In the old days, there were more graphics file formats in use than languages spoken at the United Nations, including BMP, PCX, TIFF, TGA, and a few dozen more. Thankfully, now, you generally just need to know about JPEG to manage all of your photos. You might occasionally hear about a file format called RAW. Some time ago, I told you all about the RAW format in "Shooting in RAW, Part 1" and "Shooting in RAW, Part 2." Some things have changed since then, so let's take another look at using your camera's RAW mode.
Refresher: What Is RAW?
Oddly, RAW is not a single file format, and you'll never see a photo with a .RAW file extension. Instead, it's the name we use to refer to several different file formats that all preserve your photos at the best possible quality. Nikon uses the NEF format, for example, while Canon uses CRW and CR2. While they're all different, they have one thing in common: Each represents a high-quality, unprocessed version of what the camera's sensor saw when you pressed the shutter release. A RAW file has no image compression, no noise reduction, no color enhancement. Most importantly, it preserves the full range of colors and brightness originally captured by the camera, which are discarded right away when a digital photo is saved in JPEG format, for example, impossible to retrieve later.
Most of the time, all that "extra" information embedded in RAW photos probably isn't especially important, which is why most people tend to shoot in JPEG (and many cameras don't even offer a RAW mode to begin with). But if you're serious about your photos and you want to get the most out of your camera, you might try using RAW. It gives you extra flexibility when it comes time to edit your photos.
Viewing RAW Photos in Windows
You might have already noticed that Windows doesn't automatically know what to do with RAW files. But in recent years, Microsoft has made it easy to work with RAW photos from within Windows itself.
If you have Windows XP, install the Microsoft RAW Image Thumbnailer and Viewer for Windows XP. This Windows add-on lets you preview, see thumbnails, and print RAW images as if they were any other kind of photo file.
If you have Vista or Windows 7 and download Windows Live Photo Gallery, it's even better. When you open Windows Live Photo Gallery and it notices you have RAW photos in the Pictures folder, it automatically recommends that you install the appropriate file decoder, which allows Windows to treat the photo like any other file.
Sharing RAW Files With Others
That's handy, but you'll probably want to share your photos as old-fashioned JPEGs, since many of the people you send your photos to won't be able to work with RAW files. And they're a lot bigger than JPEGs as well, which makes it a challenge to send them via e-mail.
You can easily save a RAW image as a JPEG. In Windows Live Photo Gallery, for example, just double-click a photo file and choose Make a Copy from the File menu. Be sure to specify JPG in the Save as File drop-down menu.
In a photo editor like Adobe Photoshop Elements, choose File, Save As and choose the JPEG format before you save a copy of the photo. Most common photo editing programs--like Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Corel Paint Shop Pro, and even free programs like GIMP--can handle RAW photos.
The Benefits of RAW
Earlier, I mentioned some of the advantages of working in RAW. The image has more information embedded to begin with, so you can edit your photos more effectively. Consider this photo of my neighbor's Christmas lights that I shot a few weeks ago.
There's not a lot of detail in this photo, is there? It's underexposed, so the house and the surrounding yard is deep in shadow.
But since I shot this photo using my camera's RAW setting, I can make a lot of exposure changes in my favorite photo editor, without degrading the image. I brightened the shot significantly using the "Fill Light" tool in Adobe Lightroom, and got this much-improved shot.
What would this same photo look like if I had started with a JPEG image instead of RAW? That's a great question. I took a similar photo in JPEG format and similar editing generated this shot.
As you can see, the two photos are very similar, but the image that started life as a RAW photo has noticeably more detail in the darkest regions, such as amongst the trees and along the roofline, where I was able to recover detail hidden in the RAW image file. Worse, there are a lot of obvious artifacts in the lights, caused in part by the sharpening effect automatically performed by the camera itself.
Is that significant enough to make you a RAW user? It depends upon how much time you spend editing your photos. If you tend to shoot, print, and share--with not much editing in between--then you can probably stick with JPEG. If editing is half the fun, though, maybe it's time to try RAW.