The Basics of RAW files {and what to do with the darn things}

The Basics of RAW files {and what to do with the darn things}

I was shooting a wedding once and the father-of-the-bride ‘knew a lot about photography’. I was literally laughing out loud (trying so terribly hard to hold it in) when I would adjust the dials and hear him say over my shoulder “mmmm oh yes you’re probably changing the white balance hmmm?” And best of all, “if you’re really professional you shoot in raw.”

Raw. It’s the ultimate test of someone’s acceptance of your status as a professional because it’s one of the first things that a mildly keen just-starting-out-er will pick up on in their search for photography knowledge. But even though it’s one of the first things you’ll likely learn, it’s also one of the most confusing elements for a beginner.

I’m a control freak. I don’t want to work my butt off to pull every element of an image together and then lose control of my colour temp in post processing. I want to control everything about the final product. If it were possible, I would even come to every single one of your houses and calibrate the world’s computer screens to see things exactly the same. Before you can love raw, you have to understand it.


  • If you’re shooting in jpeg and  you hit the shutter to let all the beautiful light flood your sensor and record the image onto your memory card, the camera collects the information and quickly compresses it down into a reasonably sized file. It judges things like the colour of the sky and the temperature of the light. Even when you’ve taken the image in manual mode and set everything yourself, the jpeg still needs to make some decisions as it smooshes all that information into one little file.
  • But if you shoot in raw, the sensor stays hands-off and says “ok, hot shot. YOU deal with it!”
  • …this means that you have total, blissful control of your entire image.
  • …but not without some work of your own.
  • RAW files need to be imported into a computer program like Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw and then either instantly exported as jpegs (yikes!)
  • …or perfected according to your vision for the image with editing and then exported as a jpg or other printer-friendly format.
  • So just to make sure you get it I’ll say it this way: a raw file isn’t an image. It’s information gathered by the sensor and delivered to you on a memory card. It’s totally your job to then do what you want with that information before compressing it into an ‘image’.
  • Also, a raw file won’t usually have included the in-camera sharpening that jpeg compression provides. So don’t fret when you think your image isn’t as sharp as it should be – this also needs to be done by you in the post production editing process.

Here are some links to set you on your path to opening and utilizing your raw files:

  • You can process your raws with Google’s free program called Picasa. This is an article about how to process raw files in Picasa and this is a list of supported file types.
  • This article from Apple is FAQs about processing your raws in iPhoto
  • Bridge is another option and also useful if you’re likely to be utilising many different Adobe programs from your computer. Exe: Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. It’s a base from which you can spring to any of these programs. If you’re only using PS, it’s not really necessary, although Helen Bradley has a great post on about the ways she thinks Bridge is useful.
  • This is the Wikipedia entry for ‘raw image format’. Scroll down to ‘software support’ and you’ll find a pretty huge list of software at your disposal for processing your raw files.

Read more from our Post Production category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Imogen Foulkes September 13, 2013 11:30 am

    Good article on the subject or RAW files. You are correct with your characterisation of RAW being the first "Really Complicated" subject that beginners latch on to. Rather like computer newbies getting a complex about defragging the hard drive (professionals know that this does little more than wear out the drive).

    I did some computer work for a guy who was running a photographic start-up. You guessed it, he thought that RAW was the way to go and his computers were clogged with RAW files (HDs weren't all that big then). It was mostly portrait work with daylight or lamp.

    Sadly, that guy knew so little about photography the he sent his lenses away to be professionally cleaned when spots appeared on the prints. Of course, it was dirt on the sensor; any student of high-school optics would have known that.

    PS How do you like my handle? Imogen Foulkes (Portrait Photography). Ha Ha.

  • Paul Young February 23, 2013 09:43 pm

    Hi. I'm doing some very basic website design for my group Mooshim. I've taken a bunch of RAW Photos and I load them into photoshop just fine. However, I need to use the images for a 'Mobile Phone' canvas. I.e., shrink the photo down. I can do this fine, but when I zoom in the image begins to pixelize? Why is this? I thought Raw images had way more data and therefore should do the opposite when you shrink them? Thanks heaps.

  • Kelly September 3, 2012 06:45 am

    I am new to attempting RAW, so please excuse the amateur nature of my question... When I put my memory card into the reader and open one of the RAW "images" into photoshop (Adobe CS5), it opens into the "Camera Raw" screen. At this point it shows the image at the original size (ex: 10.1mb). When I click on "open image" it opens into photoshop for me to do my typical edits. Regardless of whether or not I make any changes at this point, when I go to save the image as a JPEG, it reduces the size drastically (for this particular example it went from a 10.1mb to a 4.0mb, even after I tried doing it over without making any changes to it at all). Why does it do this and how can I keep it from shrinking?? Thanks!

