Yet Another “Raw Is Best” Rant – NOT!

[ed note; Michael included a video demo with this post, and you'll find it on the 2nd page---click the "More" button].

As a long time advocate (fanatic!) of shooting Raw format only, my most frequent response to the inevitable question of “why shoot raw all of the time?”, is because you never know when the shot of a lifetime will jump into your viewfinder. And given that truth (if you accept it), one would surely want to capture that shot of a lifetime in the best quality format that their DSLR is capable of. And that, of course is raw. The reasons why have been well stated time and time again by Scott, me, and countless others. In fact, while many were still debating the efficacy of shooting raw at all, I created an entire DVD about how to shoot raw faster, better, and easier than shooting JPEG. In that DVD I touched on a subject that kept haunting me to the point where I needed to do something about it. That is why I created the free utility called Instant JPEG from Raw.

First Some Raw History
As many did, I resurrected my passion for photography back when convergence of technology brought together 3MP digital point-and-shoot cameras (in my case the Canon Powershot S20), along with the IBM MicroDisk (340MB), and the Epson 1270 printer. Finally one could go out and shoot several hundred photographs, work on them in the amazing digital darkroom called Photoshop, and print them such that people would think they were looking at a real photograph. It was a grand time of creative resurgence and discovery. This was followed by the biggest moment in the recent history of the digital SLR, the introduction of the Canon D30. It also was only 3 megapixels. But for the first time ever, those pixels were silken and magical, and at worst rivaled the quality of film, and according to many beat it when printed to 8×10 or smaller. It was also smaller, higher quality, and quite more affordable than the then reigning king of DSLRs, the Nikon D1.

Thankfully my wife was insightful enough to convince me to buy the D30 instead of the Canon G1 P&S which had also just been released She said to me that we could not afford the G1 ($1,000) and that I must buy the D30 ($3,200)! She knew in her ultimate wisdom, that a G1 purchase would only have satisfied my gear lust mentality for a week or 2, and would be followed by the inevitable D30 purchase for a total cost of $4,200. Hence we could not afford the G1 <g>. Thankfully it still applies today. D300 vs. D90 – 85 f1.8 vs.85 f1.4. “We cannot afford the cheaper one!” Have I mentioned how much I love my wife?

We only got to know the D30 by trial and error, as there was no authoritative documentation. The early adopters, along with Michael Reichmann and others, banded together to discover the mysteries that lay within this magical camera. Raw mode was one of those mysteries, but the only way to convert raw files (in fact the only way to even view raw files), was to develop/process/convert them in the then immature Canon raw software. One could view very small thumbs in the slow software, but to see the full size 3MP file, it would take about 2 minutes per file. Yup! Two+ minutes per file. No wonder people did not adopt raw early on. No way to even view your files, until after a several hour “conversion” session that completely tied up and/or crashed your computer. And that was just to view the files, before you edited or adjusted them. I went on record at DPReview saying that Raw was not ready for prime time (link). And it was not. But then the magic was discovered…

The Embedded JPEG.

The holy grail turned out to be that Canon thankfully had embedded a JPEG file within the Raw data file. It was a raw conversion using the camera adjustments as they were set at capture. In the case of the D30 it was a large 1440×960 pixels, a perfect size for viewing preview images. Based on the ground-breaking work by David Coffin (DCRaw), several developers including Bruce Henderson and Marten Dalfors then abandoned the slow and buggy Canon SDK (Software Development Kit) and created small but powerful applications (Yarc and CRW Extract) that could actually “extract” the embedded JPEG file from the raw file, at blinding speed, a folder at a time. Eureka! This provided the much needed ability to view JPEG conversions in a simple browser application, and actually see the work within a minute or two of download to the computer, for hundreds of raw files. This was a first for raw shooters. This same technique of extracting the embedded JPEG was later used in applications like BreezeBrowser and YarcPlus which were the first practical raw converters for Canon D30 cameras (and the models that quickly followed) and finally presented a usable raw workflow, such that photographers could elicit the full quality that those cameras had to offer.

