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What is a RAW format? 3 advantages you should know

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RAW formats are primarily file formats for digital photos in which the data from the image sensor is saved without further processing and compression. So we are dealing with raw data. There are also RAW formats for scanners as well as for cameras used for motion picture production. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We focus here on RAW files in digital photography.

From negative to RAW file

What was the negative in the days of analog photography is now the RAW file, which can therefore also be understood as a digital negative. RAW files are therefore unfinished files that still need to be processed and converted into a final format such as JPEG or TIFF. This process – formerly known as photo development – is called RAW conversion.

Although an open standard for raw data was developed in 2004 with Adobe’s DNG format (DNG stands for Digital Negative), it was not able to establish itself industry-wide. Camera manufacturers continued to design their own RAW formats and still rely on them today. As a result, there is now a whole bunch of over 200 different raw data formats to marvel at. And since the technical structure of these formats is usually not disclosed, many can only be processed with software from the respective manufacturers.

What data is saved in a RAW format?

On the one hand, of course, this is the actual raw data supplied by the camera’s sensor, i.e. that color and brightness information which has resulted under the specific camera parameters (focus, aperture, exposure time, light sensitivity) for each individual pixel. On the other hand, it is numerous metadata (time of capture, GPS data, camera model, etc.), which are mostly stored according to the Exif specifications. In addition, a preview image is often generated in JPEG format and also embedded in the RAW file.

What are the advantages of RAW formats?

1. Individual preprocessing

The biggest advantage is certainly that the parameters that are automatically set when developing to JPEG or TIFF on the camera side can be set afterwards with a RAW file. This concerns pre-processing steps such as:

    • White balance
    • Color saturation
    • Color space adjustment
    • Contrast enhancement
    • Sharpening
    • Noise reduction
    • Tone correction

The processing steps mentioned are part of the RAW conversion and correspond roughly to the work that used to be done in the darkroom. Instead of chemicals, you now use sliders on the monitor. The best-known software for implementing these processes is certainly Lightroom from Adobe. Also popular are e.g. Capture One or the freeware darktable. Programs with this function are also called RAW converters.
A subsequent correction is of course also possible on already developed image files, but firstly the possibilities are more limited here and secondly information has always already been irretrievably lost through the pre-processing steps; with JPEG files the lossy compression adds to the difficulty.

2. Uncompressed storage

In RAW formats, the data coming from the image sensor is always saved uncompressed, i.e. unlike the JPEG format, no image information is lost. For purists, this is of course a decisive plus point. The additional need for storage space is gladly accepted.

Close-up of a sensor of a digital camera - symbol image sensor data RAW

Image sensor of a digital camera (reddish reflective)

3. Maximum color depth

RAW formats can handle extremely high color depth and brightness resolution, with the TIF format being equivalent in that respect. For both formats, the maximum color depth is 48-bit. This corresponds to around 281 trillion different color values. To be honest, the maximum is rarely needed, because only a few high-end cameras are equipped with sensors that do justice to this color depth. You need a Hasselblad worth the price of a small car.

What are the most popular RAW formats?

Not surprisingly, the proprietary RAW formats of the major camera manufacturers also have the highest penetration rate. Excluded here is the already mentioned DNG format from Adobe, which has a special role because it was designed as an open standard. The in-house raw data formats of twelve major manufacturers are listed here in alphabetical order:

    • 3FR / FFF – Hasselblad
    • ARW / SRF / SR2 – Sony
    • CRW, CR2, CR3-Canon
    • DCR – Kodak
    • MRW – Minolta
    • NEF / NRW – Nikon
    • ORF – Olympus
    • PEF / PTX – Pentax
    • RAW / RW2 – Panasonic
    • RAW / RWL – Leica
    • SRW – Samsung
    • X3F – Sigma

With which cameras can you shoot in RAW format?

In the early days of digital photography, there were only a few cameras that allowed shooting in RAW format. These were exclusively high-priced models for professional photographers. Examples include the Nikon D1 (1999) and the Canon EOS-1D (2001).

Today, all professional and semi-professional cameras support shooting in RAW mode. Even with most entry-level cameras, this is now possible. A comprehensive list of camera models supporting a raw format is maintained in the English Wikipedia: list of cameras supporting a raw format.