  • Dave Smooth November 24, 2011 06:51 am

    Hi Sumit... yes, the FZ45 does shoot in RAW, and after much searching I found how to do it.
    The bundled software for processing RAW is SILKYPIX, which I have been experimenting with.
    But I must say its a bit confusing to a complete noob like me, white balance, etc etc., but I'll stick with it!

  • sumit November 24, 2011 03:04 am

    Dave, if I'm not mistaken he FZ45 shoots in jpeg and does not have the RAW option. But as an FYI, RAW is a file format so should be in the file format section of your in-camera Menu.

  • Dave Smooth November 23, 2011 08:40 am exactly do you take a "RAW" picture? I have a Panasonic FZ45 but its got no button that says RAW format? There is nothing in the manual that tells me how.

  • td June 4, 2011 02:49 am

    @Rob - Most cameras by all brands are like this when new. It is because each camera actually is a different RAW format from one another, even in the same brand, with the same file extension (Like .NEF for Nikon) due to different sensors etc... Lightroom and Aperture and other RAW converters need time to be able to add support of these new camera/formats to their lineup. It is usually pretty quick, within a month of release but still that is time when you can't use that program until it is supported. Of course the programs that are provided with the camera on CD are supported as they were developed by the same company. This might be what you heard.

  • Les March 26, 2011 10:15 pm

    @ Rob I shoot exclusively in RAW with Pentax gear (currently a K-X) cs5 and LR3 handle the RAW files without issue.

  • Rachel March 16, 2011 01:21 am

    Big ditto of thanks for this line: "a raw file won’t usually have included the in-camera sharpening that jpeg compression provides." I couldn't understand why images looked so much sharper when I took them than when I uploaded later to my comp. I've been blaming my new lens, my auto focus, my own eyes...

  • Rich Copley February 21, 2011 07:58 am

    Great post, and I LOVE this line: "If it were possible, I would even come to every single one of your houses and calibrate the world’s computer screens to see things exactly the same."

  • Rob February 19, 2011 06:22 am

    One small point, i have found this out recently but don't use photoshop so how relevant it is i'm not sure. A lot of new cameras will not let you open your images in anything else but the camera provider's own provided software if shooting in RAW. Again i only have experience with Pentax gear and UFRaw / GIMP. However i have been told most new cameras will do the same. Anyone with pentax gear probably should be using the provided software to adjust RAW images, it is very good and provides some really handy tweaks!

  • Olga L. February 14, 2011 03:30 am

    Agree with Bob - I was put off by her snobbish reference to the bride's father. Why, writing an otherwise perfectly good article, she needed to show the readers that he is so inferior to her, that even his admiration of her skills/professionalism is laughable? Especially since the article is mostly geared toward people who are not familiar enough with RAW images.
    Otherwise - thanks to the author for the explanation of RAW, I have this option on my Nikon, but was afraid of getting into it. Maybe I should give it a try the next time.

  • Mark February 11, 2011 09:41 am

    My Canon XSi came with "Digital Photography Professional" included on a CD. When I first used this program for RAW files, I hated it and found that the JPGs from a RAW+JPG setting were better than I could get out of the software and RAW. I checked the website for my camera and found an upgrade for the DPP software and after upgrading, it is love!!!! The upgraded software allows me to process the RAW file and get a better outcome than the camera usually does. So if you use this software and have not upgraded....

  • Greg February 11, 2011 08:40 am

    Great article; I agree with Gary - I am new to RAW files and was a little disappointed with the lack of sharpness. Wasn't aware I had more work to do!

    Thanks for the info!

  • rial February 9, 2011 07:41 pm

    i use photoshop adobe cs4 but adobe photoshop or bridge are not working with my raw files what can i do ? i use a canon eos 550d. whats the reason ?

  • Gabrielle February 9, 2011 04:13 am

    I starting shooting last year and started with RAW. I prefer it over JPG.

  • ace david February 8, 2011 09:36 am

    the more i read, the more i know that i do not know.....

  • Randy Lawson February 8, 2011 04:42 am

    I have shot in RAW format for several years and love the ability to adjust and tweak. If you really want to learn how to adjust in I would high suggest you go to Kelby Training and subscribe for just a month and watch Scott Kelby's 7-Point System. for CS5

  • Dan February 7, 2011 01:42 am

    I only edit from the original, so I do my edits once and the re compression only happens once. I just took a bunch of shots and I did Raw plus Large JPEG, will see if I can tell the difference.

