Thursday, 24 September 2015

Jpeg experiment Part One: Jpeg Correction

I’m starting a month (or so) shooting jpegs, as an experiment to see if a:) it can replace a Raw workflow and b:) if jpegs are ‘flexible’ enough to have as my only file.

I went out this week to shoot in the early evening, ostensibly to test my ‘new’ Olympus 17mm f2.8 pancake lens, but also to kick off this whole jpeg shooting thing. To be honest, I don’t think it will ‘stick’. I’m already having withdrawal symptoms. But I also think this is largely my issue and nothing to do inherently with the jpeg file format. If I can actually stick it out for the month, I might find my attitudes have changed by the end? We’ll see.

Colour cast from 'incorrect' white balance.
It’s early spring at the moment and we are experiencing some lovely evening light, with fabulous golden-hour sun racking across the town. This gives a gorgeous golden glow to the landscape, but also introduced my first hurdle shooting with jpeg only – White Balance. I shoot on ‘Auto’ WB practically 100% of the time. Why not, I shoot Raw – right? Well, not anymore. For some of the shots I took, auto WB worked perfectly. For others – not so much. So now I have programmed my ‘video record’ button on the E-M5 Mk2 to be a quick menu WB/ISO button.

Neptune Backpackers, Greymouth. Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mk2 with Zuiko 17mm f2.8 Pancake @ f4, 1/250th. ISO 200
What happens if the jpeg gets the White Balance wrong? Is it recoverable? Well in this instance, yes, it certainly was recoverable. And it was relatively easy to achieve (although still not as easy as it is when shooting Raw). I just opened the Jpeg in Photoshop, went to the Curves Adjustment panel, chose the white eyedropper, and took a sample of an area along the top of the roofline that I knew should be white. Hey-presto, the WB was corrected (kind of). I did fiddle about with it a little bit more, reducing the yellows even further, but was generally happy with the result. For future reference – choose the WB manually when shooting jpegs.

A large dynamic range made capturing detail difficult
As the evening sun disappeared, the shadows became deeper and darker. I shot using the live view histogram visible through the EVF, but could tell that the dynamic range of the scene was exceeding what the camera was capable of capturing. I could have resorted to using a graduated neutral density filter to 'even out' some of the dynamic range - but I don't generally carry them around with me. The OM-D E-M5 Mk2 also has a HDR mode that will help overcome some of the problems with excessive dynamic range in a scene, but I will have to have a play with that setting another time. In this instance, to retain detail in the highlights, I had to let some of the shadows darken to black. Could some of this be retrieved later on when shooting a Jpeg?

Coal River Park, Greymouth. OM-D E-M5 Mk2 with 17mm f2.8 Pancake lens @ f4 at 1/250th. ISO 200
Again, the answer is ‘yes’ - kind of. For this experiment I’m also not using Lightroom – probably because it puts me too much back into the Raw workflow mind set. All the image enhancement will get done in Photoshop. Opening a jpeg that had blocked up shadows, I used the Highlight/Shadow slider and managed to return a fair bit of shadow detail back into the scene. Is it as much as I could have returned with a Raw file? No, I don’t believe so. Whether it’s true, or simply my bias, I don’t yet know. But the jpegs just don’t feel like they can take a lot of manipulation before they start showing the signs. You have to be gentle with the tweaking, or it can start to look fake really fast.

Saturation at normal levels in the 'Vivid' mode
I’m shooting all the jpegs on the ‘Vivid’ setting to boost the colours, and have the Sharpness set to +1. Looking at the files on my computer, sharpness is about right. I’d be happy to leave it at that and not touch the sharpening. Saturation, on the other hand, may need to be bumped up a notch? The colours I remember seeing when I was taking the images were actually more vibrant that what I ended up with in the jpeg file. Or maybe I just like my images over saturated? For whatever reason, I increased the saturation by around 15 to 20% in all the photos I played with in Photoshop, and even then I wasn’t necessarily getting the punch I was after. 

Facade in Evening's Glow. OM-D E-M5 Mk2 with 17mm f2.8 Pancake lens @ f5.6 at 1/200th. ISO 200

I actually ended up duplicating the layer and changing its blending mode to ‘Multiply’ to intensify the colour in the sky. I then had to mask out the building to tone that area down. There was quite a bit of work involved to get it how I wanted it to look. I’m pretty sure it would have been faster and easier to achieve the same result with a Raw file in Lightroom.

The Sentinel. OM-D E-M5 Mk2 with 17mm f2.8 Pancake lens @ f5.6 at 1/320th. ISO 200
So was my first outing shooting Jpeg-only a success? Yes – and No. Overall I’m happy with the photos I took, and very happy with a couple of them. Was it easier shooting in Jpeg? No – definitely not. I made the analogy in my initial post on this experiment of comparing jpegs to slide film. And I believe that analogy still holds true. Nail your white balance, as much as possible nail your exposure, and you should be fine. As long as you’ve got your colour saturation and sharpness where you want them as well. This will slow you down and make you think – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it also means that if (when) you do get it wrong, it’s going to be harder to get a usable image out of it.

Coal River Park Silhouette. OM-D E-M5 Mk2 with 17mm f2.8 Pancake lens @ f5.6 at 1/500th. ISO 200 
It’s early days yet of course, but I’m already beginning to see that the promise of shorter processing times shooting jpegs might be more myth than reality?