How Bad Is JPEG? Surprising Encounters in Landscape Photography

How Bad Is JPEG? Surprising Encounters in Landscape Photography

After a recent landscape session in the rain, I was shocked. Reviewing the files at home, I found that I accidentally shot in JPEG. Is all lost now? Let’s take a look at this very underrated format.

'Professionals Only Shoot Raw!'

One of the first lessons which I learned in photography was “Raw is better than JPEG.” Period. Since that time, I rely on my Raw files, no matter if it's for documentary work, private photographs, or landscapes. Especially for the latter, raw is superior: A supposedly better effective dynamic range makes recovering shadows and highlights easier and the white balance always stays under control.

While climbing deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of photography, I learned that JPEG isn’t all that bad. Seemingly, there are also photographers who prefer this format. Many of them come from the Fuji camp. Fuji offers different film simulations which found an avid fan base amongst its users. But why limit yourself if you can have full control of your photographs?

Shot in JPG by accident

How Compression Works

After All, JPEG is inferior in its attention to detail. The Raw format offers you information about each and every pixel, while JPEG is an already edited format. Your camera collects data on its sensor, interprets it, and produces a developed file. There are two reasons why JPEG exists: It consumes less memory space and it doesn’t necessarily need to be manually developed.

The reduction of data happens by compressing an image. When we write “xxxxxxxxxxxxx” we store twelve letters on a sheet of paper. We could also compress it to “12x” for only one-fourth of the space. Image compression is much more complicated but relies on the same principles: You summarize data to save memory space. When saving and opening a JPEG file many times in a row, compression will ruin your image.

In most cases, some information will already get irreversibly lost with the primary JPEG file. Your camera develops your image and if it decided that there is no contrast between an area of pixels, they will look all the same. No matter how far you’ll pull the contrast or clarity sliders.

A rule of thumb: The less detail, the smaller the file size.

Can You Shoot Landscapes in JPEG?

When recently I found that somehow I changed my camera’s file format from Raw to JPEG, I was shocked. It sometimes happens to me, when I miss the button for changing the ISO, which is right above the button for changing the file format on my Nikon D750.

After the shock, I was surprised: It didn’t even matter. I could edit the photograph exactly in the way in which I had in mind while shooting. It even saved me some time, because the photograph wasn’t as dull and boring as I usually find my Raw files before they are cooked into a (sometimes) tasteful photograph. I just had to care for minimal exposure changes and a few local adjustments. Was I wasting time and memory space all my life?

I didn't need a Raw file to create this edit.

I felt like an absolute beginner and a conspiracy theorist at the same time. How come everyone only shoots in Raw when there was basically no downside in my edit? I quickly realized that my landscape photograph of rainy scenery at a cloudy coastline wasn’t really representative of the average dynamic range of a landscape photograph.

What I needed was a direct comparison and some pixel peeping.

JPEG Tested Under Harder Conditions

When the weather got a bit better, I tried out some locations where I expected harder conditions for landscape photographers: caves at the beach. Inside the caves, there would be far less light than outside. A situation, where it is almost impossible to cover the full dynamic range within one frame. Yet, the original JPEG file looked better than expected.

The JPG straight out of camera.

The “Picture Control” menu of my Nikon D750 gives me the option to choose between different JPEG development styles. Even though the different styles don’t look very different, “vivid” or “landscape” were my favorites. The final photograph definitely looks appealing, but is it enough? I don’t expect it to compete with a properly edited Raw file.

An editted Raw file of the same scene.

Here, I found a lot of freedom to edit. Uncovering the hidden structure underneath the shadows was no problem, just as getting more detail in the sky was done within a shift of a slider. Even though it wouldn’t necessarily be my preferred way to edit this photograph, local adjustments helped to get a lot of detail back into the lone rock, which seemed to be lost in the JPEG. But was it really? To double-check the JPEG capabilities, I also edited the JPEG file in Lightroom. Much of the detail was still available, too.

The JPG carried a lot of hidden detail as well.