  • Snug Photography February 7, 2011 01:16 am

    I think I am going to switch back to using JPEGs. Everytime I shoot in RAW my images turn out grainy and dull. I have tons of post processing to do, and they still don't look as good as my JPEGs. I must be doing something wrong.

  • Rich Maher February 4, 2011 01:14 pm

    Right on bcc. save it in tiff, it's a no-brainer.

  • Jan February 4, 2011 12:43 pm

    Qais Try Capture One from Phase One for processing RAW files. I am not a professional photographer but the software does process lots of shots easily.

    Does anyone else on dPS use this software too?

  • Kieron February 4, 2011 12:40 pm

    @ Ruben - the easiest way to calibrate the monitor is to print an enlargement using your favourite print service, hold it up to the same image on the monitor then manually adjust the settings on the monitor to get it to look the same as the printed image. That way when you edit future images on the monitor it should look the same when printed. This does depend, though, on how often your print service calibrate their machines - if they're not on top of it you may notice a little variation.

    Unfortunately you can't control other people's monitors so some people may view your images on an overly bright laptop monitor for example. The best way to show clients previews is to use your monitor or print out small samples for them.

  • Qais February 4, 2011 12:18 pm

    I used to shoot in RAW but then spent hours on post production. Unless you get paid decent, I wouldn't recommend RAW shooting as a wedding photographer. Maybe I don't get paid enough to process 500 shots INDIVIDUALLY after a wedding!. Unless there is an easier way that I'm not aware of??

  • Andrew February 3, 2011 02:22 am

    @bbc "When you open and close jpegs they slowly deteriorate over time" - only if you edit them. When opened with a a viewer nothing happens. But it is true that for each edit you save as JPG the image is re-compressed and some quality is lost. I sometimes use PNG to avoid this.

  • marcus February 1, 2011 06:20 am

    Well on sigma cameras the raw requires 0 sharpening.

  • Dan February 1, 2011 02:20 am

    I tried RAW but prefer to use Jpegs since file sizes are smaller and since I'm only taking photos for myself I rarely have much to edit on them.

  • Bob K. January 31, 2011 01:33 pm

    But if you shoot in raw, the sensor stays hands-off and says “ok, hot shot. YOU deal with it!”

    The sensor never does more than collect information. There is a computer chip/processor in the camera that takes that info and produces a jpeg. RAW bypasses the processor - the processor stays hands-off.
    As for making fun of the father-of-the-bride, I find it in very poor taste. As a pastor I've encountered "professional" wedding photographers who hardly knew RAW existed. The bought a DSLR and a copy of Photoshop and went into business. The digital age is blurring the line between professionals and advanced amateurs - and not always for the better.

  • scott detweiler January 31, 2011 01:42 am

    Also remember the JPG only has 256 values for red, green and blue where the RAW has 4,096 of each. Much more accurate color.

  • Lesley January 30, 2011 03:06 pm

    I have been tinkering with RAW and my new Nikon D90 will give me both JPEG and RAW of each shot ... uses lots of memory, but as a newbie I like this option...JPEG is my fallback!

  • Courtney January 30, 2011 01:04 pm

    Yay! I finally have a better idea of RAW files, and now understand why I don't like them... :)

  • Tim January 30, 2011 11:45 am

    Thanks Elizabeth, great explanation. I've been using RAW and Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw for almost two years now. The flexibility for exposure & color correction is great. About the only time I shoot in jpeg anymore is when I'm doing sports photography of my kids and I'm shooting 1000's of frames in an afternoon trying to capture the decisive moment. RAW files are so large, they limit how many images you can capture in burst mode.

  • Andrey January 30, 2011 11:01 am

    Why no mention of the fact that some dslr give you the option to take the shot in both RAW and jpeg at the same time? Is it a bad idea for some reason? I am a noob and for now i take all my shots in the dual-format until i develop the knowledge to do something with the RAW :)

    P.S. Thanks for the very informative website you publish!!!

  • Elvira January 30, 2011 10:14 am

    I really love this article. I wish I had it when I was starting with digital photography. Thank you!
    And I also consider that it would be nice to know how to calibrate my own monitor. I use a laptop and a desktop computer and I can see a huge difference between both monitors.

