire.You can have 100 external drives and everything would be lost in a fire.

  • Earl says:

    Mark, good post and overall I agree with your point. I shoot RAW and convert to DNG on import. For the moment, I’m automatically saving a copy of the RAW files to a network drive when I import. Who knows what changes the future may hold — we may all be out in the dark. 😉

  • Mark says:

    Who let you JPEG warriors in at the gate? 🙂 Oh yeah, I suppose this post draws you out. Ha! 😉
    Like I said, shoot what you want to shoot. Hopefully I will be completely wrong and 8 bit images will not be looked back upon like a recording made in the 20s. Some people may not want to take that gamble. People just need to be educated on the choices.

    @ Mike – I have seen it mentioned quite a few times about how some do not trust hard drives completely and back up to optical media. In fact it is still recommended by People doing this do so with the anticipation they may need to transfer to another media when readers become hard to come by. Yes, it does say the future is uncertain with respect to some of these things, but it is a bit different matter as you are not automatically discarding data that may ultimately become useful.

  • Heather says:

    I’m with Paul and Mike. I’m currently very satisfied shooting JPEG, and have no compelling reason to go RAW. Mike makes very good points with his music media analogies… I’m not really going to keep RAW in mind just for the sake of the future of printing, etc. It’s a constant battle trying to keep up with new technology. There will surely be a capture format in the future that will blow RAW right out of the water, don’t you think? And then what do you do?

    • Mark says:

      Heather, RAW is just that – the complete data the camera is capable of capturing. Certainly with newer cameras, the RAW files will be larger, and contain more data.

      It is also a question for me on when the current generation of cameras will be considered obsolete and no longer accepted by stock agencies. I have already seen one camera I used to use, the D2H, get blacklisted by my stock agent. That is probably another post altogether!

      • Paul says:

        It’s interesting that the stock agencies would blacklist a particular format. I would doubt that it has anything to do with the quality offered by the raw file, but on how many types of raw files they want to keep up with. JPEG, as you know, can be read by most anything. Initially, I shot raw for a long time, then switched to JPEG, then back to raw, and at long last, now back to JPEG.

        What I found was that raw offered me no advantage, other than theoretical/mathematical advantages. When I looked and printed images, I could tell no difference whatsoever. I assumed that there must/might be some difference, but I cannot tell.

        My camera is set to produce the largest JPEG file that it can with the least amount of compression. I can certainly see differences between a raw file and a JPEG with compression of 1:8 (Normal) or 1:16 (Basic), but not with file (1:4).

        Anyway, as they say, YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) and to each his/her own. I don’t shoot in fear of the future. 🙂

        • Mark says:

          Hey Paul, that was part of my point. Output devices may not truly give us a clear visualization of the differences in the math, hence it is quite easy to see why one would prefer JPEG.

          Regarding the stock, it is not that they blacklisted the format, they blacklisted certain cameras. (Typically lower MP). And you might be pleased to know that they have some 17 million images – all JPEGs. 🙂 Therein lies some ammo for you JPEG warriors. Although there are probably legitimate arguments that it is more for business capital and bandwidth reasons.

  • Mike Moats says:

    Hey Mark, nice job on the post. I agree with Paul JPEG rules 🙂 as you already know where I stand on this issue. I have no doubt that whatever tech stuff we’re using now will be replace with something new in a few years, and you may be right that all us jpeg guys may be out in the cold. Just like when we all bought records never thinking it would ever go away, and then it was eight tracks and cassetes, and then CD’s and now downloads from the internet. So who knows where the digital files will be in the future. People bought gold CD to store their images for a hundred years and now everybodies buying external hardrives and getting away from CDs. I guess I’ll worry about it when the time comes.

  • Lana says:

    Thanks for helping to explain the difference with great clarity. I always shoot & store all originals in RAW format. I convert many to JPG only for use on the web, etc. I would never delete my RAW originals, though.

  • Great image, Mark. That is one place I need to venture up to visit, maybe stay for a while. I’ve stopped listening to the debate and shoot what I want. The only times I shoot jpeg was when I first started shooting digital and the other time was during wedding receptions where my goal was to get lots of images. This is a well written post and well thought out. I had never seen a graph like this one.

    A question I’ve had this past year has been whether to keep my files RAW or convert to DNG. With LR I’ve been converting them to DNG. That’s another debate.

  • Excellent post, Mark, forcing to think about it for awhile. For me the quality is always number 1. What bothers me about shooting into JPEG is not the dynamic range but rather the compression. Even though you choose the best quality there is always a loss that may be noticed in bigger print next to the same image shot in RAW. I know the viewer might not notice but I will know it. Therefore I shoot in JPEG only those photos that I’m almost 100% sure that will be printed in small size if at all. Such photos are usually family photos. All other photos that I consider to show to someone (it doesn’t matter if on blog or printed to family or friends) I always shoot in RAW on highest resolution. Just for case that someday I’ll need to print it in big format.
    Re. the music I already tend to listen mp3s in the highest possible quality which is usually 320kbps 🙂

    The photo of the bear is great! Only the grass in the foreground seems a bit too bright to me comparing it to the bear. Or I could say that the bear seems a bit too dark too me comparing it to the foreground.

    • Mark says:

      Tomas, thanks for the added note about 320 kps MP3’s! I just bought one that was 300 bps. And that bear might deserve some lightening, I think you are right.

    • Robert Malin says:

      I am 34 and starting photography classes at the art institute of Michigan and i just wanted to comment on the bear photo.
      I think that the grass is spectacular and the bear need some lighting but the image is amazing and i hope to use your work as inspiration too myself and others when capturing and producing such rich, colorful and beautifully contrasted images!

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