Last Updated on March 4, 2022 by Devaun Lennox
Photography is full of terminology and technical jargon. But the term “RAW” is easily the most common around and something you’ll regularly see online or hear directly from other photographers. Yet, it continues to be a concept that confuses many beginning photographers and one they end up approaching cautiously.
So, what exactly are RAW files? And how can it help your photography? And why do so many photographers end up recommending shooting “RAW”?
In this post, we will define the file itself, how to open one, along with its advantages and disadvantages. So, in the end, you’ll have some practical insight to decide if it’s best for your workflow.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What is a RAW file?
- What separates RAW from JPEG
- The types of RAW files
- How to open a RAW file
- Advantages & disadvantages of RAW
Jump to a Section
- What is a RAW File?
- Differences Between RAW and JPEG Files
- RAW File Formats
- Why is RAW Capitalized?
- How to Open a RAW File
- Advantages of RAW
- Disadvantages of RAW
What is a RAW File?
A RAW file is the native file type used on digital cameras that captures image data from its CCD or CMOS sensor. And unlike other formats, it contains all of the sensor’s data and is entirely unprocessed.
Yet, contrary to what some believe, RAW files aren’t a visual file format, per se. Instead, it’s a raster file type that collects information about the analog-to-digital conversion process of a camera. Or, put another way, it holds the values your camera recorded as it converts light into voltage during the time of exposure.
That conversion goes like this: light enters through the lens striking the sensor and each photodiode. There, the camera converts the intensity of light and its color (red, green, or blue) into a specific electrical charge.
And it does this conversion at each of its 24 million pixels, or whatever your camera’s resolution. The processor then combines these values into a single file, encoded as binary data (ones and zeros). And it spits that file out without adding compression or manipulating it to the memory card.
So, in reality, a RAW file stores data, not a picture. Because of this, it’s not something we can see with our naked eye since it’s binary data and that data requires interpolating or demosaicing. And this fact explains why it requires us to convert the file into a tangible visual format that we can see on our computers or devices, such as JPEG, TIFF, or PNG.
The basic idea with shooting RAW is to have the best image quality possible on your camera and the most freedom to edit the final image. And, since a RAW file is uncompressed data from the sensor, it delivers on both.
It’s entirely free of any sharpening, saturation, or even contrast. Yet, it also stores the most detail of all raster file types, which is why it’s a standard format amongst digital cameras, image scanners, and even film scanners.
Differences Between RAW and JPEG Files
We have a detailed blog post on RAW vs. JPEG. But, I will quickly discuss the main differences between the formats below.
When you set your camera to RAW, it saves all of the original, unprocessed image data. And you capture photos with the most accurate color, highest image quality, and most post-processing freedom.
JPEG, however, applies the in-camera adjustments you’ve made, along with lossy compression, and throws away irrelevant image data. Much of that data revolves around color, so it’s not ideal if color accuracy or rendering is essential to you.
But, sadly, the changes it makes are also baked into the file permanently, which also makes your photography workflow destructive. And while the smaller file size of JPEG is convenient, especially when sharing photos online, it doesn’t produce the best possible results since the camera decides how the photo looks, not you.
Even so, this conversion process does make the resulting file more compact, and it’s also universally accessible, unlike RAW. So you can open, view, and edit the photo with even very basic software. But, to get this convenience means you lose image quality and much of the freedom to edit the picture during the process.
RAW File Formats
It’s important to point out that each RAW file is proprietary to the camera manufacturer and, often, the specific camera model. And there’s currently no universal RAW file format, except Adobe’s DNG to some extent. So below is a list of each of the file names from each manufacturer for your reference.
- Adobe — DNG
- Apple — ProRes RAW
- Canon — CRW/CR2/CR3
- Fujifilm — RAF
- Hasselblad — 3FR
- Kodak — DCR, K25, KDC
- Mamiya — MEF
- Nikon — NEF/NRW
- Panasonic — RW2
- Phase One — IIQ
- Olympus — ORF
- Sony — ARW
Why is RAW Capitalized?
If you’ve ever wondered why RAW is capitalized, here’s an explanation. Unlike other file formats, like JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group), RAW doesn’t actually stand for anything specific. It’s also not a particular format either.
Instead, camera makers capitalize it to distinguish it from the regular word “raw,” make it easier to read in-camera, and show it’s a file type on your computer similar to PDF, TIFF, and others.