  • sumit January 30, 2011 10:06 am

    That's a brilliant explanation for RAW files. It sometimes perplexes my friends when I tell I would have to process the images after a day out and all they think of is PS. Talking about PS, that is a neat link for Picasa. I had no clue about Picasa being able to process RAW. I have been using ViewNX2 for all my image processing. Will give Picasa a try for the next batch.

  • Ruben January 30, 2011 08:35 am

    Can you also post some information on how to adjust the monitor? I find that alsointeresting because usually same picture looks different from monitor to monitor. I would like to know at least how to tune up mine to be able to have more control on the picture before being compressed.

  • David Barto January 30, 2011 08:31 am

    Yet another excellent article from the school. With a great collection of references.

  • JestrBob January 30, 2011 08:13 am

    UFRaw processes the RAW files and working with GIMP is a good free alternative to Photoshop. Both work hand in hand an stop Abode's lock up on professional photo-editing.

  • Irv January 30, 2011 08:10 am

    Just a quick piece of info, if you're a Canon shooter you very likely own DPP: Digital Photo Professional - a very powerful raw (and jpeg) photo processor that comes on a DVD with your new Canon camera. On the Canon learning website here:
    you will find a wonderful set of tutorials to learn how to use it. The longer I have worked with it, (and with the updates that Canon has provided for it) the more powerful I find it. It is not photoshop but it will help you convert and ''develop" your raw Canon files easily. And it is free. IIf you spend the time learning it, your knowledge is transferable to other photo processing programs.

    Did I say it's free?

  • Kiran January 30, 2011 07:41 am

    I love Marea's definition on "digital negative". I was about to blog on the difference of shooting RAW vs Jpeg and this article surely came at the right time :)

  • Jeremy January 30, 2011 07:08 am

    a raw file won’t usually have included the in-camera sharpening that jpeg compression provides

    And propably one of the more profound statements in this article.

    For those who use Photoshop and CS4 or 5 (I don't believe that earlier version were that good), the adjustment ability in Camera Raw (and speed of use) should be enough to swing the fence-sitters.

    A well calbrated screen and printer would set you well on the path to consistently good images

  • Marea Breedlove January 30, 2011 06:48 am

    Very good, Elizabeth. Short, to the point and in plain english.
    I remember being so intimidated by the word RAW until I figured out how much more I could do with a RAW file, and, that it is literally, your digital negative.

  • Rob January 30, 2011 06:37 am

    Whoops, didn't see that last section (I thought it was part of the page footer)

  • Rob January 30, 2011 06:36 am

    You give two examples of Adobe programs (one of which, ACW, is something you shouldn't even be recommending) and no mention of any others?


  • BBC January 30, 2011 06:27 am

    Great info...but why would you export from camera raw as a jpeg when you can set your preferences to export as an 8 or 16 bit tiff. Tiffs save all your info...jpegs don't. You can then choose to save from adobe the tiff (which I do before saving as a jpeg for website upload)....and only convert to jpeg as a printing option for website or your local printers. :^) When you open and close jpegs they slowly deteriorate over time...becoming worhtless....with a tiff back you can then convert again if needed to jpeg without strating over! :^)

  • Andreas E Nielsen January 30, 2011 06:23 am

    Very interesting and well explained for a beginner like me. I am really new to photogaphy and just bought my first dslr this Christmas and I've been reading a lot online about exposure and I'm 'on my way' through the user manual that came along with the camera, and it seems like shooting RAW gives you a lot more control over the image (as far as I understand) - but I myself haven't taken the step into shooting in RAW, although I'd like to, but I was wondering, do you think it would be a better idea to get more experience with ones camera and the whole 'exposure' thing before doing that? - As far as post processing I have no experience whatsoever, and it seems really overwhelming and I don't know where to start on that either? .. Would it be better to start out with something like lightroom or elements before taking the big step to PS? - and post processing is obviously a must if you're shooting in RAW...

  • Toni Aull January 30, 2011 06:22 am

    Very simple explanation...."Photos are never showen confused by print but defined by the Artist"

  • Nikki January 30, 2011 06:10 am

    Great article - Thank you! I also enjoyed that LR tutorial in the links below the article. I've been using Bridge and Photoshop, but have been trying to learn LR. The import & catalog and export actions have always been confusing to me, but not anymore! Thanks!

  • doodles January 30, 2011 06:09 am

    the best explanation of RAW I have read AND I understand it................thank you!!

  • Gary January 30, 2011 05:43 am

    See I learned once again, that I have much to learn. I didn't know sharpening was up to me while shooting RAW. I gave been picking up bits and pieces for the last 2 yrs since I picked up the camera again. Is their a basic but not entirely basics digital photog manual out there?