What is RAW image file

Image files come in many different formats.  JPEG, TIFF, and (BMP) bitmap are a few examples.  RAW image file is very different from these files.  In this post we will discuss camera raw file and why it is beneficial to shoot in raw mode.

What is raw image file?

RAW settings on a camera
RAW settings on a camera

Every time you take a photo, there are number of things that take place inside your camera at that given moment.  The information from the image sensor is processed by the built in computer to form an image.  That information includes brightness, contrast, exposure, hue, saturation and many other variable that make up an image. 

Most compact and mobile cameras shoot in jpeg format.  In jpeg mode this information is permanently baked into the file.  The camera immediately does all the processing to produce the final image. This automatic processing does not leave  much room to fine tune the image. 

RAW format on the other hand keeps these variables accessible for modifications.  Exposure, contrast, tone, and many more modifications are easy to make  in post processing.  Shooting in RAW format can help recover  many problems  using a photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop or lightroom.

Think of raw file as raw ingredients for a recipe.  Adjusting raw ingredients in your recipe can create a desirable dish.  Same goes true for raw camera image.  You have all the controls to adjust your final image.

What are the advantages of raw?

There are many advantages of using RAW vs. other image formats.  As stated earlier, RAW format gives you complete control and flexibility to produce your final image.

  • Quality

Built in camera computers are not as smart as humans.  Raw format gives you the highest quality and ability to post process your images with human touch and feel.

  • Brightness

The level of brightness between jpeg and raw is huge. JPEG image have  brightness level of 256 and raw image can range between 4096 and 16384.  Higher levels of brightness lets you make adjustments to variables such as exposure, contrast, and blacks.

  • White Balance

This  is a recorded value in a raw file.  White balance is also known as color temperature. This depends on the source of light and creates a warming or cooling effect.  Sometimes it may create distracting effects such as yellowish or bluish tints.   RAW image editing allows you to adjust white balance so it does not have those undesirable effects.

  •  Add more clarity

Software like Photoshop and light room are better designed than your camera to reduce noise and add sharpening and detail to an image.  These tools work best when shot in raw.

  • Editing

One of the main advantages of raw is non-destructive editing.  And the main reason you shoot raw is to edit the image.  Raw file itself is not really meant for displaying.  The idea is to shoot in RAW, edit and then save it as a JPEG or TIFF for final display. 

When you edit a raw image you are not making any changes to the original data.  This is great because the image can be edited as many times as you like without losing quality.

JPEG’s tend to lose quality with every edit.

Ships in a river (as shot)

Above(RAW image as shot).  This image was shot into the bright sky and suffers from overexposure.  The boats are also dark and lack highlights.  Using the raw editor I was able to correct exposure, contrast  and tone of the image.

 Below(RAW image edited)

Street Intersection at night (as shot)

This image is an example of  long exposure. The shutter remained open for 5 seconds. Again it is an overly bright image.  Using Photoshop raw editor (below) I  made some adjustments to exposure and a few other variable to my liking.

Camera RAW file bits

In a RAW file, a bit refers to the amount of storage.  In this case it’s the storage of colors.   RAW files contain considerably more amounts of data than JPEG’s.  Raw files can be 12 to 18 bit.  A JPEG file is an 8-bit file.  The higher the bit number, more colors information the image contains.  8-bit jpeg image file can contain up to 16.8 million colors.  A 12-bit raw file is capable of storing up to 68 billion tones and a 16-bit raw file can store up to 4 trillion colors.

Human eye is capable of distinguishing anywhere from 3 to 16 billion colors. The difference between 8-bit and 16-bit image files can be quiet noticeable.  However our eyes may not be able to sense the difference between 12-bit and 16-bit images.

Most RAW editors including Photoshop are set to import raw images as an 8-bit even the image is 16-bit.  The reason for this is to speed up processing and use less memory.  

This is something to be careful since 8-bit file can lose a lot of noticeable color detail.  I recommend to work with a 12 or 16-bit file.  Program settings must be set so the software will import a full 16-bit file containing all the color information.

In Photoshop you can make these adjustments in the Camera Raw dialog box.RAW Editor bit settings

RAW – pros and cons

Raw file can store much more than just image makeup information.  These files store data such as camera make and model, date, time and sometimes location.  This information is a proof of image ownership. 

RAW files may not be for everyone.  It may not be for you if you simply like to point and shoot and not do any post processing.  The raw file size can be 2 to 3 times larger than jpeg’s requiring large drive space.   Because raw files contain more uncompressed data therefore it requires more time and processing power.  Processing large amounts of data causes the buffer to fill up faster slowing down your camera.

Modern technology is becoming faster and larger so these may not be big issues in the foreseeable future.

RAW files are manufacturer specific.  You cannot simply open them  with windows or any other image viewing software.  Even image editors like Adobe Photoshop requires installation of special plugins in order to properly decode and work with raw files.

NEF is Nikon format which stands for Nikon Electronic Format and Canon has its own .CRW or Canon Raw.


Shooting RAW is definitely the way to go if you like to edit your images.  RAW files offer the flexibility to change so many variables to make your photo look at its best.  Working with RAW data is not hard. It just requires a little practice and a creative eye. 

You don’t need a D-SLR or Mirrorless camera to take advantage of the technology.  RAW technology is now being incorporated into compact cameras and mobile devices.

I hope this article has provided some explanation of RAW image file format. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below.

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  1. I need so much guidance when it comes to photos these days.  I’m not a pro photographer and never will be but, that doesn’t keep me from trying to learn a little more every week.  

    I just got the Samsung Note 9.  I would have never known that I have RAW/DNG capabilities if I hadn’t read your article.  The whole reason I stuck with the note series was because of the cameras.  I never mastered the 3 or the 5 but, you’ve inspired me to really dig deep on the 9.  I know it’s not a pro camera but, that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a new trick or, 3!  Thank you!

  2. Thanks for this photo camera review. I have always been a big fan of high resolution photo job. I even bought a small camera then to be practising. Yes I prefer a Raw photos compared to JPEG and other forms picture. You can easily edit or Photoshop. There are many modifications that can come with RAW images. You can never know about how much of photosphere and their effects. 

  3. Hola,

    Very interesting your article where you explain what is raw image file. 

    Our camera can shoot in raw format. 

    The advantage of all this in that we can then edit it. 

    Turning the original photo sharper and important changes in colors achieving greater naturalness.

    Thank you very much for explaining such an important concept.


  4. I’m getting into photography as a newbie. This is new to me and worth knowing. I never know the differences in the formats.

    At the moment I don’t see myself doing much editing but it’s good to know the possibilities and different formats.

    I hope to visit your visit your site in future for more DSLR issues.

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