As a side note, Michael Jonsson (then at Phase One and now at Adobe) later blew the raw workflow paradigm wide open with his pivotal architecture of the original Capture One DSLR raw software. It was later followed by Thomas Knoll creating Adobe Camera Raw for Photoshop , and Jonsson besting himself with RawShooter (later acquired by Adobe). Bibble, the standard to the Nikon Crowd, expanded to support more camera models, and new raw converters were coming out of the woodwork weekly (or so it seemed). Eventually this led to the mega do-all dedicated photographic applications Apple Aperture and Adobe Lightroom which simply (and wonderfully) expand on the raw paradigm that Jonsson had pioneered with the original Capture One DSLR.

It should not go unnoticed that even today, the ability to browse through raw files “instantly” in applications including BreezeBrowser, Irfanview, GarphicConverter, Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom and scores of others, is still based, either fully or in part, on the ability to extract the embedded JPEG within each raw file. When we view the raw file in one of these applications, one of 2 things happens. Either we are in fact viewing the embedded JPEG based on the camera settings, or we briefly see the embedded JPEG, until the raw conversion software is able to create a new preview file based on the default (or adjusted) settings from within the specific raw application.

The “Instant JPEG from Raw workflow” utility
OK. So I am here to tell you about a free utility that extracts this mighty embedded JPEG file from a RAW file, just like I told you was done almost 10 years ago to create just a primitive raw workflow. But how is that going to help you in your 2009 workflow? Well maybe it will and maybe it won’t, but I am hoping that for at least some of you, it will make your day (and that is a tough thing to do on the day after Photoshop CS4 was announced)!

Let’s take this typical, but fictitious, scenario. We are in NYC at the studio of fashion/advertising photographer Ron Purdy (that part is true). He is doing a fast paced shoot for a fashion catalog. Not only does Ron have to make great pictures, under great pressure (a daily event), but he also has to deliver a flash drive with large JPEG proofs immediately after the shoot, as well as email small JPEGs to the west coast, and create a web gallery. Time is of the essence. Of course Ron shoots in raw format as he always does, even though, as you will see from his work, he definitely gets it right in the camera. Although he knows that JPEG proofs will be required immediately after the shoot, he does not shoot in RAW+JPEG because it is much too slow and cumbersome.

The shoot is done, the files are uploaded to the computer, and the client is extremely pleased but is impatiently waiting to leave with the proofs. There are many ways that the JPEGs could be created, but why create the JPEGs, when they already exist with the raw files? Let’s go to the video…

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/MNU13W3DXTs" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

To summarize what I hope the video clearly demonstrated, I believe that IJFR is the fastest and easiest way to go from raw files to high quality proof files, especially on low powered machines and without involving running an application. I generally get 2 reactions from people who try the utility, one being “that’s cute”, the other being “holy s…, that’s amazing”.

The IJFR utility is available for Win or Mac OS, and is fast, simple, has a tiny footprint (uses very little disk space or RAM) and is free, and easy to have on all of your desktop and laptop machines, no matter how slow, or resource challenged. I created it in conjunction with Imagenomic, the people who make the great Noiseware and Portraiture plug-ins. They, like I, want to give something back to the photographic community that has treated us so well. For more information, a video tutorial, FAQs and for the free IJFR download please follow this link.

I would like to thank Scott for the opportunity to share this time with you. I hope that you find IJFR useful in your work, and that the history of my love affair with raw and the embedded JPEG was somewhat enjoyable<g>.

Before I hand the blogging wand back to the unstoppable Scott Kelby, let me leave you with just one more thought. Another reason that I never shoot JPEG is because more than once I have found myself during a critical shoot and the camera was not set to raw. I hate when that happens.

–Michael Tapes

Michael has been a part time pro photographer for all of his adult life. He worked with the design teams of Capture One, RawShooter, and Adobe Lightroom, as a design consultant. He is best known for his development of the WhiBal White Balance Reference Card, which has become an industry standard. He is currently working the soon to be released LensAlign Focus Calibration System. Tapes can be found on his own blog, at RawWorkflow.com.