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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.
  • 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.

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Elizabeth Halford
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!

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