What Is the RAW (CR2, NEF, ARW) File and Why Should You Use It?


RAW (Raw Image Data File) refers to image data files. RAW format is common in digital photography, where such format files emerge directly from the device’s sensor, bypassing processing. Among DSLRs and even digital cameras, the appearance of RAW images is often due to the camera being in debug mode or after a software upgrade.

Given the lack of a clear RAW extension specification, there are several variations in the information it carries. Basically, this file stores the state of this or that element of the photosensitive matrix, thanks to this, photos in RAW format contribute to the final image without losing excessively darkened and also lightened areas of a certain frame.

When getting into the notion of what RAW format is, you should be aware of the name given to it by professional photographers. Such image formats are referred to as “digital negatives.” These file extensions can be formed as multiple versions of the same image, and parameters can be changed during RAW processing, except for those which cannot be corrected, such as a significant exposure error.

A RAW file can be opened with special software that supports the RAW format, such as IrfanView or UFRaw. Quite often, the display of such files when you view them is similar to what it would be if they were in JPEG format.

A major feature of RAW files is that they store images separately from additional image processing parameters such as exposure compensation and white balance, as well as saturation, sharpness, brightness, and contrast.

RAW files in this image format are saved by the camera to the memory card, just like other image data obtained in other image formats. RAW files can be converted into more common formats such as JPEG, TIFF, etc.

Each manufacturer uses a different file extension for RAW files. Canon has CR2, Nikon has NEF, Sony has ARW, and Fuji – RAF.

The RAW file format contains a large amount of data, making it possible for Adobe Photoshop to make major changes without affecting the original quality of the shot.

It is easy to correct exposure when using RAW. In addition, many of the image settings that are set on the camera can be specified after the picture is taken, rather than beforehand. These include white balance, picture style, saturation, contrast, and sharpness.

In addition, the detail in photos taken with RAW is much higher than when JPEG is used to take the photo. This paradox is due to the use of rougher processing algorithms in cameras because of the race for speed. RAW also makes it easier to correct optical imperfections.


Pros and cons of RAW

What are the advantages of the RAW format that make it so popular in the professional world? Apart from the fact that it makes it possible to perform in-depth image editing, the following advantages are worth mentioning:

  • RAW stores all the values received for each point of time during the whole exposure period of the sensor, which means that the entire color spectrum of the camera you’re shooting with is available in RAW;
  • You can manually compensate for imperfections in the photo, which are due to the properties of the lens, as well as correct (up to certain values) for exposure errors;
  • Saving the image with less than 1% transformation distortion;
  • Great possibilities of changing the frame taken in ultraviolet or infrared light;
  • Possibility to brighten or darken some parts of the frame (while, for example, in JPEG, only lightening is possible for most cases);
  • The ability to select the final image format.

Of course, RAW has its disadvantages. These are:

  • The large file size, which causes the memory card to run out of space faster than when shooting in JPEG;
  • Continuous shooting requires a large memory buffer in the camera and a high-speed memory card;
  • Inexpensive cameras take a long time to process an image when shooting in RAW
  • Each camera manufacturer has its own encoding.

There are other problems, though. The biggest problem is the transformation of a RAW file into a “normal” format that can be viewed on any computer without specialized programs. As an option, you may use CR2-to-JPG software, for example. Moreover, there is a variety of RAW converters, each with its own special features and advantages. You are able even to convert RAW to JPG online or use an app for Android and an app for IOS. However, it is typical for in-camera JPEG to differ from RAW-converted JPEG at all default settings, no matter which converter is used. Ironically, this is also true for in-camera converters. It’s also worth noting that there is no single RAW standard – every camera manufacturer offers its own “raw” format. Moreover, even with the release of new cameras, the RAW format undergoes changes, and the new RAW files do not work with the old programs, alas. Even strongly older RAW formats may not work with the newer conversion programs.

RAW is certainly not a total substitute for other formats, nor is it a perfect solution for photography-related errors. But it is a really powerful photographic tool that can be applied to just about any subject, be it professional photography or general mobile imaging. After all, it’s the photographer who takes the photos, not the camera, and masterpieces can be created even using a matchbox with a hole in it and a piece of film inside. RAW isn’t a substitute for the basic rules of exposure, framing, and lighting. But it’s a really useful and effective tool to help with creative tasks.

Of course, it is not that simple – it often happens that there is no time at all for high-quality post-processing of photos (even with ready-made templates), and one has to shoot directly in JPEG or TIFF. Learning to shoot and edit RAW images properly is not an easy task either, especially if you are quite new to photography and/or computers. Nevertheless, being able to shoot RAW gives a lot of creative possibilities, so it makes sense to learn this skill not only for those who want to monetize their hobby but also for those who just want to please themselves and their loved ones with superb quality pictures.


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