The Limitations of JPEG in Landscape Photography

In these examples, I took a lot of care for a good exposure, which would allow me to bring back the detail in both highlights and shadows. While one could see the difference in the quality of JPEG files, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. In fact, I’d claim that you can’t see the difference in low-resolution images.

Same counts for underexposed photographs. Even in the darkest shadows, the Raw files will still offer us the chance to recover detail, even though there will be some noise in the final image.

Even a JPG edit of a really low exposure looks fine from the distance.

The JPEG files on the other hand, really struggle with very dark parts of the images. A lot of artifacts appear, along with colorful spots. You can get rid of some of them by using the “Detail” panel in Lightroom. Eventually, the dark areas will look like a bad print on canvas, though.

Zooming in to 100%, the lack of detailed information becomes visible.

Just like the recovery of shadows, getting detail out of the highlights is not a big problem with the Raw files. However, there will be blown-out areas, which will hopelessly be lost. Before the structure completely disappears, these highlight areas will also lack color information. You can’t shoot into the sun and expect to see all its details. Again, it’ll probably be fine as a social media picture. Especially in prints, bigger areas of blown-out highlights appear rather ugly.

Even blown out highlights can be recovered with Raw files to some extend.

My D750’s JPEGs, however, really look horrible when I try to recover highlights. There are no artifacts as we could witness when recovering the shadows. Instead, there is simply nothing hidden behind the white areas. Pulling the exposure to the left, I couldn't find the slightest idea of a shape in the sky. White only becomes gray.

In case of JPG-files, this information is hopelessly lost.

Use JPEG Only When You’re Sure

There are a lot of downsides of JPEG depending on the purpose of your images. Especially when you can’t cover the full dynamic range, you’ll have problems with the edit. But why would you use JPEG if you’ve got to edit the photographs anyway?

When you need to send or upload your photographs quickly, a well-cooked JPEG might be superior. Sports photographers and photojournalists often rely on quick transmission. You can experiment with your in-camera settings and pre-sets for JPEG development until you'll find a good recipe that works for many cases.

Especially when you want to quickly upload your photographs to social media, a JPEG-file will be quickly transmitted to your phone, where you can easily edit it because of its small file size. A lot of detail gets lost during the upload anyway. On the other hand, many advantages of Raw files will also be visible on your social media channels. Even on 1080 x 1080, severely blown-out highlights will be an issue.

My own experiments with JPEG are limited to my Nikon D750 and my everyday camera Olympus EM10. How is your experience with other cameras and brands? Does JPEG work for you or is it an absolute no-no for you?

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Deleted Account's picture

Great article! Although I do see the reasons why many shoot RAW, I shoot JPEG for a few reasons.

1. I've experimented with both RAW and JPEG and my end result after editing both are virtually the same so JPEG saves me time in editing.
2. Much smaller file size which adds up to a lot of saved space. I know hard drive space is cheap (but I'm cheaper).
3. There are times when shooting on my Sony that I want to use the Clear Image Zoom which basically knocks down the resolution a bit to give me a bit more range. Yes, I can just shoot normally in RAW and then crop in post - but I like to compose my shots more out in the field than in front of the computer.
4. In those high contrast scenes, if you need more dynamic range when shooting JPEG, I will just bracket my shots and then I don't have to worry about blown out highlights or no detail in the shadows. All the info I need will be in 3 shots.
5. JPEG is a very convenient file format to quickly transfer a file to my cell phone for sharing to social media.

I also use Topaz DeNoise to take out any extra grain in my photos with superb results!

Now - who wants to start selling - I SHOOT JPEG T-shirts?

Chaz Foote's picture

Topaz also has JPEG to RAW AI, which could be worth looking into.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I really wonder how that works!
If some detail is lost it might be possible to guess at something, but if for instance all highlights in the sky are completely blown out and the detail in the clouds is completely gone, you cannot retrieve what the program cannot even see / guess what might have been there.

