What is RAW photography? (why it’s better for photos)

We all start photographing in JPEG format, because that’s the default setting on cameras. However, at some point you’ll hear the word RAW mentioned and no doubt wonder what is RAW photography.

Then you’ll hear people, like me, telling you that it’s better to shoot in RAW, rather than JPEG, which is really confusing for new photographers. Because why would camera manufacturers make JPEG the default file type if RAW is better? And what is RAW in photography anyway?

Well, here are all your answers.

What does RAW photography mean?

In photography RAW actually isn’t an acronym, so it doesn’t stand for anything. The only reason for writing it in capital letters is to differentiate it from the word “raw” and because we write other file formats in capital letters, like JPG, PNG, TIFF etc

So writing RAW in capitals matches the standard file extension naming convention for file formats.

A RAW file format in photography refers to an image file that has uncompressed and unprocessed data.

This is why, if you shoot in RAW format, you need software that has the ability to read RAW files in order to process the images. We’ll get to that in a moment.

RAW image vs part processed image with color profile applied

On the left is the unprocessed RAW file and on the right is the image with much more contrast and color after processing in Lightroom.

Different RAW file formats for photos

What’s slightly confusing is that different mirrorless and DSLR camera manufacturers have their own names for their RAW files, also called digital negatives. Examples of some camera brand file extensions are:

  • Canon – .CR2
  • Nikon – .NEF
  • Sony – .ARW
  • Olympus – .ORF

When you import photos into Adobe Lightroom you have the option to “Convert to digital negative”, which is Adobe’s own raw file format. When you select the option on import, or if you change it later, the file extension will become .DNG and is referred to as a dng file.

Editing RAW files

The disadvantage of RAW files is that you need editing software that can read RAW to be able to process the images. Personally, I don’t see this as a disadvantage, because it’s like saying the disadvantage of shooting film is that you need to develop the film in the darkroom.

Post production is as much a part of photography as mixing paint colors is a part of oil painting.

Editing programs for RAW photography

I have an Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan subscription, which for $9.99 a month gives me access to the latest Lightroom Classic, Lightroom and Lightroom Mobile, as well as Photoshop. I think that’s well worth the cost of a few coffees every month. Here’s what you can do in Lightroom.

If you prefer a cheaper RAW photo editor option you can use Luminar Neo for processing RAW photos. It’s good, but not on the same level as Lightroom or Capture One.

You could also use the raw software of your camera manufacturer.

Edited photo from RAW to final Lightroom image

From left to right: unprocessed RAW image; unedited image imported to Lightroom with Adobe Standard color profile applied on import; the fully edited final image

Examples of editing RAW images

When you import a photo to your editing software you’ll notice that it doesn’t look like the image you saw on the back of your camera. In fact, it won’t look nearly as nice, which can be quite a shock if you’re not expecting it. Don’t worry – that’s exactly how it should be.

There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • The image on the back of your camera is a JPEG preview based on the picture profile set on your camera. That’s not what your image looks like – it’s just a preview
  • When you import a photo your editing program might apply a different color profile to the image by default

I prefer to set my in camera profiles and my Lightroom picture profiles to neutral too so that I can apply the look I want to my photos with my own presets.

Why is it better to take RAW pictures?

Further down I’ve detailed when it might be better to shoot in JPEG file format, but for the most part it’s better to shoot in RAW for high quality images. You just need to first make sure that your image editor can process RAW photos.

Here are 6 reasons why shooting RAW is the best type of image file for photography…

From RAW file to edited DNG photo in Lightroom

From left to right: unprocessed (very dull) RAW image; unedited image with Adobe Color profile applied on importing to Lightroom; nearly the final image with the background colors changed in Lightroom (see further down for final image)

1. More color data in RAW files

Because RAW image files aren’t compressed in camera they contain a much deeper range of colors. Depending on your camera, shooting RAW will typically record a 12 or 14-bit file depth, whereas JPEG records an 8-bit file depth. The bit depth depends on your camera sensor – higher range cameras have a greater bit depth.

In other words, RAW files contain many thousands more shades of colors than compressed JPEG files.

What this means in terms of editing is that you can get creative with color grading and color temperature, as well as color correction in images that are RAW files. You’ll also be able to get the highest amount of color saturation in your images.

Even something as simple as white balance adjustments is better with RAW photos. Unlike with JPEGs, if your white balance settings were wrong for the scene it’s easy to adjust in post production. For example if they look a bit:

  • yellow, because of the ambient house lights
  • green, because of the fluorescent lights in the gym
  • blue, because of the natural light shade

While the luminance data in JPEG is not as compressed, color in JPEG files is heavily compressed, so a lot of color data is lost.