The real file types are the ones listed above in the previous section, like DNG, CRW, and RAF. “RAW” is just what we refer to this category of files as.
How to Open a RAW File
Unlike JPEG, which is easy to open on virtually any device, opening RAW files isn’t so simple. Again, RAW files are proprietary, so they’re not compatible with most third-party programs. This is great, as it lets camera manufacturers show ownership of the file and maintains branding. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t help the photographer.
Instead, it forces us to rely on compatible editing software that supports the file produced by our cameras. So, for your reference, here’s a list of some of the most popular third-party editors that support most of today’s 500+ RAW file formats.
- Adobe Photoshop
- Adobe Lightroom
- Affinity Photo
- Capture One
- DxO PhotoLab
- Exposure X6
- Luminar AI
- On1 Photo RAW
Without the right software, your computer has no way of Demosaicing the data. “Demosaicing” is a reverse-engineering process that takes the RAW image data from a single color into a full RGB image. It’s a very specialized process.
And if the software doesn’t know how to interpret the sensor data, it’ll have no way of reading the file; thus, you can’t view the photo.
As you’d imagine, this causes enormous problems. And it’s particularly challenging for software developers who are forced to update their editors when each new camera comes to market.
The problem is that this process takes time, and software updates don’t always keep up. So it ends up taking several months or even a year at times to see support on third-party apps. During that time, your best bet is to use the first-party RAW viewer or editor from your camera manufacturer instead. Otherwise, you’ll want to shoot JPEG + RAW.
Either way, though, the fact that RAW files are proprietary ends up causing an unnecessary level of inconvenience that only benefits the camera makers and no one else.
Advantages of RAW
Shooting in RAW delivers enormous benefits since the format is uncompressed and unprocessed. And, collectively, it gives you, the photographer, more creative freedom to edit the photo as you see fit.
Let’s cover each of the benefits below.
RAW doesn’t bake in the white balance or color settings you’re using in-camera. Instead, it merely captures all the exposure values of each primary color (red, green, and blue) when you take the photo.
That means you have all of the original color information untouched. And when you change the white balance afterward, you adjust how the software interprets those colors. You’re not changing the colors themselves. As a result, you have complete freedom to adjust the white balance.
Like white balance, the color space (sRGB or Adobe RGB) isn’t kept directly in the file. So you can change the color space later if needed
With RAW, you capture the entire color gamut of your camera, which is far more precise and nuanced than using JPEG. Most cameras capture color in 12-bit, some in 14-bit. However, each of these provides several times more color information than a standard JPEG file.
In this case, 14-bit images can produce 4.4 trillion possible colors and 12-bit 68.7 billion. This is an enormous difference compared to JPEG’s 8-bit gamut, which produces only 16.7 million colors by contrast.
The result is that RAW images have superior color accuracy, tonal quality, and smoother gradations. So you rarely see any color banding, posterization, or blockiness in photos. Yet, you also have far more room to adjust and fine-tune the colors in post-processing.
Shooting RAW means you capture the actual exposure values of a scene. And in turn, it means you capture photos with your camera’s actual dynamic range. Dynamic range refers to the exposure latitude between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights of an image.
It’s rare RAW files don’t include some information in both overexposed highlights and clipped blacks. So even if these areas appear lost at first, you can usually recover them to reveal the details underneath without seeing pixelation or noise.
And this recovery ability is a key advantage of RAW, especially when you’re working in challenging lighting conditions.
Noise Reduction & Sharpening
Since the RAW file is unprocessed, it doesn’t apply any in-camera noise reduction or sharpening. With that, you’re free to use more complex sharpening techniques and noise reduction tools later on. And programs like DeNoise AI generally work much better, too, producing fewer halo artifacts and other issues than doing so in-camera.
RAW files are uncompressed files by default, that is, unless you set your camera to shoot lossless compressed RAW. Either way, you still bypass any image compression artifacts that reduce sharpness, contrast, and cause pixelation. And you also get far more editing flexibility as a result.
RAW is genuinely non-destructive. Why’s that? Well, when you edit a RAW file, the changes you make act as adjustment layers. So you’re really editing a reference file, not the RAW file or the data your camera recorded itself.
So say you adjust the contrast in Lightroom. That change doesn’t increase the contrast in the file. Instead, it changes the sidecar file. The sidecar file is a set of instructions that adjusts the onscreen interpretation of the data and how the software engine shows the photo.
