Should you shoot Jpeg?

Jpeg straight out of camera

As I mentioned in one of the previous articles, there is no such thing as 'should' in photography. Your camera offers a choice of Raw and Jpeg (Tiff?) shooting, and those are all yours to take advantage of. There is nothing inherently wrong with either format. In this article, I'm going to discuss why you may want to shoot Jpeg and what you can get out of it.

For photographers using cameras from brands other than Fujifilm, Jpeg shooting is probably one of the more underrated features of the camera. I've shot Jpeg on Nikon, Fujifilm, and Olympus cameras, and I admit that the experience is different between cameras in what you can achieve. Full control over the Jpeg output at the level of even basic raw processors is still not being offered in interchangeable-lens digital cameras, mirrorless or otherwise. However, there is a lot you can do with Jpeg, and sometimes the things camera can do for you is all you need. 

Another benefit of learning how to control the Jpeg look and feel is that this skill translates directly to the camera's video features as well, as cameras usually offer the same set of controls for video.

Note that on this blog, I keep typing Jpeg instead of JPEG. The latter is the correct spelling and is an acronym for "Joint Photographic Expert Group."

It would be easy to just blabber on about the benefits and drawbacks of shooting Jpeg-only. However, I feel that I need to demonstrate what you can actually do with Jpeg first, so we are on the same page when it comes to what it really means to shoot Jpeg in the first place. I'm most certainly not talking about just pressing the shutter release button and copying the files over to your computer (or phone). What I mean is taking full advantage of the image creation tools that are available in your camera to create the desired look in the camera.

In this article, I will go over some camera adjustments. These will be demonstrated using two cameras: Fujifilm X-T3 and Olympus OM-D E-M1X. Settings for other cameras are comparable, though, so you should be able to adapt the demonstrated settings for your gear without too much hassle. Note, though, that cameras may offer features not shown or discussed here.

Contents

In-camera Jpeg controls

Most cameras offer some kind of control over the appearance of the Jpeg image. These are usually the following:

  • Some kind of base picture (appearance) profile
  • Contrast
  • Color saturation
  • Sharpness

Additionally, we can use the following controls to modify the appearance of the Jpeg:

  • White balance
  • White balance shift
  • Exposure compensation
  • ISO

Additionally, cameras may offer other controls like "Hue shift" (overall image hue shift), "Color shift" (for skin tones), "Clarity" (micro-contrast adjustment), and similar. I will not cover those extra features here except as they pertain to the Olympus and Fujifilm cameras as those are the camera I am currently using.

Base picture profile

Most cameras will offer several generic picture profiles. These are called "Picture mode" on Olympus cameras, "Picture control" on Nikons, "Film simulation" on Fujifilm, "Picture style" on Canon, and so on.

They are usually called something like "Neutral", "Vivid", "Portrait", "Standard", "Muted", etc. The differences between these profiles are, for the most part, subtle. Vivid profiles may stand out a bit as they increase the saturation in a more apparent way. However, each profile usually has its distinct rendering that you can take advantage of in combination with other settings.

On Fujifilm cameras, they work a bit differently. That is, their intent is a bit different. Rather than going for generic appearance tailored to specific shooting scenarios, Fujifilm instead went for concrete looks modelled after film stock. Their profiles are called "Provia", "Velvia", "Astia", "Eterna", and so on. How you use them is not much different, though.

Most cameras additionally offers at least one black and white profile that is used for, you guessed it, black and white shooting. In this article, we will not discuss black and white at all.

When considering serious Jpeg shooting, the first step is to become familiar with the different picture profiles on offer. I like to test them in different shooting situations to see how they react to skin tone, plants, landscape, overcast day, etc. Keep in mind that what the profile is called does not necessarily mean they will work best for those scenarios for you. Each photographer has their own shooting style, and profiles are not one-size-fits-all kind of deal.

White balance

I go for white balance next because it has the most dramatic effect on the appearance. Most photographers will set the white balance to "Auto" or one of the modes appropriate for the shooting conditions. However, white balance affects the overall color of the image much more than any other control at your disposal, so it's one of the key color control tools in your camera.

In most cameras, white balance can be set in Kelvins. On the Olympus E-M1X, this setting is found under "Custom white balance" or "CWB" for short:

On Fujifilm, the white balance setting of "Color temperature" or "K" will take you to a list of values you can use:

What the Kelvin values are is the color temperature. Normally, this setting tells the camera the color temperature of the light that illuminates the scene, but we intentionally lie to the camera to shift the colors in the image.

With higher color temperature, the light is "cooler" (yes, counter-intuitive, I know), so the camera compensates for this by warming the image. However, if we set the color temperature of our custom white balance higher than the temperature of the actual light source, the image becomes warmer than the real-life scene. Conversely, if we set it lower than the light source, the image becomes cooler. Essentially, we can give the photos either an amber (yellow-orange) or blue cast.

