What is RAW Photography?

Update: This post has been updated to include a video that I think clarifies the RAW vs JPEG confusion as best as I can. The original post still exists in its entirety below so feel free to read through if that’s more your style. Enjoy!

I’m sure most of you already know what the RAW format is and what it is used for, but according to a recent poll on dPS, 15% of their reader base claims to not know and therefore there’s still quite a few people out there searching for the answer to the question – What is RAW?

Admittedly at first I was surprised by the results of this poll. I automatically assumed that with how popular digital photography is that everyone at least knew about the RAW format, but then I thought about it, and it started to make sense as to where this 15% came from.

I realized that even today most point and shoot cameras, and certainly all camera phones, both of which account for the vast majority of every-day photographers, only offer you JPEG formats. So if you’ve never seen it as an option of course you’d be more likely to not know what it is.

So anyways, this leads me into this post, about my take on the RAW format and why I personally shoot exclusively RAW. Of course, ultimately it’s a personal choice, which I’d gladly like to hear your own thoughts on in the comments below.

RAW Photography Explained

A RAW photograph is often referred to as the “digital negative” which draws the comparison to the 35mm film negatives of cameras from before the digital age. While, this essentially is a true statement, as we get further and further from a time when film cameras were the norm, those new to photography might not even be able to draw this connection for it assumes that you know what film is and how it was developed. I’m almost certain that a good percentage of people born today will never see one of these in person – let alone know what it is!

So then, what is a better comparison to the RAW format? How about whole milk? Not the kind you get from a store, but the completely unprocessed kind you’d get from a farm. It’s got the thick layer of fat on top of it and it has not been touched by any kind of person or machine. RAW photographs are somewhat the same in the sense that they’re filled with all the data you could possible want from the scene that you photographed and completely untouched by the camera’s processor.

But, of course, that metaphor is a bit silly. S to put it as simply as possible for you – a RAW file contains all the possible light that your camera saw in the time between when you opened and closed the shutter. Because by telling the camera you want to capture the RAW data the camera does not make any choices as to what to do with this data, and instead stores everything for you to process at a later date on your computer.

So What Can RAW Photos Do?

Now as I explained above a RAW photograph contains everything that your camera was able to “see” between the time that the shutter was opened and closed and it has left the decisions on how to process this data up to you. All it knows is that there were a bunch of different light levels hitting its sensor at various points for however long you set your exposure for and when you bring this file onto your computer it will more often then not look a bit muted in comparison. So it’s up to you to process it into a photograph.

Well, first, before you can do anything with a RAW photograph you need the right tool. There are many to choose from, some of them are free, others cost a bit of money, the most well known and popular tool is probably Adobe Lightroom.

[Lightroom 5 for just under $150 also on Amazon]

The best advantage a RAW file has to offer is the ability to change white balance after the fact and recover detail lost within the highlights or shadows of an image. To end this article, take a look at how much I was able to recover from a seemingly completely under-exposed shot – this would not be possible with a simple JPEG image.

Okay, so that was a long winded and probably redundant post for most of you, but if you were looking for the answer to the question – What is RAW? I hope I’ve helped you out!

Please feel free to ask any questions or comment about whether or not you shoot in RAW? Or maybe you’re just finding out about it today?

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  1. Phyllis says

    I’m still a little apprehensive to shoot “raw.” I have a Nikon D5100 and have image quality set to JPEG fine. I also don’t understand the various selections for image quality: Raw + JPEG fine; Raw + JPEG normal; Raw + JPEG basic; etc. Also, what about image size? What should that be??

    • says

      There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shooting in JPEG as you will still definitely get quality shots in that format. To go on a bit further to answer some of the questions you asked though…

      RAW + JPEG simply means that your camera will save both a RAW image and a JPEG image for every photograph you take. For your average person this is probably overkill, but there are situations where it could come in handy, although I can’t think of any off the top of my head – maybe someone will chime in later?

      As far as JPEG fine, vs normal, vs basic is concerned it simply means the quality of the image you’ll end up with at the end. I’d highly recommend shooting in the highest quality that your camera offers as you’ll get the most detail out of it.

      Of course, there are situations where a lower quality image might make more sense. One such example might be in time-lapse photography where you would want more photographs per SD card and quality won’t matter so much here because you’ll be creating a 1920×1080 video instead of the potential large print and therefor don’t need the full resolution power of your camera.

      Hope this answers the questions and by all means keep ’em coming! And again – thanks for stopping by I’m glad you’re enjoying the site!

      • Ray Sampson says

        One place I found jpeg really help was the time I took engagement pictures and instead of loading into my computer I managed to delete them from my flash card instead. I shot Raw and jpeg. I used a restore program to get them back but it would only restore the jpeg files. Since I shot in both formats it saved my butt as all the pictures were saved BUT only in the jpeg format.

  2. Mark Grauer says

    Why would we ever shoot anything other than the RAW format? I have shot RAW before in experimentation…I am a new photographer and love experimenting.
    Does RAW take more storage space?

    Thank you.

    Mark Grauer

    • says

      Yes a RAW file is substantially larger than a JPEG file so if you’re concerned about space either on your computer at home or in your camera then RAW file’s may not be your best option.

      Another example when JPEGS are good (even if you have the space) is for shooting time-lapse photography. This is because when you view the time-lapse you’re probably not going to need anything more than 1920×1080 in resolution. So while it’s nice to have that full resolution of the RAW file, being able to capture a longer time-lapse might outweigh the benefit of shooting in RAW.

      Hope this answers your question, thanks for the comment!