The software only applies these changes when you export the photo to another format, like JPEG or TIFF. Then and only then is the change permanent. And the RAW file is always left untouched. This then starts the foundation of a truly non-destructive workflow since you can always go back and start over.
Disadvantages of RAW
Using RAW isn’t without trade-offs. So below are the most important ones to consider beforehand.
Unfortunately, with RAW files being proprietary image data, they’re not supported by most third-party applications. So you can’t view them with average programs or even share them online.
Sadly, that means you always have to tackle some post-processing. There’s no escaping it.
Even something simple like converting a photo to a JPEG will usually require a computer and some effort. It also requires specialized software. And these facts are why shooting RAW is a deal-breaker to some photographers, as it’s somewhat tedious and time-consuming, especially when you’re traveling without the necessary software.
File Size & Storage
Capturing the uncompressed raw data from your camera’s sensor requires space. So much so it ends up creating a file that’s substantially larger than you’d expect. We’re talking your average RAW file is around 20-30 MB’s, while JPEG is often only 5-10 MB’s. So they’re roughly four times larger.
A larger file size means each photo takes up more space on your SD card, computer, and hard drive. It also means that your camera will quickly fill its buffer during continuous shooting, causing the frame rate to drop. And that could be the difference between shooting at 10 FPS or dropping to 5 FPS or even less.
So, shooting RAW isn’t ideal if your SD card is tight on space or your computer’s hard drive is nearly full. It’s also not ideal if you’re shooting sports and need the fastest burst rate possible.
File Sharing & Compatibility
Since there isn’t a standardized RAW file, that inevitably means that not all editors can open each file. So a Canon-branded software like EOS Utility can’t read a Sony ARW file. Yet, even the manufacturer’s software must go through a software update to support their newest camera models. Otherwise, they too don’t support all RAW files.
And this lacking compatibility is what ultimately makes shooting RAW the most challenging to work with. It always requires some unique software, many of which are subscription-based, I might add. Plus, you can’t upload or view them on a standard website or even social media since the files are large and have set viewing requirements. And these factors just add unnecessary complications if you want an easy workflow.
RAW files are an essential part of digital photography today, and there’s no escaping them. Yet, despite their inconvenience, they give photographers the most creative freedom and best image quality. So long-term, we recommend shooting RAW if you want to capture the best your camera offers.
Thankfully, almost all of today’s modern digital cameras, be they beginner or professional-level, let you also shoot RAW. So you can access the benefits of RAW at any time.
That said, there are a few situations where RAW isn’t ideal though. And it’s not exactly the holy grail of photography by any means. So let’s cover those below before concluding.
- Turn Around Speed & Ease of Use – if you’re a sports, wildlife, or even travel photographer or simply hate the idea of post-processing altogether, it’s better to shoot JPEG. The added hassle of converting RAW files will slow your workflow and make things more complicated.
- Limited Storage – if you forgot to clear your SD card and now have tight space, you’ll want to shoot JPEG to conserve the remaining space you do have.
- Sports, Wildlife, and Photojournalism – if you’re shooting an action medium where speed is of the essence, then shooting JPEG is best. Not only will you get photos that are usable right from the camera, but you’ll also maximize your camera’s shooting speed. Just remember, you’ll want to use the correct semi-automatic mode, metering, and focusing settings to ensure your exposures are consistent.
- Personal Use – if you’re shooting a birthday party, a night out, a selfie, or thanksgiving dinner, it’s highly unlikely you need more dynamic range and color accuracy. So shooting RAW in these casual settings offers little benefit. Just shoot JPEG and keep the workflow simple.
- You’re a beginner – if you’re new to photography, skip shooting RAW at first. Instead, shoot JPEG and focus on mastering your camera. Shooting JPEG will make the process easier for you and reduce some of the challenges of learning photography. It’ll also help you realize whether photography is a long-term passion or not, which is key. You can always enable RAW then learn more about post-processing later. But, it’s important you first understand if you even like photography.
For us personally, we shoot RAW + JPEG. This gives us the option of using the unique JPEG images created by our cameras through film simulation. But, it also provides us with the chance to edit the original photo later, which is great to practice and develop a style. So, while more inconvenient, the flexibility and image quality advantages are worth it. But, whenever we can’t bother with the post-processing, the JPEG images are perfect.