Once you’ve done a bit of research into photography, you might start to come across photographers and photography websites recommending that you shoot in “RAW”. But what is RAW in photography, and why do so many photographers recommend it?
Well, in this post, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about RAW. What it is, why you should shoot in RAW – and even some reasons why you might not want to shoot in RAW.
This post is written based on my years as a professional photographer, and also teaching people photography, both online, and at workshops around the world, where often one of my main goals is to educate everyone on the benefits of shooting in RAW.
Let’s get started.
What is RAW in Photography?
Ok, first let’s talk about what this RAW thing is in terms of photography. When using a camera, the two main photo formats available are JPG (or JPEG) and RAW.
Normally when you shoot with a digital camera or smartphone, the default setting is for it to save the images you take to your camera’s memory card in a format known as JPG or JPEG. JPEG simply stands for “Joint Photographic Experts Group”, which is the name of the group that created the format.
This is often shortened to JPG, as a throwback to a time when file extensions could only be three letters. So a JPG file on your hard drive would look like “Image.JPG”. There is no difference between a JPG and a JPEG, they are the same.
JPG is a universally agreed upon image format that can be viewed across pretty much every device out there. So it’s easy to take a JPG image file and share it to a social media platform like Facebook or e-mail it to a friend, and they’ll be able to see that image without you needing to edit or change it in any way. It’s also how we publish photos on our sites.
JPG is also a compressed file format. This means that various optimizations are applied to the image file, which makes the file size smaller. The greater the compression, the greater the loss in quality, but the smaller the file size and the less storage space needed to save it.
Compressed files are a good thing. They mean that when we load a webpage, we don’t have to wait ages for all the images to load, and when we e-mail images to friends, we don’t take up too much of their inbox space.
There are downsides however to using a compressed JPG file. A compressed image is a lot less flexible when it comes to editing, as much of the useful image data that image editors work with has been discarded in order to save file size. Additionally, the camera applies a number of tweaks to the image when it saves it as a JPG, including adjusting the saturation, contrast, and sharpness of the image. These changes are difficult to undo if you don’t like them.
A RAW file on the other hand, is an uncompressed version of the image file. Essentially the camera takes the image data from the sensor, and saves it in an unedited and uncompressed format on the memory card.
This takes up a lot more space on your memory card. A RAW image file roughly works out to be around the same size as the number of megapixels of the camera – so for example, a 20 megapixel camera will save a RAW file of around 20 megabytes. Compare this to a JPG file of reasonable quality, from the same camera this will usually be around 4 megabyets – five times smaller!
Every camera manufacturer has their own RAW file format. For example, Canon RAW files have the “CR2” file type. Nikon RAW files are “NEF” files. So instead of “Image.JPG”, you would have “Image.CR2”, or “Image.NEF”.
You can’t just grab these RAW file and upload them to the internet or share them with friends. They also take up more space, and aren’t of a universal file format. So far, this doesn’t sound great for RAW files!
However, RAW does have a number of advantages, which we will cover in this post. First though, a quick summary of the differences between RAW and JPG.
RAW vs JPEG
Here’s a quick overview of the above:
- Both a type of photography image file
- JPG: small file sizes, approximately a quarter the size of a RAW file
- JPG: universal file format, RAW is unique to each camera
- JPG: can be shared anywhere without editing, RAW requires editing before it can be shared
- RAW: much greater control over the final image, JPG has reduced control as much of the image data is discarded
- JPG: supported by vast majority of smartphones and compact cameras. RAW support is only on more expensive cameras like DSLR’s, mirrorless cameras, and some point and shoot cameras and smartphones
- JPG is an 8-bit format, meaning it can store information on up to 16 million shades of colour. RAW can store between 68 billion and 4.3 trillion colour shades, depending on the camera, which is quite a lot!
Why is RAW Capitalized?
