Is JPEG Capture “Bad”?

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Today’s Question: With the recent talk about Adobe not updating older versions of Camera Raw, among other issues such as slow updates for new RAW formats, how bad an idea would it be to shoot in JPEG instead of RAW so you don’t have to worry about software updates?

Tim’s Quick Answer: Shooting in JPEG (rather than RAW) most certainly streamlines certain elements of your workflow, but it also increases the risk of quality problems in your photos. However, if you ensure excellent exposure and accurate white balance in the camera, the only major issue to be concerned with is the potential for visible artifacts in the images caused by JPEG compression.

More Detail: With JPEG capture, there are certainly risks related to reduced flexibility for optimizing your photos. For example, a JPEG capture will always be an 8-bit per channel image, whereas a RAW capture can be processed to a 16-bit per channel image. This translates into a greater risk that gradations of tone and color will not be as smooth in JPEG images if you need to apply strong adjustments to those photos.

Of course, if the JPEG capture looks perfect (or close to perfect) right out of the camera, then you don’t have to worry about strong adjustments causing problems with image quality. So, if you’re confident in your ability to achieve accurate exposure and white balance settings, you don’t have to worry too much about image quality problems being introduced by strong adjustments.

That said, even with absolutely perfect photographic technique, you can’t avoid the issue of compression artifacts with JPEG captures. Even at the highest quality setting, JPEG captures will have compression applied to them in order to produce a smaller file size. That compression always has at least a slight negative impact on image quality for JPEG captures.

In some cases the compression artifacts may be very difficult to see. But they will be there. Frankly, the risk of having JPEG artifacts in photos is a critical factor from my perspective. In other words, while I am perfectly comfortable in my ability to capture images that require little or no adjustment (most of the time), I’m not willing to risk having compression artifacts visible in my photos.

The “insurance” provided by RAW captures when it comes to applying strong adjustments to tone and color is certainly appealing. And the potential for greater dynamic range and other benefits to overall image quality is appealing. But the real reason I avoid JPEG capture is the presence of JPEG compression artifacts in those captures.