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Reuters bans freelance RAW photography to boost speed and preserve ‘reality'

Feng Li/Getty Images

Reuters has banned its freelance photographers from submitting images that were shot and processed in their camera's RAW format, PetaPixel has confirmed. RAW is often used by pro and enthusiast photographers because it captures far more data from the sensor than compressed JPEGs, allowing for extra detail and more latitude in processing.

It would seem it's that flexibility that has Reuters worried. A photo editor for the agency sent the following note to freelance photographers earlier this week:

"I’d like to pass on a note of request to our freelance contributors due to a worldwide policy change.. In future, please don’t send photos to Reuters that were processed from RAW or CR2 files. If you want to shoot raw images that’s fine, just take JPEGs at the same time. Only send us the photos that were originally JPEGs, with minimal processing (cropping, correcting levels, etc)."

"As eyewitness accounts of events covered by dedicated and responsible journalists, Reuters Pictures must reflect reality," a Reuters spokesperson tells PetaPixel. "While we aim for photography of the highest aesthetic quality, our goal is not to artistically interpret the news."

The question of where photo processing and editing violates proper journalistic ethics has been a frequent topic in recent years. World Press Photo disqualified 20 percent of entries in the penultimate round of its 2015 awards, for instance, after comparing submissions to the unmodified RAW files.

"A large number were rejected for removing or adding information to the image, for example, like toning that rendered some parts so black that entire objects disappeared from the frame," said New York Times director of photography and World Press Photo jury chairperson Michele McNally. "The jury — which was flexible about toning, given industry standards — could not accept processing that blatantly added or removed elements of the picture."

Banning RAW photos entirely is a drastic move

But banning RAW photos entirely is a drastic move on the part of Reuters. Most photographers find that their RAW shots can look dramatically better than JPEGs after editing, even without altering the essence of the photo; the camera captures more dynamic range and detail at the moment of exposure, rather than producing a smaller JPEG file by locking in settings that can't be reversed. White balance is a non-issue with RAW files, too, whereas now photographers will have to make sure they get their colors right in camera — something that may not always be easy in the fast-moving and dangerous environments that freelancers often find themselves in. And despite all this, it's certainly possible to edit JPEGs in a misleading manner.

There's another reason for the policy change. "Speed is also very important to us," the Reuters spokesperson tells PetaPixel. "We have therefore asked our photographers to skip labor- and time-consuming processes to get our pictures to our clients faster." It's true that JPEG-only workflows can be faster than using RAW. Almost all RAW images need some degree of processing, because the colors tend to be too flat right out of the camera, and since there's so much more data the files are much larger — this means they're slower to send and more taxing to process. JPEGs are more of an approximation of what the camera thinks will look good, which means they're more likely to be usable right away.

This assumes that everything goes right inside the camera at the split-second the shutter is released, however, and JPEGs are often a lot harder to fix if something goes wrong. It's understandable that Reuters, a fast-moving news agency covering some of the most urgent stories in the world, wants to prioritize speed. But by ruling out freelancers' use of RAW entirely, the agency risks compromising the quality of the photos that it runs.