Another quick question – you might be wondering why the word “RAW” is usually written in capital letters. Well, unlike JPG, RAW doesn’t actually stand for anything. It’s also not a specific file format, as different camera manufacturers use their own file extensions, like “CR2” or “NEF”.
As far as I am able to ascertain, RAW is usually capitalized for two reasons. First, to distinguish it from the word “raw”, which has it’s own definition. Second, as file extensions traditionally have always been capitalized (like .DOC for Word documents, or .XLS for excel spreadsheets), this indicates that RAW refers to a filetype.
To be honest though, there’s no rule that says you have to write RAW rather than raw. It’s up to you!
What are the Advantages of Shooting in RAW?
I’m going to quickly go through some of the main advantages of shooting in RAW, so you know why you should be figuring out how to set your camera up to shoot in RAW.
1. You Keep all the Image Data
The major advantage you have when shooting in RAW is that you don’t lose any valuable image data.
Why is this important you ask?
Well, let’s think of some examples. Sometimes when we shoot a scene, the sky might be too bright, or the subject too dark. With a JPG file, it is very hard to do much about that, as the image is essentially already in a final state and allow only for a small amount of editing.
With a RAW file, there’s a massive amount of image information available, meaning you can recover skies that are too bright by reducing their brightness, and increase the shadows so they are brighter.
In the example above, you can see the original RAW file on the left, and the edited version on the right. As you can see, I had to underexpose the hillside here, so as to have the clouds and sky correctly exposed. Then, in post, I was able to recover the shadow details and create a more balanced and correctly exposed image.
Once you’ve done this a few times on an image that you thought was almost useless, you’ll wonder why you ever shot in JPG.
2. White Balance Adjustments
White balance is almost a whole other post, but in brief, when photographers talk about white balance, they are referring to the colour tone of the image. So for example, a warm white balance means the image is a golden yellow colour, and a cool white balance refers to a more blue looking image.
White balance varies depending on the source of the light. A tungsten bulb for example will give a different tone of light compared to the midday sun, which will look different to a setting sun.
Imagine if you hold up a white piece of paper – you know the paper is white, but if you put the same piece of paper under all these different types of light, it would likely look a different shade or tone of white.
When you take a picture, the camera usually has to try and figure out the tone of the light, so your image doesn’t look too blue or too yellow, and this is done with the white balance setting.
When you shoot in JPG, the camera has to figure out this white balance and apply it to the image. When you shoot in RAW, you can change the white balance after the fact much more easily, meaning it is a great deal easier to adjust the tone of the image in post-processing, and “fix” an image so it looks more natural and similar to reality.
As an example, you can see the original version of the image above, to the left, looks quite yellow. This is because the light source is quite warm, and so the white bowl ends up looking a bit yellow, as does the rest of the meal. By adjusting the white balance after the fact, we can make the bowl look white, and the rest of the food looks more natural as a result.
3. Sharpness and Noise Adjustments
When you shoot in JPG, the camera applies a number of edits to the image data as part of the conversion process to give the final JPG image a particular look. This look can normally be adjusted in the camera menu settings, and includes various things like colour saturation and contrast, as well as noise reduction and sharpness.
Whilst the camera software is generally ok at these adjustments, you get a lot finer control over sharpness and noise reduction if you use a dedicated image editing tool like Adobe Lightroom. So especially for darker scenes, like indoor shots where you can’t use a flash or night photography, shooting in RAW and adjusting the noise and sharpness in post processing will get you better results, resulting in a cleaner image overall.
When Should you not Shoot in RAW?
Whilst there are a number of obvious advantages to shooting in RAW, there are some reasons not to shoot in RAW.
First, if you can’t see yourself spending much time editing or working on your photos after pressing the shutter button on your camera, RAW might not be for you. It will add time to your workflow, and whilst the end result may be better photos, if you just don’t have the time or inclination to do it, it’s likely not going to be for you.
Another reason not to shoot in RAW is if you want to shoot continuous frames at a high burst rate – say an action sequence. Because JPG files are a lot smaller, they can be written to the camera’s memory card a lot faster than RAW files, and the cameras internal buffer will also be able to store more photos, meaning you can shoot a burst for longer.