Joseph Ting's picture

I shoot

That does not roll off the tongue.😣

Adil Alsuhaim's picture

Ken Rockwell would be in on those T-shirts, lol

David Yoon's picture

Memory is cheap, it never hurts to do jpeg + raw.

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

And be a digital hoarder? Memory can easily be corrupted with time under the right condition. As these cameras get higher in mp your storage costs will increase too. So this will be interesting as time goes on.

Ed C's picture

You are making an assumption not in evidence. He said shoot raw+jpg. Didn't say anything about what is kept.

Anthony CHAPITEAU's picture

So if i follow your reasoning, shooting jpeg is better. But smaller files means more files per drive.
So a drive loss means more photos lost too

El Dooderino's picture

You should always be backing up your files anyway. Redundancy can be a life saver!

MIchael DiGregori's picture

This is my philosophy as well. It doesn't seem to be a big deal as far as storage, and though performance of the camera processing is slower, since I'm not a pro, I'm generally not in a hurry. Most pictures I take are for posting somewhere, to be honest, and the JPGs my camera produces, perhaps with a little tweaking, are usually just fine, but once in awhile I get a picture I really like, so I turn to the RAW file and go from there.

El Dooderino's picture

I'm the same way. I'm just learning about post processing, so I try to make my photos look good "out of camera". JPGs are easier to share, but like you, every now and then, I take a photo I'd like to put a little more extra effort into, so I have the RAW file to work with.

Stephen Holst's picture

Here's a side tip for any other D750 owners. Reprogram the record button (located on top near the shutter button) to control ISO. It makes for quick ISO changes and no chance of making the same mistake this author made. And as far as I know in still shooting mode the record button has no other function anyways (although I changed it so long ago I may have forgotten it's original function).

Nils Heininger's picture

Why didn't I figure that out myself? Sure! Thanks for the input. Never even thought about the record button being of any use.

Morgan Miller's picture

Cool, but jpegs are for lazy people who don't care to learn the art of photograpjy. You think the real analogue artists from the past paid someone to develop their images, not having control over how they were developed and turned out? heeelllllzzz nooooo.

W Mitty's picture

That seems like a rather pedantic statement. People have interests in photography that range from casual shooting, hobbyist, enthusiast, professional to fine art. Not everyone is interested in spending hours processing photos to have something to show to friends and family. It takes quite a commitment to learn all of the finer points of post-processing techniques and applications. I would dare say that most non-professional photographers would rather have a nicely presented photo out of camera that they can simply tweak with basic processing programs, such as those included in Windows and on the Mac.

I applaud the author for taking the time to do an objective experiment that can guide the more casual photographer toward a solution that will enhance their photography experience, instead of dashing their confidence with picayune treatises on why no self-respecting photographer could ever use anything but a full frame camera, professional lenses, and shoot nothing but raw files and spend hours on their weekends processing them.

If all instructional content were made for uber-professionals (which I would imagine you consider yourself, given the snobbishness) then the appeal of photography to all but those who have a serious interest, or do it as a profession, would be squelched. This would not serve anyone at any level of photography.

Not everyone who plays the piano aspires to be Keith Jarrett. Some are content to be Billy Joel. Should we call them lazy and unworthy of the title of artist?

Alex Wallem's picture

Didn't realize the art of photography began at tweaking white balance and pumping that clarity slider. What would Ansel Adams have to say about that? 😉
It's like Skrillex saying that Adele is a lazy musician for not spending hours in the studio for the purpose of mixing her music.

In photography, like in music and film, there are different genres. Some require tweaking (oftentimes automotive and product photography), some do not (documentary, wedding).

I myself spend hours in post-processing, but I would still give more credit to those who can actually nail a photograph that's usable straight out of the camera. Photography is, after all, about drawing with light, and if you manage to create a good photo at the press of a button - all the more creds to you, sir.

I also get the article reference to Fujifilm users, those cameras DO create beautiful colors within camera. I've not shot JPEG for years, but when I got X-T3 I got a pleasant surprise.

