Working with many professional photographers over the past years has taught me one key thing. Something that I guess I always knew but didn't really do. That is not to let the camera have full control of what you are doing.
Starting out, it was always easier to shoot in full auto mode and then progressing to either aperture or shutter priority. It was always easier to have the camera auto expose and auto focus. The opposite, full manual control was always something rather daunting. Shooting in manual meant knowing what you wanted to achieve, understanding how a camera works and then being able to set the camera so that it did correctly captured what you wanted. The same with focus. Let the camera do it without thinking enough about what the subject is or what depth of field meant when relating to the point of focus or focal plane. However, increasing demands on myself to capture and create great images meant that I became increasingly dissatisfied with what the 'camera did'!
That meant taking more control. Shooting in manual mode, controlling the exposure, using filters and manually focusing. Interestingly, and probably what everyone discovers is that doing this is not nearly as daunting as it seems. Indeed, we usually get clients on workshops working fully manually within a day. It really isn't a big step.
This brings us to the next key part of creating great images. Once captured we inevitably need to do some processing. I remember when digital cameras first came out. It re-ignited my passion for photography. I was not one of those people who took to the darkroom. Too much hassle quite frankly. The consequent of that was relying on third parties to develop my films and print my images. This rarely resulted in satisfying prints. This was due to one primary reason, the negative was not being developed in the way I would want it. If there were any real lighting or exposure challenges these were dealt with default approaches by the lab - meaning they had one setting on the machine they used. Digital meant that I could take control of the developing (or processing as it is now called) myself. Using the analogy of film I could develop the negative and create the print myself using image or graphics type software. This opened up a whole new world to me. The Adobe product name 'Lightroom' is extremely apt in describing this revolution. I could work and wanted to work in the digital lightroom whereas the analogue darkroom never got me excited or indeed motivated.
So here we are. Image creation requires that I have the most flexibility, options and control not only during capture but also during the pre and post processing stages. This by default requires me to shoot in RAW. I can recover poor or demanding exposure. I can recover or adjust highlights and shadows and white balance, I can attend to lens distortion, colour casts or sharpening to name but a few things. Images captured in JPEG do not have the same flexibility or latitude.
I think it important to note that an image captured by a camera is by definition a compromise. The camera imposes (whether automatically or via your manual settings) a single exposure. This is set for the whole scene. The eye does not operate like this. When scanning a scene your pupil contracts and dilates according to the amount light. You are taking in multiple exposures so that the scene observed, section by section, is 'correctly' exposed. Clearly the camera does not do this (of course there are techniques for taking different exposures and putting them together during post processing, but these can appear somewhat unnatural. HDR is often guilty of this). What this concludes for me is that post processing is often required to create an image that reflects what you saw. Therefore, the more data I have, the more capability I have to achieve that.
JPEG is not a bad thing. Far from it. It is extremely useful. It is quick, requires less post processing (if you accept what the algorithm in the camera imposes), takes up much less disk space, is a universal standard such that JPEG files can be easily shared.
At the end of the day, I am essentially a landscape photographer. I have often spent a lot of time and money to get to the destination I want to photograph and therefore I want to have full control of capture and post processing. I also have the time and I don't take hundreds of images on each trip so am not faced with the enormous task of creating something acceptable and viewable. So for me, that is why I shoot RAW.
© Michael Pilkington