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What is a NEF File?

Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Devaun Lennox

Every file extension has a different property. But, ultimately, each extension lets us know its file type, the information it contains, and what software can support it.

The Nikon Electronic Format, or NEF, is one of the numerous unique file extensions on digital cameras. But it’s been the standard option for most of Nikon’s DSLR and mirrorless cameras for many years now. So it’s very likely your pictures will come out as a NEF file if you’ve set the camera to shoot RAW. And at some point, there’s no escaping or avoiding this file.

NEF icon Illustration

Thankfully whether you’re a Windows, Mac, or mobile-first photographer, there are many ways to open, edit, and export your NEF images. So in today’s post, let’s look at the file extension in-depth, along with how you can open and convert one to better suit your workflow.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • What is an NEF File?
  • How to open NEF files
  • How to convert NEF files
  • Advantages of NEF files
  • Frequently Asked Questions

What is an NEF File?

The Nikon Electronic Format (.NEF) is Nikon’s RAW image file exclusive to only Nikon cameras. And it indicates the file on your device is a RAW file produced by a Nikon camera.

Note: you’ll sometimes see this file format referred to as Nikon Electronic File.
nef-files-on-mac

Like other RAW formats, the NEF file contains all the original image data captured by the camera’s sensor during exposure. And it records this data in a way that stays true to the lighting and colors present.

Also like other RAW formats, NEF files retain the original metadata. This information includes the camera model, date, location, exposure settings, lens used, copyright, and so on. Lastly, the camera combines all this information into a single file that it writes to the memory card without compression. And it simultaneously renders a JPEG preview, which serves as a thumbnail to see the image in-camera.

Note: you can add Lossless compression to reduce the file size if you’d like. However, NEF files are uncompressed by default.

Advantages of NEF Files

Like all RAW formats, the NEF file delivers enormous creative flexibility to photographers. We have a detailed blog post talking about the advantages and disadvantages of RAW files in general. So feel free to check that out if you want more specific information.

But let’s quickly summarize the main advantages here.

Since NEF files record the uncompressed data directly from the camera sensor, these files give you the most information possible. And that, in turn, helps preserve the maximum image quality created by your camera and lens combination.

NEF files, unlike JPEG or TIFF files, don’t have in-camera processing such as white balance, tone contrast, sharpening, and noise reduction permanently written into the file. Instead, these settings are stored as separate instructions in the file, which you’ll later adjust in editing to change how the photo looks on screen. Thankfully, those instructions don’t damage or compromise the original RAW image data, so there’s always a way to return. And this functionality is key to creating a genuinely non-destructive editing workflow.

NEF files also offer 12-bit or 14-bit color, depending on your camera. And this creates images with better color gradations and tonal range than only 8-bit JPEG files.

Combined, the NEF file gives you much more freedom to post-process images the way you want. And the added data, let’s squeeze every detail out of your images without compromising or losing quality along the way.

How to Open NEF Files

In today’s world, opening file extensions is easy and very accessible. And gone are the days of downloading extra dedicated editing programs to open a NEF file. Instead, if you have an up-to-date operating system on your computer, you should be able to open it without any issues.

MacOS

The easiest way to open this file on macOS is by using Apple Preview, the default image viewing application on Mac. However, if you have an older Mac from 2010 or earlier, this process may not work. And in that case, you will have to refer to the section on Editing Software below. But it’s worth a shot either way.

Merely right-click on the NEF file, then select Preview.app in the “Open With…” category.

preview-photos-on-mac

Windows

The easiest way to open this file on Windows is by using Microsoft Photos. Microsoft Photos is the standard viewing application for Windows PC. However, it’s a relatively new addition, so this workflow may not work for older operating systems such as Windows 8 and below. In that case, you’ll want to refer to the section on Editing Software below.

Merely right-click on the NEF file, then select Photos in the “Open With…” category.

open-photos-on-windows
Note: Microsoft Photos may prompt you to download the free RAW Image Extension. And you can download it through the Microsoft Store by clicking the prompted link in Photos.
raw-image-extention

Editing Software

Unfortunately, you may find yourself in a position where the above option on your computer doesn’t work. In that case, you have plenty of dedicated photo editing software tools that can open this file. Below are just some of the many options. The first group is free. The second are paid apps.

  • Nikon Capture NX
  • Nikon ViewNX 2
  • IrfanView
  • GIMP
  • RawTherapee
  • Darktable
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Camera Raw
  • Adobe Lightroom
  • Capture One
  • Corel PaintShop Pro
  • Corel AfterShot Pro

Android & iOS

Working with these files on Android and iOS is easy since several major editing apps support this file. Below are just some of the options. We use Lightroom Mobile and Photoshop personally, though.

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Photoshop Express
  • Adobe Lightroom Mobile
  • Snapseed
nef-file-app-screen

How to Convert NEF Files

NEF-to-JPEG-Illustration

As great as NEF files are, you’ll want to convert them to a more web-friendly and easy-to-use format in most situations. Thankfully, many editing tools can convert this file to a universal format, like JPEG, PNG, or TIFF.

MacOS

The easiest way to convert NEF files on a Mac is through Apple Preview, and it’s super quick to do this.

1. First, open the image in Apple Preview.

2. Next, navigate to the top menu and select “File” then “Export.”

nef-save-as-jpg

3. In the dialogue box that appears, change the format from HEIC, JPEG, PNG, or TIFF.

Windows

The easiest way to convert a NEF file on a Windows machine is using Microsoft Photos.

1.  First, open the image in Microsoft Photos.

2. Next, right-click and select “Save As.”

3. In the dialogue window that appears, change the format by selecting it in the “Save As Type” dropdown. Here you can export the file to JPEG, PNG, or TIFF.

nef-file-save-as

Online

You can also convert a NEF file online if you don’t want to download any programs or use another editor. And there are many online tools that can do this. Below is a shortlist of a few that work.

  • Convertio
  • Photopea
  • Pixlr

Mobile

You can also convert a NEF file on your smartphone or tablet. The easiest way to do this is using Adobe Lightroom Mobile, which is free. But, there are several other applications that you could also use.

Conclusion

If you’re a Nikon shooter, it’s fair to say that you can’t avoid NEF files forever. And eventually, you’ll have to battle this file format at some point during your photography career.

That said, if you’ve avoided them so far, don’t. These files aren’t difficult to work with. And consider they give you much more room to edit your photos. They’re definitely helpful.

Thankfully, you now have a strong understanding of how you can open and convert one. And you can unlock the true power of your Nikon camera.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I convert NEF files to JPEG?

The easiest way is to open the file using Apple Photos (Mac) or Microsoft (Windows). Then save the file using the dialogue window to the JPEG format.

Are NEF files better than JPEG?

Yes. NEF files produce images with better dynamic range and color and fewer artifacts that lower image quality. JPEG also adds in-camera effects to the photo, which are irreversible.

Is NEF the same as RAW?

Yes. The NEF file is Nikon’s RAW file format. But it’s exactly the same as any other RAW file from other camera companies.

Photo of author

Devaun Lennox

I'm a fashion, beauty, and commercial photographer turned impromptu photojournalist. Based in Las Vegas, my images are graphic, bold, and full-on contrast.