Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why JPEG is a Solid Choice with the EP-1

You probably see quite a number of comments made on the web in regards to the Pen's OOC JPEGs. This is due to the fact that the EP-1 delivers a very well rounded JPEG. Now I am not going to tell you to shoot JPEG, and if you prefer RAW than by all means do so, but I will tell you that the JPEG engine in the EP-1 is good enough that you can safely leave RAW behind if you would like to truly minimalize your workflow. Some people, however, due in fact love the digital darkroom and prefer to change things after the fact. I have no issues with those who enjoy the RAW format, I do however think that their needs to be some clarification in regards to the RAW vs. JPEG issue which seems to be misunderstood.

I don’t need to go into detail of what RAW is. If you’re reading this post than I am going to state before going forward to do a little homework as a pre-requisite. What I will talk about is how modern technology has changed the game and in some cases reduced the benefit of the RAW file format.

For years it has been known that most DSLRs produced a better result when one shot with RAW and post-processed the images via software such as Lightroom. However the reason was not due to the fact that JPEG was a poor format, it was due to the fact that the processors and in-camera algorithms that convert RAW data in-camera into JPEG were slow and poorly designed.Sharpening often produced artifacts, camera color profiles were often misaligned, tone curves were either too weak or too strong, noise reduction was more a process of smearing the image than actually reducing noise. The end result was a poor quality JPEG with irreversible damage. RAW was the savior in this regard: You could tune everything to your tastes often producing a much better result than the manufacturer was able to achieve and on top of that you could also be a little lazy with things like exposure and white balance as you typically had some latitude to adjust these parameters after the fact. Sounds like RAW is a winner. Well yes and no.RAW is a fantastic format due to it’s flexible nature and I won’t get into the basic arguments of file size and speed as many of these playing fields are now somewhat level – I will however argue that RAW does take time, time away from photography. Processing a picture is a matter of re-creating the image as you remember it in your mind’s eye – this can sometimes be a daunting task. I have sometimes spent hours on a single batch of images trying to get things ‘right’ or as believe they were supposed to be. Over the years I found myself spending more time behind the computer and less time in the field shooting. What started as a very interesting hobby begin to turn into a time consuming animal one that left me wondering if the return on investment was truely satisfying. Once photography begins to feel more like a chore than a creative outlet, it's time to begin investigating the problem.

Over the years, the processing engines in modern cameras have become quite powerful, enough so that sophisticated algorithms such as unsharp masking and the like now can take place in-camera during the RAW-to-JPEG conversion process. The result is JPEGs that leave very little to be desired. Detailed images without artifacts, tone curves that makes the most of dynamic range, natural yet appealing colors, and noise reduction that balances detail and noise in good fashion. The result in some cameras, such as the EP-1, is a fully cooked to order, ready to eat (ah, I mean print) JPEG.

So what does one loose by leaving RAW behind and shooting exclusively with JPEG ? Well for one, the ability to control exposure after the fact. The 4/3rds sensor doesn’t have as much latitude as APC-S sized sensors, though the dynamic range (noted by some) is actually on par with some mid-range SLRs. Figuring you have roughly about a stop to play with after the fact could mean the difference between a blown out sky and the texture in a cloud. That being said the EP-1s meter is quite good, in fact it’s much better than the meters found in Nikon and Canon’s mid range SLR offerings. White balance would probably be the second issue. Most cameras (including the EP-1) just don’t do well with artificial white balance - something that it’s easy to address in RAW and very difficult to correct shooting JPEG.

So with the caveats listed above in mind would I still choose to shoot JPEG ? Yes and here is why:

Live View: Live View provides a pretty accurate representation of the final product, albeit smaller. Using the live view histogram, one should easily be able to address any exposure issues before making it into the final product. Live View also allows you to see the effect of white balance and while I agree it’s not always easy to see a slight color cast, it’s is easier to adjust a minor temperature problem after the fact than a major one.

To me having a fully cooked (and well cooked to order I might add) JPEG out of camera represents what we as camera consumers have desired all along. Let’s think about this carefully.We spend thousands of dollars on a camera just to have to sit and fix every image?Where is the logic in that? That’s like washing dishes by hand when a perfectly good dishwashing machine is at your disposal. The difference is that camera manufactures have failed (or to be fair due to limitations in technology they have failed) to make that washing machine work, but times have changed. You no longer need to do all the ‘dirty work’ as it is finally being done for you.Photography is about composition, lighting, and subject matter - that's the key elements that I want to concentrate on, not camera curves, color profiles and the like. There is freedom in knowing that when you get home from a day of shooting you can just enjoy your work as opposed to spending hours behind a pc trying to get things right.

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