The difference between a JPG and a RAW file

I see one of the biggest problems with the whole Paul Hansen World Press Photo kerfuffle is a misunderstanding of how raw files are handled in Adobe Camera Raw versus taking a JPG from a camera and toning it in Photoshop. If you have not worked with Camera Raw before, what it does and how it works can be a bit confusing.

It is important to understand that when photographing in Raw, the camera is actually creating a black and white file and it is creating an XMP file along with it that determines how the file is going to look. The same is true for JPG, the file is processed in camera.

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That is an example folder of images I shot on my Fujifilm X100 and ingested to my laptop via Photo Mechanic. I will determine which photos I am going to keep and then import them into Lightroom 4. When they are imported into Lightroom 4 they will be converted to DNG, which is also a Raw format. The advantage of DNG is that it is an open source file format and it combines the XMP and .RAF files into one file.

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This is an example of how Lightroom 4 manages my files. I started converting to DNG a long time ago and I will do that for as long as I use Lightroom. For me, that works. Much like Mr. Hansen using Adobe Camera Raw to tone his photographs. It works for him and his technique is very refined. Some may see it as heavy handed, I see it as someone who has found a working method that is delivering the results he is after. I prefer Lightroom 4 and it is important to note that LR and ACR share the same processing engine.

So what is happening when a file is manipulated in Adobe Camera Raw? The XMP file is being changed, not the black and white Raw file. When the Raw file is opened in Photoshop it can be saved as a lot of different file types, but how it looks is based on the XML file. This is an example of XML file I opened in TextEdit.

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This workflow is all about having the most information available to work with and being able to get the most out of the files. It will also leave you with a file that can be reverted back to its original state and reprocessed at any time. Since all of the detail is there you are able to achieve a variety of “looks”.

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I chose to demonstrate with this picture because it has a variety of highlights and shadows. I shot this on a Canon T3i with the 18-55mm kit lens. Basic stuff, but what was recorded is pretty interesting. I have not dodged or burned this image at all. I have changed the values of the highlights and shadow areas to accentuate how much information is there to start with and how much of it can be toned down. All by making global adjustments. If I were to make local adjustments, I would select individual parts of the image and manipulate from there.

So when Mr. Hansen says: “To put it simply, it’s the same file – developed over itself – the same thing you did with negatives when you scanned them.” he is right. He is changing the file but adding a layer of adjustments on top of the file, not changing the pixels.

If I had shot this image on JPG and exposed for the highlights there is little chance I would be able to bring out the shadow area at the bottom right of the image showing the exposed wood. When shooting in JPG, the camera processes he image according to settings in the camera. When I used to work at the newspaper we photographed in the JPG mode and then used Adobe Photoshop 7 to open the files and make adjustments to the files that actually changed the pixels. When you change pixels in Photoshop, there is no going back, unlike this method of Raw files.