  3. says

    I always shoot RAW+JPEG Fine, this gives me the JPEG right off the camera and something to share or email if needed plus the RAW I can go back and process. Cards are cheap and easy to swap, disc space is inexpensive and can be cleaned up if I am through.

  4. says

    I hear alot about Raw or jpg but no one ever talks about the old tiff files which are no-loss files like Raw but are easier to process with out special softwear.
    The files have all the information plus basic set points and is the only no-loss file type added to all higher end Nikons besides Raw.

    • says

      Yeah TIFFs don’t get much talk and I think it’s mainly due to the idea that camera’s shoot in RAW or JPEG by default so if you want to use a TIFF file you’re going to be converting to it rather than shooting in it.

      At least that’s my understanding.

  5. ALAN KELLY says

    Are there situations where Raw images are not acceptable? For example I have seen somewhere in the past requests for images with the proviso that the images must be sent in “jpeg format”.
    If the pictures were always taken in RAW is there some way of converting them to jpeg or is this a case where in future I should always shoot in RAW/jpeg together?
    I am a relative novice to photography and I need to understand things like this if I am to progress.
    Kindest regards
    Alan Kelly

    • says

      Think of your RAW images as an unfinished photo so in reality you won’t ever want to give these out to your clients as they aren’t your final product – they will need to be processed into the resulting final photo which you can save as a JPEG, TIFF or any other common format upon export.

      That said – there are a few instances where JPEG might be a better option than RAW – one of which that I can think of off the top of my head is if you were shooting a timelapse as you’d be able to capture more images on the same card and thus create longer time-lapse scenes.

      Hope all this makes sense!

  6. Michelle Keyte says

    I am very new to photography. I don’t even have a DSLR as yet. I am shooting with a Fuji HS30 and have only recently started using manual mode and RAW with Elements 11. What I am wondering is, which will be of better quality, a jpg shot with my camera and processed in the editor or a RAW file that has been developed, opened into the editor and then saved as a jpg?

    Any other help or advice you have to offer would be most welcome.

    Many thanks
    Michelle Keyte

    • says

      Essentially the end result should be roughly the same quality the only difference being that in the photograph shot as a JPEG was processed and converted by the camera and the one shot in RAW was processed by you (which gives you more room for artistic control) and then converted. The quality of the resulting JPEG images are both going to be fairly similar though.

  7. says

    Excellent and very informative write-up about RAW! Although I’ve been shooting for quite some time and am familiar with RAW, I still enjoyed your article!

    When new photographers ask me about RAW and what it means (and why it’s capitalized), I tell them 1) RAW is not an acronym for anything and 2) I have no idea why it’s ALL CAPS! I also like to explain that a RAW file is like a piece of fresh, raw meat that has not had any seasonings, herbs, or spices applied, and has not yet been cooked.

    Personally, I like to shoot in JPEG only because I don’t like spending hours upon hours touching up photos after I’ve spent hours shooting them! Today’s DSLRs come with all the features one needs to get a print-worthy shot straight out of the camera — white balance (manual and preset), picture controls that let you instantly adjust for vivid, standard, neutral, etc. My advice to new photographers is to become familiar with your camera and don’t let it scare you — you are the master over it! Learn as much as you can about what your camera can do. Join a photography forum and ask lots of questions. But most of all, have fun!

    Keep up the good work, John!

  8. Deejonn says

    RAW files can be a good idea, if you think at some later stage in your development as a photographer, when your confidence in your ability to use software to process your images is improving. Raw files can be directly converted into JPEG images in most post processing software without ‘fiddling’. A reason for taking JPEG images over RAW could be when you want to shoot fast action sports, your camera system will always take longer to write your RAW FILES to its card, JPEGs are always faster to write to the card. Therefore a burst of images in RAW may leave you waiting for the card to be written to, whereas the JPEGs will usually allow you to carry on shooting.

    • Phogropathy says

      I’m not all that familiar with PSE, but if I remember correctly you’d need to use Camera RAW to process the RAW file then apply your other modifications within PSE after converting your RAW to a JPEG or TIFF. I could be wrong though as I’ve never used PSE myself.

  9. craig says

    have you done a comparison with the same photo shot in RAW, vs. JPG? to see just how much Lightroom RAW makes a difference? I think I might just do it myself today just for fun. thanks again for a great learning experience.

    • Phogropathy says

      I haven’t actually done a hands on comparison – I’ve processed both types of photos on my own, but never ran a comparison – maybe I can do the next Let’s Edit video on this!

      I think the biggest area that you will notice the RAW advantage is going to be in recovering detail from highlights or shadows.

  10. Lisa Kravitz says

    Hi John, I am new to your site. I have a DSLR whose functions I don’t yet fully understand (!) so your advice is very helpful to me. It seems your YouTube video on RAW disappeared in this post. Do you have a link? Thanks!

  11. Pat says

    RAW vrs TIFF………..yes, I’m curious too as to the difference. I’m limited as to what manipulation i can do in my Canon RAW photo program before i have to convert it to TIFF.
    Once in photoshop, i’m dealing with TIFF. Now, say i want to lift up deep and dark areas in TIFF………is their a larger noticable loss there than in RAW?

  12. says

    when i shot raw and then look at my photos it messes with the colour and quality as i dont have a good editing app i was wondering if i should find one or shot jpeg because it dosnt mess with the colour and quality

    • says

      Great question – when you photograph in RAW you will absolutely need some sort of program to process the image as a RAW photograph is essentially an unprocessed image. If you don’t wish to process your photographs, than by all means photograph in JPEG, as the camera will do the processing for you.

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