Which phones can shoot in RAW format?

For a few years now, there have also been smartphones that allow photographing in RAW mode. However, you often have to search a bit to find this option within the camera settings.

RAW photography on iPhones

Apple has developed a format for newer iPhone models called ProRAW, which it says combines the information of a standard RAW format with iPhone image processing.
The ProRaw format is supported by the following models:

    • iPhone 12 Pro
    • iPhone 12 Pro Max
    • iPhone 13 Pro
    • iPhone 13 Pro Max
    • iPhone 14 Pro
    • iPhone 14 Pro Max

To use the mode, navigate to Camera > Formats in Settings and enable Apple ProRAW. When taking photos, a crossed-out “RAW” icon then appears in the upper right corner of the camera app, which must be tapped again to start the mode.

By the way: You can also take photos in RAW format with older iPhones (from iPhone 6S), but only via third-party photo apps and not in ProRAW format. In addition, the device must have at least iOS 10 installed.

RAW photography on Android smartphones

Android supports RAW recordings from version 5.0 (Lollipop) onwards. As with Apple’s iOS, this does not mean that the preinstalled photo app has a RAW mode. Again, older models often have to resort to third-party apps. With newer devices, the option to shoot in RAW format is usually fixed. Google, for example, relies on RAW photos starting with the Pixel 3 model (subsequently, the Pixel 2 was also enabled for this).

To enable RAW mode on a Google Pixel device, proceed as follows (executed on a Pixel 4a with Android 13):

In the camera app under Settings > More settings > AdvancedMove the slider under “RAW + JPEG” control to the right.
When taking photos with the app, you can now choose between “JPEG only” and “RAW + JPEG” under Settings (gear icon) at the top. So in RAW mode, a JPEG file is always saved as well. While JPEG files end up in the gallery folder by default, a separate folder is created for RAW files. There you will be saved in DNG format (RAW standard from Adobe).

Of course, smartphone manufacturers other than Google and Apple also offer a RAW mode. However, we cannot cover all devices here and recommend a manufacturer-specific search if necessary.

How can I open RAW files?

We’ve heard this question more often than not, because it actually happens from time to time that photographers deliver their works in a RAW format. Mostly this is done out of carelessness, less often out of protest, e.g. if an additional salary for further processing is to be enforced, and sometimes RAW files serve as proof of authorship and are therefore sent.

However you got RAW files, you now want to open them, if only to find out what content is behind them, but don’t know which program to use. What to do now?

Let’s start with the worst case. This would be the case if you had taken a hardly used RAW format from a smaller camera manufacturer into your house. Then you would probably have to get the manufacturer’s software to open and edit the file.

If, on the other hand, you have a file that can be assigned to one of the known camera manufacturers based on the extension, then it is probably sufficient to get yourself a so-called RAW converter. One of the most popular open solutions is darktable. With darktable you can open and process all major RAW formats for free. You can find out exactly which formats these are here.

The simplest case is the presence of a DNG file. This RAW format from Adobe can also be opened with the preinstalled image viewer of Windows 10 (Photos) or with Photoshop Express, for example.

Beware of online solutions

Of course, there are also online solutions for converting RAW files. However, caution should be exercised here, after all, with the upload not only image data, but also numerous metadata fall into the hands of the operators.

Convert RAW formats with the image management of teamnext

If you are frequently confronted with the task of opening RAW formats and converting them to formats such as JPEG, PNG, WebP or TIFF, and at the same time you value flexible access options, then you can’t avoid a professional solution.

At teamnext, we have developed a cloud-based image management solution aimed at customers who need to develop, maintain and leverage larger media pools. Our Media Hub supports all popular image and video formats. Of course, most RAW formats are also supported. This enables an easy and fast conversion to all important target formats.

We also place a particularly high value on the data protection-compliant storage of all media files. We do not use any third-party tools and process your data exclusively on servers in European data centers: highly secured and DSGVO-compliant.

If we have made you curious and you just want to try out the various functions of our image management, you can get started right away by choosing a free 14-day trial for teamnext | Media Hub. In addition, you are invited for a free online product demo with one of our experts at any time. Simply use our contact form for this purpose.

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