What are RAW Files in Photography?

RAW is a file format, just like a JPEG. So what are RAW files, and what makes them so special? The main difference is the way they code and compress your images. Unlike JPEGs, RAW files are uncompressed. When you take a photo in RAW format, the file contains all of the color and brightness values for every pixel. On the other hand, when you take a photo in JPEG format, your camera compresses that data to make the file smaller. Since there is less data inside a JPEG file, your editing capabilities are severely limited.
No information is compressed or lost with RAW, so you’re able to produce higher quality images and correct problems that you wouldn’t be able to if shot in JPEG. If you want the best quality for your images and you plan on editing them, choose RAW. However, if you want to take photos and immediately post them to social media or send them to a friend, then JPEG will work just fine.
Another way to understand RAW files is to think of them as film negatives. You can use negatives to develop photos in a darkroom, and they allow for lots of fine-tuning. RAW files are similar, but instead of using a darkroom, you use software to develop them.
Conversely, a JPEG file is like a final print. Using JPEG is like using a Polaroid camera that prints out an instant photograph with no negative. The results are instant, but you aren’t able to make adjustments to the image because all of the processing is handled inside the camera. 

Advantages of Shooting in RAW 

  1. Higher Quality Images: This is the biggest benefit of shooting in RAW. Since RAW records all of the data from an image sensor, it gives you the highest quality files to work with.
  2. Record Higher Levels of Brightness: Digital brightness is measured by how many steps it takes to get from the black to the white in your image. The JPEG format records 256 levels of brightness, while RAW records between 4,096 to 16,384 levels. These additional brightness levels mean that you can make more adjustments to your image without a significant reduction in image quality.
  3. Easily Adjust White Balance: When shooting in JPEG, the white balance is automatically applied to your image. When shooting in RAW, the white balance is still recorded, but it’s easier to adjust.
  4. More Detail: When shooting in RAW, you have access to sharpening and noise algorithms found in programs like Lightroom. These algorithms are much more powerful than the ones you would find in your camera.
  5. Non-Destructive Editing: Lastly, when you edit photos saved in RAW format, you are not actually altering the original image. This is important because it means you never have to worry about ruining your image file. You can always return to the original RAW!

These days, many cameras shoot RAW, including inexpensive compact models. Even if you’re using a little camera, you might still be able to take advantage of the RAW file format.

Need images for your project? Shutterstock’s impressive collection of more than 70 million images can help! See what our library has to offer.

  • Was this article helpful?

Can’t find what you’re looking for?