The three images above are exposed at, respectively, auto white balance (5300K), higher color temperature (6000K), and lower color temperature (3800K). The values are dramatically off-target on purpose to demonstrate the difference more clearly. You can be as subtle or as dramatic as you wish, though.

White balance shift

White balance shift is normally used to make more or less subtle adjustments to the base white balance value. Though its effect is a bit more restricted than the Kelvin setting, most cameras will let you shift the white balance not only along the blue-amber axis, but also the green-magenta axis.

On Olympus, this is achieved using two sliders:

On Fujifilm (and many other cameras), we have access to a two-dimensional diagram like this:

The following images show the automatic white balance shifted by blue -7, amber +7, green -7, and magenta +7.

If you look at these images, you get different impressions even though it's the same object just because the overall color is different.

Contrast

Contrast setting is available on most cameras. Fujifilm does not have this setting, however. On Fujifilm, you will need to use a picture profile that has about the right amount of contrast for you.

Olympus, like Canon and Nikon, has the contrast setting. This goes from -2 to +2, so the granularity of the contrast adjustment is not so fine.

The contrast setting on Olympus sadly has very little effect on the overall contrast of the image. It is only visible when you zoom into the image, and you are really looking for it. The effect is really too subtle to do anything with it. My experience with the Nikon D700 was completely different, though, and it does affect the image quite dramatically, so your mileage may vary.

Here are two images from the Nikon D700 using +3 and -3 contrast settings:

Additionally, both Olympus and Fujifilm offer tone settings which affect the image contrast in a more localized way. This makes up for the unusable and non-existent contrast settings on those cameras, respectively. 

On Olympus, the tone can be set for highlights, mid-tones, and shadows separately, applied using a nice graphical interface.

On Fujifilm, there are only settings for highlights and shadows, which are set through the IQ menu.

Here are the examples of extreme tone curve adjustments on the Olympus E-M1X.

A few things to note about these adjustments on Olympus. These settings don't increase or decrease the contrast per se. Rather, they affect the brightness of the specified ranges. The increase in contrast is therefore a side-effect of these adjustments. If you compare the above images to the Nikon examples, though, you will see that it achieves the same result.

On Fujifilm, the shadow and highlight tones works in a similar way.

Tone curve adjustments are very useful when combined with exposure compensation, which we will see later. I generally keep in mind the possibility of exposure comp when working with note curves, and use the two settings in tandem.

While not all cameras have tone curve adjustments, many have features that are meant for highlight protection. Nikon has a feature called "Active D Lighting", and Canon has "Automatic lighting optimizer" or "ALO." Fujifilm calls this settings "DR." These settings can work in conjunction with exposure compensation to achieve a similar effect. Basically, we push the exposure up and let the highlight protection flatten the highlights for us. The effect is not as controllable as a proper tone curve adjustment, but it works in some situations. Fujifilm's DR setting is particularly effective in simulating the film's smooth roll-off in the highlight when combined with positive exposure compensation of +0.5 to +1.5 stops.

Saturation

Saturation is another common setting available across manufacturers. On Fujifilm, this setting is called just "color." The saturation setting does what it says on the tin: it boosts and subdues the colors. Whether the end result will be highly saturated or not depends both on the scene and the base picture profile.

On Olympus the saturation is controlled with a slider with -2 to +2 settings.

On the Fujifilm X-T3, the setting is in the IQ (image quality) menu and goes from -4 to +4.

Here are two images with different saturation settings applied.

Sharpness

Everyone loves sharpness. The sharper the image, the better. Or is it? Sharpness increases the level of perceived detail in the image. It can make the image clearer, and it can also make it feel more "raw", "true to life." On the other hand, decreasing sharpness can make the image less clear, "dreamy", "foggy." I don't think sharpness is overrated (I love a sharp image as much as anyone else), but I think unsharp images are hugely underrated. Just like a punchy vivid image is not for every situation, neither are overly sharp images.

Of course, cameras do not typically offer a great latitude for sharpness adjustment, which is a shame, as controlling the image sharpness can be used to create different messaging.

On Olympus, the sharpness is controlled using a slider that goes from -2 to +2.

On Fujifilm, the setting is found in the IQ menu and allows settings from -3 to +4.

Here are some images with different sharpness settings.

Although it may be a bit difficult to see the difference clearly, sharpness and contrast control can complement each other to complete a stronger message. Newer Fujifilm cameras also have a clarity setting which, while it makes the shooting a bit slower, creates a much better effect than reducing sharpness, and can also be combined with sharpness to create more interesting effects (e.g., reduced clarity with increased sharpness).

Note that simply using a cheap vintage lens that isn't very sharp to begin with will achieve an even better effect. My Olympus lens was simply too sharp to make this effect work in the example image.

Exposure compensation

Virtually all digital cameras will offer exposure compensation. Most photographers will be familiar with its use as a means to correct the metering errors. However, exposure compensation can be used in tandem with contrast/tone/highlight adjustments to create a specific look.

