There are endless articles and videos discussing the pros and cons of shooting in raw versus shooting in JPEG. I’ve long been a proponent of raw for the editing capabilities, but what's more important than file sizes and editing? Longevity.
It’s helpful to point out here that I very often can’t see the forest for the trees, so this may not be such a revelation to others. To briefly recap, shooting in raw captures the most amount of information in each shot, which allows the maximum amount of manipulation in post — essentially the digital version of a film negative. JPEG offers significantly reduced file sizes and speed of use but also reduces the post-processing advantages to just minor adjustments. That’s a broad overview, because there are multiple levels to this discussion. This is not meant to rehash all of them, but simply add a point to the pros of the raw argument.
I was reviewing some past work recently and came across a portrait that I loved from over five years ago, but I decided I should revisit the edit. I’ve been retouching for more than a decade, so I wasn’t thinking this would be a major overhaul but rather a quick update. And for the most part, I was right. My eye is better adjusted to more subtle retouching, so the results were more relaxed than the original.
But this got me thinking about the age-old discussion (raging debate?) about shooting in raw or JPEG and which one is better. I’ve been doing this long enough to believe that professionals choose which one works best for them and their clients, but when you’re just starting out, this is can seem like a major dilemma. Not only is there the added file size, but it’s a level of complexity that may be overwhelming to a new shooter.
Rarely in this back and forth is the discussion of longevity or as some will call it, future-proofing. Side note: I prefer the former because, to my ear, this is about your career and legacy, so the language used is important. Yes, it has a utilitarian aspect, but longevity is about maintaining presence over years, and future-proofing sounds like my roof has the proper rain sealant applied.
My career started in the digital world, so I don’t have a background in film. As such, I’m just used to being able to go back to an image from whenever and decide if I still like the final version or not. If not, I can make changes and re-save it. As I said before, this is not an Einstein-level revelation about photography. I also acknowledge this is heresy to some that view the original edit as the purest form. But I'm a mad scientist when it comes to creativity, with a tendency to see rules as more like guidelines.
Here’s the thing, though: I think this is one of the strongest arguments for shooting raw for a new photographer than anything else. The list of technical advantages is helpful, but telling a new photographer to shoot in a file format that will allow them to improve the photos they're taking now in five years is a much more compelling reason. There are times this won’t apply, of course, published work being one. However, how fantastic is it to know that you have a safety net in such a technically challenging career?
Why would you want to look at work you shot years ago? I've been shooting headshots for the better part of a decade, and there are some images that are milestones for me, so I want to keep them in my portfolio. But as I improve with my retouching or maybe I update my monitor to one that has better resolution and color, I want to go back and adjust those specific images to keep them current. If all I had were JPEGs, this would be very limited but since I've shot in raw from almost the beginning, I have this option.
Now, a bad photo is just that, and a professional should never rely solely on the post-processing to save their work. Getting it right in camera is the gold standard, and we should always strive to improve. Still, having that extra layer of flexibility for the future is fantastic.
So, buy that larger SSD and figure out Camera Raw in Photoshop now. Your future self will feel a lot smarter.