So if capturing the moment is the most critical part of your shoot, RAW might not be for you.
RAW is also not necessarily the best if the pictures are highly time sensitive. When I’ve shot events for example, some press photographers have been shooting JPG alongside me, because they need to be able to quickly deliver the photos to a client so they can be published. There’s simply no time for the RAW editing process to take place.
Obviously, this is a niche need, but if having photos quickly is a priority, again, RAW might not be right for your needs.
Sometimes of course we also want to be able to travel and share our images with friends and family, and we don’t want to take a laptop with us on our trips. In these cases, RAW is also not ideal as you would need a computer to be able to edit your photos. In these instances, we’d advise shooting in JPG, and choosing a high quality setting to get the best results.
Another option, rather than setting your camera to only shoot in JPG, is to see if if lets you shoot in “RAW+ JPG”. This means the camera will record both a compressed JPG version of the image, and an uncompressed version.
This is a good way to start shooting in RAW without the overhead of having to worry about editing all your images. It will take up the most space on your camera memory card, and isn’t suitable if you want to shoot fast bursts of images, such as for action shots, as writing so much data to your camera memory card for every shot will slow your camera down a bit. However, it is a good bridge solution before you go all in on RAW, which would be our recommended setting to aim for.
Why Do RAW Files Look Washed Out?
One common question I’m asked is why RAW files look so washed out compared to the JPG files. This is especially noticeable if you shoot both RAW and JPG, and load them up next to each other in your editing software.
The difference will be quite obvious – the colours will be more muted in the RAW file, and it might have a more reduced contrast and not look as sharp as the JPG file.
As an example, the left image above is the camera JPG, whereas the shot on the left is the RAW file. You can see the the colours are a lot less vibrant in the unedited RAW file compared to the camera’s JPG version of the exact same photo.
The reason for this is that when a camera processes the image data and saves it as a JPG, it applies what is known as an image profile to it. Essentially, the camera edits the photo for you, putting it into a final, usable state. So this means making it colourful, sharp, and ready to publish.
A RAW file isn’t edited at all. It’s essentially a blank canvas – the data is ready for you to adjust into a final image, with the adjustments that you want to make, rather than those that the camera wants to apply. So whilst this means that the initial image you look at won’t be quite so impressive as the JPG version, the potential for creating something more impressive is there.
How To Enable RAW in Your Camera
The steps you need to take to enabling RAW support will vary across camera manufacturers, but will usually involve you accessing an image quality setting in the camera menu system. This should be a fairly easy setting to access and change.
On Canon cameras for example, you access the Menu by pressing the “Menu” button, and then accessing the image quality setting from one of the first screens (this will vary by camera model).
When you find the “Image Quality” option, press the “Set” button to access it. You can then choose the RAW quality level (we suggest the highest quality option, if there are options). You can also adjust the JPG quality option here.
You can find the support site for Nikon here, for Sony here and for Panasonic here. For other manufacturers, simply searching for “Manufacturer name camera support page” should get you the documents you need.
How to Open a RAW file?
To open a RAW file, you need viewing software that specifically supports the RAW file produced by your camera.
As mentioned above, RAW files are not universally recognised file types, and they vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. To get the most out of your RAW file, you’ll need to edit it, and then convert it to something like a JPEG so you can distribute it.
Usually your camera will come with a RAW file viewer and editor, and many popular image file viewers also support various RAW files, although support varies based on your camera manufacturer and model.
If you don’t have a RAW file viewer, we can suggest Microsoft Photos, Fast RAW viewer, or one of the editors listed below, as a starting point.
Which RAW Photo Editor is Best?