2. Recover more detail in RAW photos

Speaking of fixing photos in post processing…

RAW files are great if you’ve made a mistake with your exposure, or you’ve recorded a scene with bright highlights and dark shadows. With RAW files you have a 2 stop exposure allowance to recover detail in highlights and shadows.

3. Greater dynamic range recorded in RAW files

And aside from being able to recover details in highlights and shadows, shooting in RAW enables you to capture a greater dynamic range to start with. So you stand a better chance of capturing both highlights and shadows.

4. More data recorded with RAW photography

It’s not just dynamic range and color that are better with RAW files. More image data in general is recorded with a RAW file format, which impacts image quality. RAW images are sharper than JPEGs.

All this raw data makes the file sizes larger, but it’s also what produces better results in photos, so it’s a good thing.

Processed portrait after editing in Lightroom and Photoshop

The fully edited final image after making a few small edits, including removing the stray hair on her forehead, in Adobe Photoshop

5. RAW files lead to better prints

It makes sense that if more color and a greater dynamic range is recorded, and you have the ability to manipulate colors in an image more, that you’d be able to produce better prints.

However, there’s another advantage to all that image data being recorded. Images that have been captured in RAW can be printed far larger without losing quality.

6. Use RAW image format for better noise reduction

Again, because more image information is captured with RAW files, noise reduction in post production is more effective.

Of course, it would be better to avoid capturing noise in images in the first place, but that’s not always possible. So if you regularly shoot in lowlight conditions, you’ll really appreciate the benefits of the RAW image file format.

Who do you want in charge of your photos?

Here’s an unofficial reason why you should shoot in RAW…

You spent a fortune on your digital camera, so why would you waste all that technology and discard at least a third of the image data recorded?

Many photographers who’ve never tried RAW often declare that their photos are unedited. Well, they’re wrong. When shooting in JPEG mode, the camera heavily edits photos and throws away a lot of the original data to create the final image.

The technology in RAW converters has massively improved since the start of digital photography and continues to do so. JPEG technology on the other hand hasn’t changed much and isn’t likely to change much. Photos captured in RAW file format now will be able to take advantage of future improvements in RAW converters.

Do RAW photos print better?

Yes, even though when you export photos from Lightroom for printing, you export the images as a JPEG (usually) or TIFF file, so what you’re printing isn’t actually a RAW file.

However, because a RAW image contains so much data to start with, when you export it for printing, it’ll contain as much information as possible for the best quality print. Much more than if you’d captured the image in JPEG format, or other compressed file format.

Should you take photos in RAW or JPEG?

The really unhelpful answer is yes, no and it depends. As discussed, a RAW image file undoubtedly contains more detail for better quality images. However, all that detail comes at a cost, so sometimes it’s better not to shoot in RAW.

I’ve written a full article on the pros and cons of RAW vs JPEG, so I’ll mention just a few key points here.

When to shoot JPEG image format:

  • If you don’t have any software for processing RAW files
  • When photographing in high continuous mode, aka burst mode, and you need to capture a huge number of frames fast
  • When you don’t have much storage space on your computer hard drive, or external hard drive, for the larger files of RAW format
  • If you’re not going to process your images

Sports photographers, event photographers and photojournalists are good examples of professional photographers who might not shoot in RAW. In all these cases it would be better for them to shoot in JPEG so that they can capture the moment fast and get the smaller files delivered fast, without being slowed down by editing or larger file sizes.

Side note: JPG is the same as JPEG and, if you’re curious, JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, after the group that developed JPEG technology.

When to shoot RAW image format:

  • Shoot in RAW whenever you pick up your camera, unless the above 4 points are applicable.

What is RAW in photography – final words

Now that you know what is RAW photography, you might still prefer to use JPEG mode and not edit your photos and that’s okay too. In which case, I highly recommend experimenting with your camera settings for different color profiles for creative looks without any editing.

Just remember that with JPEG images you’ll need to make sure your camera settings are correct for good SOOC images.

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If you have any questions about what is RAW in photography, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my RAW photography tips have helped you to understand RAW photography for better pictures, share that too.

1 thought on “What is RAW photography? (why it’s better for photos)”

  1. When I got my first DSLR I didn’t use RAW, and a friend asked me why not? So I did, but that camera body only did RAW or JPG and yes it could be switched but not the same image. Now I have a more advanced camera body it has two slots for cards and can store RAW and JPG at the same time. And so the two can be viewed side by side which is where the difference really stands out. Sure a RAW file can be 26Mb but for quality in film, you’d look at Velvia or similar.

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