I think it is always wise to shoot in raw. The raw file format will store the maximum amount of image information. This can even be optimized when shooting with exposure to the right to make full use of the dynamic range of the camera. Although intended for JPEG photographers, a flat picture profile can have a benefit or raw shooters also.
There are two types of photographers: the ones who shoot in JPEG and the ones who shoot in raw. Both have their own good reasons why to use the file format they prefer. I don’t believe there is an absolute right or wrong in this.
The first group, the photographers who prefer to shoot in JPEG, can give the image a certain look by using the in-camera settings for contrast, saturation, and perhaps a bunch of other settings. Embedded picture styles are also available. I use Canon as my main camera system, and it offers styles like portrait, landscape, neutral, and a couple of other styles. Third-party styles can be imported through the Canon software.
Other brands offer something similar. Some cameras have a more extensive range of picture styles, like the Nikon Z 7. Fujifilm offers a lot of picture styles also. These are the film simulations called Astia, Classic Chrome, Eterna, Velvia, and Acros. Each film simulation will give the image a certain look and feel to it. This is probably the most important reason for some photographers to shoot in JPEG. They are happy with the way the photos are being produced by the camera. And this is fine, of course. It is a very personal and conscious choice.
The other group is the photographers who prefer to shoot in raw file format. They want to have the maximum amount of image information at their disposal. The end result will need post-processing with software like Capture One, Lightroom, or something similar. Post-processing makes it also possible to produce a very personal look and feel completely independent of the predefined styles of the camera. Nevertheless, these raw shooters also have camera-specific film simulations and picture styles at their disposal. Software from the camera manufacturer will have the same styles available as found in the camera. But also, Lightroom offers camera-specific picture profiles.
The Downside of Using In-Camera Picture Styles
Using in-camera picture styles will have no effect on the raw images. The picture styles are only visible in the JPEG preview images, as seen on the back LCD screen. But all settings are embedded inside the raw files, so it can be retrieved in post-processing software again. Because the raw image itself is not affected, you have the option to ignore any setting that has been saved in the raw file, including the chosen picture style. Although it doesn’t affect the raw image, it can have some influence on how you perceive the image on the screen.
Let me give you an example. If you set a film simulation with a lot of contrast in it, certain parts of the image may become very dark or very light. In some situations, parts of the preview image can have clipped shadows or highlights. If you are not aware of this, it may set you on the wrong foot. If these images are shot in raw file format, there is a change in these clipped areas that has only occurred because of the chosen picture style. The funny thing is the chosen film simulation will also affect the histogram as shown on the LCD screen. In the worst-case scenario, compensating the exposure based on these preview images or histogram may lead to a real underexposed or overexposed image.
Perhaps this is not a problem if you have multiple images of the same subject with different exposure settings. But if you are a mirrorless camera user and you judge your exposure based on the exposure simulation as seen in the EVF, there is a chance you did not try different exposure settings. I have seen it happen a lot of times during my workshops and masterclasses.
Using In-Camera Picture Styles to Your Advantage
You can use the in-camera picture style to your advantage also. This is something similar to the LOG film format, as seen in different types of cameras. Among some other differences, the LOG film format will have a very flat picture style, allowing us to change the look with a LUT afterward. Why not use something similar to your photography? By making a very flat picture style, you will see a low contrast image on a screen or in the electronic viewfinder. It will be easier to check if your exposure is correct. Because the histogram is affected by the chosen picture style, using exposure to the right will become much easier also.
If you are choosing a flat image style on your camera, the image on the screen may not seem that attractive anymore. Showing the on-screen image to your fellow photographer or even a customer may not show an impressive preview anymore, but it will help you to judge the image.
Of course, using a flat picture style is only suitable for photographers who shoot in raw file format. If you are a JPEG photographer, you need to choose your exposure according to the looks on the screen, combined with the histogram readout. Exposure to the right won’t be the best choice for JPEG shooters, but picture styles or film simulations can be very helpful in acquiring a great in-camera post-processed image.
If you are using picture styles or film simulations on your camera, which style or simulation do you use and why? I would love to hear and learn about the different uses of these styles or simulations.