There are a number of options when it comes to editing your RAW files. These include:
- Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic CC (monthly/annual subscription, Mac & PC)
- Capture One (standalone license or monthly subscription available, Mac & PC)
- Luminar (standalone license, Mac & PC)
- Darktable (free, Mac & PC)
- RAWtherapee (free, Mac & PC)
- RAW editing software that comes with your camera (free)
My preferred tool for editing my RAW files is Adobe Lightroom. This is because it offers a full photography workflow, meaning I can manage all my photos as well as edit the RAW files. I also find the interface and RAW editing to be the best suited to the way I work. It is also the product, I believe, with the most guides online, meaning it’s easy to learn how to use it.
Of course, I appreciate that the monthly subscription can be an issue for many, and unfortunately Adobe have discontinued the one-off license fee option. The advantage of this subscription model is that you are always kept up to date with the latest product releases, and I actually think that the lifetime cost of this model is no different to buying a single product and then paying for yearly updates. You can also try it as a trial version, and you can cancel after your subscription expires if you don’t want it any more.
However, if you don’t want to commit to a monthly (or annual) subscription, there are other photo editing options that I cover here.
For example, Capture One is one of the more popular alternatives to Lightroom, and also offers a full workflow. Like Lightroom, it’s a fairly heavyweight program, so will take some time to learn.
Another, cheaper option, is Luminar. This offers full RAW editing support, and is designed to be easy to use. As of 2018 this comes with photo management as well, making it a great Lightroom alternative.
There are also a number of free, open-source image editing solutions. These can be an easy way to dip your toe into RAW file editing without any cost. The features they offer vary, and there are less tutorials available online, so they can be a bit more overwhelming when you are starting out.
If your camera supports shooting in RAW, it should come with software to enable you to edit the RAW files. For example, Canon cameras come with software called “Digital Photo Professional”, which offers full RAW file editing support for Canon RAW files. Nikon cameras often come with free Capture NX-D software to edit Nikon’s .NEF RAW files. This software is another good option for free RAW file editing, although won’t let you manage your photos or organise them.
Another option is to trial one or more of the paid solutions. Nearly all of them offer a free trial period of around 30 days, so you can give them a go and see which works for you. If you want to be a bit more serious about your photo editing, I’d definitely recommend one of the paid options, with Lightroom being my RAW editor of choice.
For tips on choosing software to edit your RAW files, see our full guide to the best photo editing software. If you’re looking for something to edit your photos on, see our guide to the best laptops for photo editing
Hopefully this post has helped you get an understanding of what RAW is in photography, as well as give you an overview of why you might want to shoot in RAW.
As well as this post, we have a number of other detailed photography posts to help you get the best photos. Here are some we think you will find useful.
- Our run down of the best photo editing software, so you have a tool to edit your RAW files. We also have a guide to the best laptops for photo editing
- Our guide to the exposure triangle, a key photography concept
- Our guide to picking the best travel camera, which features a range of cameras at various price points. We also have a dedicated guide to picking a compact camera for travel, some of which feature RAW support, and a guide to the best DSLR camera for photography, all of which feature RAW support.
- If you need a new lens, we have a guide to the best travel camera lenses which covers the majority of camera types available today
- If you want to buy a photographer you know a gift, and want some ideas, check out our detailed gift guide for photographers
- We have a guide to taking better pictures of yourself, how and why to use back button focus, how to take pictures of stars, how to photograph the northern lights, and an overview of Neutral Density filters – just some of our photography posts!
- We also have an always expanding series of Photography Location Guides, to help you get the best shot in locations around the world.
- A Beginners’ Guide to Improving your Travel Photos for those starting out in travel photography
- Our reasons why you need a travel tripod
- And, if you’re serious about improving your photography, I run an incredibly comprehensive online travel photography course, which will teach you everything you need to know about photography and allows you the chance to get personal feedback from me and ask me as many questions about photography as you wish. Check that out here.
And that’s it for our guide to shooting in RAW. Hopefully this has inspired you to find the RAW setting in your camera and start using it. As always, if you have any questions or feedback about this post, or any travel and photography questions, just let us know in the comments below!