Saturday, December 19, 2015


Some time ago, a few weeks or months, Reuters announced that the format, the only format, it would accept from photographers is straight-out-of-the-camera JPEGs. Or something like that. The details of the new policy don't interest me.

Responses varied. "But professionals only shoot RAW" and so on, "SOOC JPEG sucks", "They can't enforce that!" and finally "But but but I can still make all kinds of changes in-camera to how it makes a JPEG, sharpening, color balance, tone curves(?), etc."

I don't care about enforcement. Yeah, it's a problem, but it's not my problem. The interesting question to me is what the policy means, and how it makes sense, if indeed it does.

It does.

Sure, you can make all kinds of adjustments to how the camera makes JPEGs out of the sensor data. But this is the important thing: these adjustments are made before the exposure is made. This means that, in practical terms, it's extremely difficult to use the in-camera sharpening to skew the story. You can say the same thing in fancier terms by noting that a SOOC JPEG is indexical in ways that a RAW file processed through some workflow isn't.

Indexical means that it corresponds to reality, in a direct way. It almost doesn't matter what the algorithm applied to convert the light bouncing off reality into a picture is, as long as it's deterministic. Indexicality is precisely what separates photographs from drawings. The human selects a lot of stuff, but ultimately a machine makes the picture. At the moment of exposure, the person steps aside and the machine does all else.

It is from this, precisely, that our inherent trust of photographs comes. The photojournalist can of course choose the framing, the point of view, the lens length, the degree of sharpening, the color balance and tonal mappings, but ultimately, at the moment of truth, it's the machine and the machine alone that makes the picture. And there it is, with whatever truth there might be in it, unaltered by human hands.

We're at an evolutionary point in photography where various tasks can be done either before or after the moment of exposure. There are cameras that let us focus afterwards, for heaven's sake! I have myself pointed out that it hardly matters whether you do things before or after the moment of the shutter press. That is certainly a thread of response to the Reuters decisions "blah blah post processing, in-camera, it doesn't matter."

This is glib and, in this context, foolish. It matters enormously whether it's done before or after. What does not matter is whether or not the pictures is identical. I don't care about that. A picture that is post-processed to be identical to the SOOC JPEG may be the same picture but its provenance is quite different. Provenance matters in photojournalism, and this is what Reuters is getting at.

A van Meergeren is less valuable than a Vermeer, despite the fact that it's indistinguishable from a Vermeer. Provenance matters. Pictures, be they paintings or news photographs, exist in a human society. Without humans, fallible, strange, psychologically complex humans, to look at them, they're just patterns of color and tone. The colors don't even make much sense to non-humans, with our trichromatic vision with the red, green, and blue bands and the whacky processing the visual cortex applies.

I don't know whether Reuters thought this through with a bunch of fancy BS about "indexical" and "truth" but this surely what they're getting at. People trust a SOOC JEPG in ways that they don't trust a RAW run through Lightroom, even if they don't know what any of those words mean.


  1. Reuters is a news reportage organisation, and the photographs which they present are intended as a form of documentary evidence (if not exactly 'proof') of the events reported. The photos do not need to be sooper dooper high art quality images, they need only to serve the purpose of more or less accurate documentation. I believe this is a smart move by Reuters.

  2. There are cameras in which you can edit the jpg image - crop, "erase unnecessary parts"..... Would that still be considered as an OOC jpg image?

    1. Dunno. You'd have to ask Reuters or possibly you can glean it from the announcement if you read carefully?

      It would certainly be missing the point to allow it, though, eh?