What Does "No Raw Support" Mean for Digital Cameras?

by Andrew Aarons

The digital photography market continues to evolve, bringing features that previously existed only in professional, digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras to the handheld or point-and-shoot market. Point-and-shoots have interchangeable lenses and full manual controls, allowing photography hobbyists to get near-professional results. Most proper photographers shoot in something called "Raw" mode to allow for additional control over the photo in post-processing. Raw is not an acronym but an adjective describing unprocessed, pure photos.

Non-Raw photos

To keep photo sizes down and therefore increase the number of photos that can be stored on a single memory card, digital cameras compress photos in JPEG format. JPEG photos are the most common digital photo type (think of all of the pictures you have seen online that are JPEGs), so having your digital camera take pictures in this format is convenient up to a point. To keep the file size small, some photographic information is stripped from the digital file. This includes elements that may not be important to a large portion of casual picture-takers who may always leave the camera on "Auto" mode. Information about white balance, shutter speed and aperture isn't stored in a JPEG file.

Manual Modes and Raw

Raw files aren't compressed, so they take up a lot more space on your memory card. This means the file has a larger size. If you shoot in auto mode, this is more of a hindrance than a help; you aren't likely going to go back and edit those photos later, so you're just filling up your memory card faster. But if you stray from the auto mode into your camera's manual or half-manual modes, like aperture and shutter priority, you'll appreciate Raw's flexibility. Say you work hard to gauge the light but your photo still comes out dark, or that you get a beautifully composed shot but forget to adjust the white balance. Raw allows you to post-process these shots and correct such mistakes.

Choosing a Camera

A Raw shooting mode is an important consideration when buying a new camera. Every DSLR has Raw mode, and some even have a Raw+JPEG mode that stores two images each time you press the shutter, creating one editable copy for post-processing and one basic JPEG copy for sending and sharing. For cameras that bridge between SLR and point-and-shoot, the so-called "super zoom" cameras with a single, fixed lens, check specifications for file formats to ensure that the camera has raw support. Worry about Raw only if you are getting serious about your photography, and if your creativity has surpassed the limits of your current camera.

Working with Raw

You can't simply click on a Raw file in Windows and view it with a built-in program. The software that was included with your camera will include a program to process Raw files. These programs work like a digital dark room. You import the files and can adjust levels and apply filters before saving the photo in a widely-acceptable format. For more serious photo editing, you can use Photoshop or Adobe's LightRoom to edit Raw images.

About the Author

Living in Canada, Andrew Aarons has been writing professionally since 2003. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Ottawa, where he served as a writer and editor for the university newspaper. Aarons is also a certified computer-support technician.