I was asked if I shot my digital files in RAW or JPG, and how to explain the power of RAW files to a beginner. I remember when I first got my D70 and looked at the RAW files. I thought they looked pretty crummy compared the JPGs. But I knew the “pros” were shooting RAW and I wanted to figure out what I was missing. So I went to work.
I set my D70 to save both RAW and JPG copies for every file. At first I drove myself crazy dragging the sliders around in Adobe Camera RAW, trying to make my pictures “look good” without really understanding what the controls did. Then I had a thought: instead of trying to make my RAW files look “good”, why don’t I try to make them match the JPGs? Whether the JPG was “good” was unimportant for the moment. I would just use the sliders to try to get the RAW file as close as possible to the JPG. After all, the D70 produced the JPG from that RAW file on its in-camera chip. Surely I can do as well as that little chip software spitting out files at 2.5 frames per second. Guess what: it’s near impossible.
The in-camera RAW to JPG conversion software is consulting a database of tens of thousands of image profiles, selecting the profile that the software thinks is closest to my intended image, and applying some math to make each pixel fit the selected profile. Those crafty camera engineers aren’t limited to the sliders, and the profiles are obviously adjusting hues differentially (like sky vs grass) and using mathematical equations to get much finer control over subregions of the histogram than will ever be possible in Adobe Camera RAW.
Even though the task is impossible, practicing will crank up your ACR skills very quickly. To get the most out of the exercise, open the JPG, and open Photoshop’s Histogram palette to the expanded, 3 color channel view. Then try to make the histogram match in the ACR dialog. A big monitor, or lots of window dragging is needed. This example file was the most extreme one I could find, and I had to go into the individual hue settings to even come close. For my re-interpretation, I backed off the orange setting by about half.
I went through that process sometime in 2004, and then with confidence turned my camera to the RAW-only setting. I didn’t need the security of the JPGs any more. Doing the exercise taught me to use ACR, and more. I didn’t always like the look of the JPGs. I had learned what looked good to me, referencing the personal image database in my head, instead of relying on the camera engineers’ best guess at what I meant when I snapped the shutter. I sometimes will shoot JPGs now if my intended use calls for it, but mostly, I’m just shooting in the RAW.