What Is Camera Raw?

what is camera raw

When you start shooting in raw, your photos will become sharper and clearer. You will see different tonal range, colour and lighting that Jpeg won’t have. Photo copyright by Amy Renfrey.

If you have ever heard photographers talk about shooting in raw then you must have had your curiosity awakened. If you do not know about raw photography and how much clearer it makes our photos then you will be amazed. Let me answer the question “what is camera raw?” You’ll never be stuck trying to understand the jpeg raw difference again.

There are many different ways to improve your photography. Firstly you can use a high-quality lens. Secondly you can spend a few hours editing your photos in Photoshop or Lightroom. These ways will certainly make a huge difference to your photography. Is there anything else we can do to improve our photography? Yes, there is.

Another way to get sharp and high-quality images is to shoot in raw. Shooting in raw is equivalent to creating a negative of your photo. The camera will photograph the image in a way that is a lot sharper and more detailed than Jpeg. Let me explain.

Raw is a type of photo file. When you shoot in raw you gain much more quality and definition. You gain this within areas of light and shade, colour and tone. This quality and definition simply means that the camera is processing more information. When you shoot in raw the camera is able to process this information a lot quicker and more effectively.

Let’s take the example of a flower. In reality the flower is a pinkish red colour. (This is what our eyes see.) When you photograph the flower in Jpeg you may lose some of the pink in the colour. The flower may appear as a solid red colour instead. That is because Jpeg simply cannot process the middle tones of colour as well as raw can.

Jpeg may find in-between tones and colours difficult to detect. It simply isn’t looking for the finer, subtle detail in your photo and this is why it does not detect it. However, once you switch over to shooting in raw you will find that the camera picks up pinkish tone of the flower. Simply put, the camera captures so much more detail when you shoot in raw.

There is one drawback however. They cannot be viewed in any program. You need special software to see raw files. Depending on the type of camera model you have the software will be different. Canon has special software called Digital photo professional. This software allows you to view your raw files. As a Canon user I am only able to use Canon raw software. If I shoot a photo with the Nikon camera I am not able to use this program. Nikon have raw software that is available to Nikon users.

The main reason why Jpeg cannot reproduce detail as well as the raw file can is because Jpeg is a compressed file. The camera compresses the detail to create an image. A raw file is an uncompressed file. This is why it maintains detail and definition. Raw files are sharper, clearer and have better quality. They also last a lot longer than Jpeg. After a few years Jpeg may have the tendency to diminish in detail. This is particularly true for small Jpeg files. In raw this does not happen. It would take a lot longer than 10 years for raw file to diminish in quality. Therefore raw files are better for archival quality.

Should you edit your raw files? Many people ask me if you should create a Jpeg file copy in order to keep the raw file untouched. My answer is that it depends on your personal preference. Many photographers do this different ways. I like to make a copy of the raw file for editing. That way I have the untouched original. If anything happens to the Jpeg file then I still have the original as backup. The only reason that I will turn the raw file into a Jpeg is if I want to view it on a website or upload it.

Raw files are quite large. You Jpeg photo may be 3MB. Many of the raw files that I shoot in are about 30Mb. What is the advantage of this? This is hugely advantageous because when the raw file is larger it means it has captured good quality, definition and sharpness. The larger a file, generally, the better quality it will be.

Changing your shooting mode over the raw is very easy. It is done via the menu in your camera. When you open the menu and go to “image size” you will usually find it easy to change over. This means you can choose to shoot in raw only. Alternatively you can simultaneously shoot in raw AND Jpeg. Be aware that when these two photographs are created simultaneously you will chew through your memory cards. The camera simply needs more space if it is to create two files at once. You Jpeg file might only be 3Mb but your raw file will be 20Mb. After a few hours of shooting the space on your memory card will begin to disappear. Always take two memory cards when you shoot to avoid running out of memory space.

Many photographers, like me, will only shoot in raw. This is because we want the quality. If we want to create a JPEG file for viewing purposes we can simply create a copy later on. In the meantime we know that we are getting superior quality. The pictures look sharper and clearer. We also know they will last longer.

Raw is more appealing from artistic sense. Colours are sharper, landscapes clearer, and your photos are better exposed. The shadows and highlights are not as prone to exposure problems as they would be in JPEG. Due to it’s non- compression, there is more evenly balanced light across the photo. In reality it is simply detecting more detail in the scene. This is ideal for situations like portraits and weddings, night time and low light photography.


what is camera raw

Using camera raw can significantly sharpen your images. It will capture the details that are not present with Jpeg. Photo copyright by Amy Renfrey.

Wedding photography can be quite difficult when you have many contrasting areas of light. Some of these highlights can work against somebody skin. Shooting in raw can help maintain beauty in skin tones. A person’s skin and natural colouring will look warm and soft when you shoot in raw. This is why many wedding photographer shoot in raw alone.

I recommend shooting in raw all the time. Not only will it last longer than a Jpeg file but you will love the quality. Your photos look sharper, clearer more crisp. You get a better range of colour and lighting. It will drastically improve your photography. Happy shooting!

About the Author

Amy is an multi-award winning photographer from Australia. She teaches enthusiast photographers how to take beautiful, professional photos in easy, plain English. She has a monthly photography emagazine and ebooks to help you create stunning images every time.

Comments (8)

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  1. Paul says:

    Thanks Amy, I have always wondered about this.

  2. Nik says:

    Thanks for another wonderful artilce.

  3. Carlos says:

    I was confused before but this article has helped me to understand, thanks so much for helping us Amy. Your work is very appreciated.

  4. Wendi says:

    Very helpful, many thanks Amy.

  5. Sally says:

    Thanks, Amy, loved the info :)

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