Shooting pictures in RAW definitely has its advantages, but there are plenty of good reasons you might want to shoot using the JPEG format as well. It really comes down to personal preference, and both types of file formats have their pros and cons.
One of the biggest assets of the RAW format is that you can adjust your images as much as you want in programs like Lightroom or Luminar. Whereas the lossy compression algorithms used to create JPEG files leave much less room for post-processing flexibility. For this reason, to get the most out of your JPEG files, there are some important settings in your camera you should learn and customize to get your photos looking their best.
When you use RAW, you have access to the full data readout from your camera’s sensor. None of the data used to create your image was tossed out by your camera to compress the image and save memory card space. When shooting JPEG, your camera makes a series of determinations on the fly. It calculates what it thinks are the best values for various settings to get a pleasing photo almost like following a recipe to bake a cake. You can tweak that recipe to get the final output to be more customized to your taste. Doing so can be extremely helpful in many different photography settings.
White balance is perhaps the most critical setting for JPEG shooters to understand. Getting this right can have a massive impact on how your images look. If you notice your images looking slightly yellow or blue, it’s likely due to the white balance not being calibrated correctly. Most people only use the Auto White Balance option which leaves the heavy lifting up to the digital brain inside your camera.
However, it’s straightforward to set the white balance by yourself and get much better results, particularly in tricky lighting situations. Especially indoors.
It only takes a few seconds to set the white balance when shooting JPG and it can save you a lot of hassle in the long run. All DSLR and Mirrorless cameras, as well as most point-and-shoots, come with a variety of white balance settings. You can specify these if you know a little bit about the lighting conditions in which you are shooting. Many cameras have options such as Sunlight, Cloudy, Incandescent, Shade, even different types of fluorescent lighting. These can be selected to help make your photos look as good as possible.
In my experience, the Auto white balance setting works great outdoors. However, when shooting inside, even the latest cameras can get tripped up by the many different types of artificial light. If you’re at a school, office, sporting event or another indoor setting with fluorescent lights, just choosing that option in your White Balance menu can make a huge difference to how your photos turn out. Try different settings and see what you like. Chances are, one of the pre-selected settings can help a great deal if you notice your photos looking a little blue or orange.
Finally, you can go all out and set a white balance of your own, which isn’t as big of a deal as it might sound. Every camera has its way of doing this. As long as you have a mostly white surface to point your camera at you should be all set (ideally it works if the surface is just slightly gray). Once again, the actual procedure is going to be different on every camera, and if you’re unsure do an internet search of your camera model and “custom white balance.” You should find the information you need.
While you adjust White Balance for various photography situations, Sharpening is a setting that you fine-tune to your taste and leave as-is. Of course, each photographer is different, but I’ve found I like a certain level of sharpening on all my JPG photos. This is because I have a particular type of look that I’m trying to achieve. Sharpening can’t fix an out-of-focus image. However, it can give your photos a certain level of pizzazz or clarity that you might have seen in other pictures but aren’t quite sure how to achieve on your own.
Be careful not to set the sharpening too high though. Over-sharpening can lead to images that look fake and over-processed. However, you might find that with a few tweaks to the sharpening setting you can get your images to look much better.
Adjusting the contrast slider can make dull images come to life and punch-up an otherwise boring image. Either you or your camera, depending on your shooting mode, makes decisions about how bright or dark your images are based on the exposure settings. The contrast becomes the overall difference between the brightest and darkest portions of your pictures. Dialing up the contrast makes bright parts brighter and dark parts darker, whereas lowering the value will have the opposite effect.
Contrast may seem like such a simple thing and, for the most part, it is. But it’s something that often gets overlooked by casual photographers. They may want to have nice JPEG shots straight out of their cameras and not worry about fussing with all the technical details. You might find that you prefer your photos to have a little contrast lending an interesting dynamic element to them. Or, perhaps you want your images to be a bit more subdued. Try adjusting the contrast slider, and you might realize that it does the sort of thing you have always been trying to achieve but never quite knew how to get.
If you have ever played around with filters on apps like Instagram you probably noticed that some of them make your colors pop and stand out while others have more subdued, muted tones. This effect is due in large (but not exclusive) part to saturation adjustments. You can fine-tune this on your camera to customize the look of your images. Some photographers prefer an over-saturated look – especially when taking nature or landscape pictures. It also works well for certain types of portraits too.
Some photographers like a softer touch and prefer their JPEG files to be less saturated for a calm, timeless look. It’s all based on personal preference of the photographer. It can be useful and time-saving to change the saturation in-camera instead of in an image editing program. Adjusting the saturation is as simple as increasing or decreasing the value in your camera. You may find, after several test shots, that you prefer your images to be somewhat over or under-saturated. Either way, it’s worth giving it a try to see what you end up liking.
Most cameras have additional custom settings you can change in addition to the basic ones covered so far. They can include things like film simulations, grain effects, highlight/shadow adjustments, and noise reduction, which can be very handy when shooting at higher ISO levels. If you have never explored these settings before, it’s a good idea to dive into your camera menus and do some experimenting.
Change some numbers, take some test shots, and see how the results compare to your normal shooting mode. It’s a good bet that you’ll end up with some appealing results. At the very least, you may learn more about your camera than you did before.
A feature offered by many cameras is the ability to save banks of custom settings you can activate at will. Even my old Nikon D200, which came out in 2006, had this ability. The same is also true for every camera I own today. You can save specific values of most of your image adjustments such as Saturation and Contrast to a bank that you can recall at will. Using these custom settings means you don’t have to change individual values every time you want to shoot with a specific style.
Think of this method as creating custom presets in Lightroom that you can apply to your camera with the touch of a button. If you’re shooting outdoors, you may have an in-camera preset with greater saturation and contrast. Perhaps you find yourself shooting school basketball games, so you create a preset with custom white balance and sharpening levels. If your camera does offer this feature, you can find it in the menus, or you can search online for your camera as well as the phrase “custom setting bank.”
I know not everyone shoots in JPEG, but if you do, some of these custom settings can come in handy and save you a lot of time. However, be aware that it’s difficult to undo them afterward. Unlike RAW, your JPEG files contain much less wiggle room and if you crank up the saturation and contrast in your camera, it’s challenging to undo these changes on your computer. Still, if you pay attention to what you are doing and make your adjustments carefully, you might be surprised at how useful these settings can be.