Here's just a snapshot while testing out strobe and the Fuji, SOOC.

David Pavlich's picture

Ansel Adams spent hours in a darkroom for a reason....he didn't have sliders. ;-)

Bobby Babaletskos's picture

Are you completely sure he didn't have sliders? There may have been a white castle or krystal within driving distance?!? Don't assume if you don't know 😁

David Pavlich's picture

I lived just outside of Chicago for four years. White Castle was a staple for a good grab n' go or for when you just felt like eating fast food. I like your thought process! :-)

jacek jarzabek's picture

I spent hours in the darkroom - i didn't have "sliders" but thete were plenty of different post proces techniques to change the final output on paper (including paper type etc) - post processing techniques in the darkroom qere just as important as post processing now in the digital age (we even did a simple retouching)

jacek jarzabek's picture

One more time - 8 bit per channel color, no dr to speak of. I shoot lots of studio but why to spend good money on high end equipment if you will just use jpg? Seriously...

jacek jarzabek's picture

Nail it out of camera? You do realize that "real is boring" - most of the time. Many techniques call for a flat expisure, so you can give yourself most dynamic range to push and pull output. Maybe its just me - if you like jpg, shoot jpg.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I shoot RAW+JPEG so that I always have the choice: if the OoC JPEG is good enough or just needs some cropping, if I need it quickly, I'll use that.
If there's a shot that I really want to work with I'll use the RAW.

MIchael DiGregori's picture

If that's a serious comment, an argument could be made that JPGs (only) serve people well who have mastered the art of photography enough to set their cameras properly, pay attention to lighting, etc. and don't need, or like, to fiddle with RAW files.

Mike Ditz's picture

I think that the folks who mastered photography understand how and when to fiddle with raws...

MIchael DiGregori's picture

Right. The answer is simple. Do what suits the purpose of the picture. It's kind of meaningless to divide photographers into two camps like this.

Dave Haynie's picture

Fujifilm users ar3 certainly known for using JPEG, but I didn't really undrrstand that until I bought an old X-Pro1 for fun. The key taje-away here isn't that Fujifilm users don't edit, so much as they tweak everything up front to avoud the need. I got a taste of this with my Olympus Pen-F, which lets you do a ton of presetting of color before the shot, including film simulations, but Fujifilm rakes this to the next level. Your film emulation, color tweaks, dynamic range settings, etc. all chnge what happens tomthe final JPEG. Used correctly, you may get just what you want SOOC. Very few other companies have done much to enable better JPEG.

Did that convince me to start shooting JPEG? Nope. I still believe that half of the artistic process ought to be in the darkroom. And I have edited enough JPEG in the past to understanf its fragility.
But I can imagine, if I had some need to shoit and deliver without editing, that it's at least possible.

N A's picture

+1. Fuji encourages a different approach. With Canon I'm conventional. Shoot raw, process in LR. Fuji (XT3) I shoot raw + jpg and 19 times out of 20 use the sooc jpgs. I tend to treat the Fuji more like a fancy point & shoot, with several film sim recipes set up in the custom menu. Works well for informal situations. I'll dial in shutter speed, aperture, and leave it on auto ISO. Perfect for travel, around home and day at park with the family kinda stuff.

EDWIN GENAUX's picture

If you use ON1 Photo Raw in develope there are three selections manual, AI Match and AI Auto. AI Match is taken from the Jpeg rider on the RAW file, you also get to choose a color profile (portrait for night beach and milky way colors). Also Capture One does the same, if you compare the start to the jpeg (RAW & Jpeg). You can open a raw in most programs then look at the back of the camera to compare if so. Years ago when everyone talked about lost stars with certain cameras like the A7Sii but I believe it has to do with Ps/Lr (most used programs) but Capture One always looked like it had more stars, just a thought. C1 was free and only $30 to start for new Sony users but is for most any camera. Bottom line you pay for the Jpeg camera processing and the auto mode and your choice what you like.

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