For example, on Olympus and Fujifilm cameras, lifting the shadows using the shadow tone adjustment and then reducing the exposure using exposure compensation can be used to create flatter highlights. Or we can pull the highlights down using highlight tone adjustment but then increase the exposure to brighten the shadows and flattening the highlights.

Similar can be done using the contrast setting on cameras that do not have tone adjustments, but with a bit less control.

Exposure (compensation) can also affect color. As you brighten or darken the image, the colors become less or more saturated. We can then use the saturation setting or different picture profiles in combination with the exposure compensation and tone/contrast adjustments to further boost or attenuate this effect to achieve different effects.

In the set above, the first image is shot with no exposure compensation and no other adjustments. The second image was shot with exposure compensation +1, and tone, saturation and sharpness manipulated to give it a soft, sort of dreamy, worn out look. The last image was exposed with exposure compensation -1 and a boost in color and texture to give it a dark raw look. Notice the difference in the red on the last two images.

ISO and noise reduction

Not all cameras render noise the same way. Some cameras will start developing color blotches at high enough ISOs while others will simply have more grain (e.g., Fujifilm). The effect of the high ISO shooting is therefore different depending on the camera.

The following pictures are taken with the Olympus camera.

Note that the camera settings in both images are identical except for the aperture which had to be closed down to compensate for the increase in the ISO. The difference in the overall image contrast is strictly due to the ISO. 

With higher ISO settings, we can give the images a more noisy, rough appearance. Depending on the camera, it can also simulate film grain. For this effect to work, the in-camera noise removal should be turned off or at least set to minimum if it cannot be turned off. Also, if you are going to use this outdoors in bright sun, you will need an ND filter.

Why doesn't everyone just shoot Jpeg?

While picture settings in most cameras are quite versatile, they are far from being as flexible as the image editing software. Manufacturers like Fuji deliberately limit the degree to which you can make various adjustments to maintain the image integrity, and the base profiles in most cameras may not perfectly match your vision. This is why some photographers choose to shoot RAW instead.

Another reason Jpeg may not be suitable to some work is that unpredictable lighting conditions can cause the dynamic range of the scene to far surpass what the Jpeg can record. Or photographers may not be in a position to react quickly enough to changing situations. As you could see, Jpeg adjustments are not easy to make on the fly, and not all cameras can store an infinite number of presets.

The third reason may be that not all photographers are aware of what can be done with Jpegs in the camera. As seen in the countless online reviews of the Fujifilm cameras, the Fujifilm Jpeg adjustments are misunderstood and hugely underestimated, even when the reviewers show excitement about the film simulations at their stock settings. Most reviewers are happily reporting the film simulations, but fail to grasp the possibilities offered by all the related settings. And it's not just Fujifilm. Many cameras are well capable of producing a wide variety of looks beyond the few built-in picture profiles, but this is rarely mentioned in the reviews.

Why would some people only shoot Jpeg?

Some photographers are perfectly happy with the Jpegs they get out of the camera. In fact, many are happy with the default look without any adjustments. Manufacturers did not just put any random configuration in their camera's processors. Most manufacturers ship with defaults geared towards specific scenarios. Some of these looks are so intricate that their counterparts in the raw processing software like CaputreOne or Lightroom simply don't look as good. Be it people, landscape, or wildlife, most cameras will output amazing images when used in those scenarios for which they were optimized. This works for many photographers.

Other photographers simply prefer the convenience of using the straight-out-of-camera (SOOC) Jpegs without further retouching even when it means more work in and around the camera. I'm one of those people, and I like that I can use a standard image viewer to view, organize, and occasionally just crop the photos before publishing them in the gallery. I'm willing to spend more time composing and recomposing the image, adjusting the lighting, and fine-tuning camera settings, as long as I can get the image right there and then. Images you see on this website are all straight out of camera, with no processing whatsoever except some cropping. 

In some situations, processing images is not even an option. This is common with big sports events where the client needs the images as the event is going on. Importing thousands of images into the raw developer and tweaking them there is simply not feasible. Images need to be shipped to the client, usually over Internet, on the spot, as soon as possible. (This is one reason why pro sports cameras like Canon 1Dx or Nikon D5 don't have too many megapixels.)

Jpegs are smaller compared to raw files. This means that more can fit on the card, the burst buffer does not fill up as quickly, and when you need to transfer the images, it takes considerably less time. Of course, the storage on your computer is also not infinite.

Conclusion

Shooting Jpeg is not just about convenience or storage. In your camera's price, the advanced image-making facilities to control the look of the Jpegs is also included, and there are endless possibilities that you can take advantage of. Although not as flexible as the raw files, the ability to see the final result in real time makes Jpeg a compelling image creation option.

This article was updated on January 16, 2022

Hajime Yamasaki Vukelic

I'm a macro photographer based in Europe. I took the first macro photos using the Nikon F film camera and extension tubes in late 1990's, and have since tried myself in various genres using various types of camera. In 2020, I returned to my first love, macro photography. I love hunting for abstract details in plants, and playing with photography gear.

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