Can jpgs. deliver quality images?

I've always been a raw conversion man. I go on about photographic dogma, and how restricting it can be, but if I have any of my own, it is about the benefit, under all circumstances, of shooting raw and converting the files.

However my recent burst of activity in getting all my outstanding images edited has resulted in some eye problems. I have been experiencing double vision. Visits to my Doctor and Optician have determined that this is a) not life threatening and b) fixable. However it was a very unpleasant experience and one that I am determined to prevent in the future.

My method of editing images involves having the screen of my laptop very close to me and lying down, which being short sighted is possible for me to do without glasses (I do this to protect my back) but this has resulted in my eyes changing in terms of how they react to my viewing distance. I have apparently "trained" them to do things that mean they get a bit confused when asked to focus on something further away. This has been made worse by the amount of time I have spent in front of my screen recently, which has been longer than the time I have spent doing anything else, and can get up to 8, 10 or even 12 hours a day. 

Part of my opticians proposed solution is a pair of glasses exclusively for computer use which means my eyes will view things close up in a much more "normal" way and the theory is that they should then be able to adjust to distance viewing without the double vision.

However I am somewhat concerned about the amount of time I'm spending in front of a screen, and together with a decision to shoot less, I have also resolved to spend less time editing. Using the out of camera jpgs. would be a way of reducing this time obviously, but I have always been reluctant to do this, mostly because of the softness of these images, which usually results in them being rejected by my picture libraries. Most of these libraries also make it clear that they want files converted from raw anyway.

Still, needs must, so I've been looking at what I can do. In terms of the cameras I'm going to be keeping, m4/3 is now back in consideration. Simply because of the absence of dust spots. Though it has to be said m4/3 cameras are not immune to this, its just that its rare for me to shoot at very narrow apertures when they become all too obvious. I have occasionally seen some spots on my m4/3 camera, but the vast majority of the images I take are dust free. This of course prevents the need for close 100% analysis of my images which I have to do with my Nikon D800E and my NEX cameras. So today I got out my Panasonic GH3 and 35-100mm f/2.8 lens to see what I could achieve with the OOC jpgs. 

There is an advantage that the GH3 has in that I can set more parameters for the jpg. settings I use, than on some other cameras. I decided to try a setting with the contrast, sharpness and noise reduction all set to their minimum possible values. I then compared them with the raw files that I processed using my preset for the camera.

This is what I got.

I must admit that I was surprised at what I could achieve. I still believe the raw files are slightly sharper, but the OOC jpgs. (which have some added smart sharpening in Photoshop) were better than I imagined. Setting the noise reduction parameter to its minimum seems to have kept the files nice and crisp with none of that characteristic  smearing and softening. 

It is early days, and I'm going to need to do a real-world shoot to see if I can live with these jpgs. There are also issues about dynamic range and CA removal, but since I'm still planning to shoot raw files as well, I can work on any "problem" files in my usual way. Its an alternative I will explore more and see what I get from it.

Finally, this has all struck me as to how much a generation of "lab rats" we digital photographers are. From the days of film when we were just one element in the whole process, with film manufacturers, processing labs and repro. houses all fulfilling vital roles, to now, when we do it all. I've been totally digital for over 10 years now and while I obviously spend more time on this than most people, I don't think I'm particularly unique in terms of what many professional photographers do. The double vision was a bit of a wake up call, and it very clearly says to me that I can't go on working in the way that I have been. And while I concede that heavy duty darkroom work could also have its problems, this constant use of computers for everything may well have long-term repercussions that we are as yet unaware of. Hopefully I can solve my "problem", particularly as driving home with one eye closed is not something I want to do a lot of!!

N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) below.

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