If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “I only shoot RAW” (you could substitute JPEG for RAW here) I would be rich. Truth be told, if one limits one’s self to a single format then, I suggest, that one has established limits that are simply stifling one’s creative choices.
Many people argue that RAW is superior to JPEG in that it captures a significantly wider dynamic range, a fact quite true for single image photography. When it comes to creating hdr images, however, JPEG is the virtual equal of RAW.
The dynamic range of an hdr image is captured through exposure control across 3 to 5 bracketed exposures (some folks use up to 7 bracketed exposures but I think this is overkill) exposing for extremes at either end of the dynamic range.
By relying on multiple exposures and merging them into an hdr format one extends their ability to capture the dynamic range of a scene so that the final image created extends across the entire dynamic range of the scene being photographed. If your camera only shoots in JPEG you shouldn’t run to the photo shop and buy one that adds RAW to your gadget bag unless, of course, you have other reasons to shoot in RAW.
In HDR photography, RAW does provide one with a possible advantage. RAW exposures create a digital file (not an image) that captures all that the camera’s sensor is capable of capturing. The RAW image displayed is prioritized to the camera settings but all of the other image data is present in the file as well. In single image shooting, RAW offers one a wide range of fixes for shots that simply got away, that are over or under exposed or the white balance is way off. Because all of the data is already there, poor RAW images can be salvaged. In HDR the RAW file allows one to create a faux HDR image in a number of conversion/merger software solutions. Photomatix Pro, the software I use allows one to create a passable HDR image from a single RAW formatted file.
Other post-processing software have presets that selectively adjust the highlights and shadows of a single image to produce something that appears to have the full dynamic range of a merged HDR image but don’t be fooled! Adjusting the shadows and highlights is something like putting 10 peaches in a small basket and then transferring them to a bigger basket. The fact still remains that one still only has 10 peaches. While these adjusting techniques produce interesting images, they are not what they pretend to be.
One more thing to keep in mind. RAW files are quite large and slow. Recall that they record simply everything that can be recorded and store that information in a digital file. To display the RAW file on your camera’s display or on your monitor the prioritized image is converted to a JPEG prior to display. JPEG captures are smaller and load much quicker in both the camera and monitor. Shooting JPEG will speed processing time. If this is important to you than JPEG may be the format of choice.
Making the choice between shooting HDR bracketed images in RAW or JPEG is a matter of choosing the best solution for the task at hand. Let me give you an example. When I am going out to capture an HDR landscape I normally lug my Canon 5D and a carbon fiber tripod (its both sturdy and lightweight but quite expensive). That way I can take my time, compose the image to my liking and manually control my bracketing.
When I am in full control I capture HDR brackets in high quality JPEG. But there are times when I am taken by surprise. I see a scene that would make a perfect HDR image but I don’t have an adequate tripod with me. I then take a single image shot in RAW and let Photomatix Pro create a faux HDR tone mapped image. While not perfect, it is a perfectly good solution in a pinch.
About the Author:
Roger Passman is an award winning professional photographer located in Northern Illinois (rogerpassmanphotography dot net). He often leads creative photo workshops designed for beginning through intermediate amateur photographers.
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