What Is a RAW File & Why Don’t Photographers Give Them Out?

As someone looking to hire a photographer or a beginner photographer yourself, technical jargon like “RAW file” can be confusing, especially when your photographer tells you they don’t give them out.

In photography, a RAW file refers to a file that is pure data. It has minimal to no processing. These files are optimized to retain as much information as possible for post-processing. Many photographers don’t give out RAW files because editing is a major part of photography as an art form.

There is much more to RAW files than just the fact that they are pure data, and there are many more reasons why photographers elect not to distribute their RAW files. Keep reading as I break down the pros and cons of RAW files and why photographers don’t distribute them.

What Is A RAW File in Photography?

The concept of RAW format in photography is an interesting one because it isn’t one specific file extension. In reality, RAW format is a term used in photography for a file that is just raw data.

These files have minimal processing or none at all. They also have little to no compression so they can retain as much information as possible.

Each brand makes its RAW file types, which can get confusing as they all have different file extensions. I’ve listed below the file types and file extensions for the largest photography brands’ RAW files.

File TypeFile Extension
Canon RAW 3.CR3
Canon RAW 2.CR2
Sony Alpha RAW.ARW
Fujifilm RAW.RAF
Nikon Electronic Format.NEF
Lumix RAW.RW2

As I mentioned before RAW files are just data, pure information, meaning they aren’t actually images until they are properly converted and interpreted by special software. Typically, photographers will use software like Adobe Lightroom to do this because, while converting their files, they can edit and retouch them before their final exports.

Taking Lightroom as an example, photographers upload their RAW files to the software and make adjustments to exposure, colour, crop, or any other settings they want to be changed, then they export their photos in their desired format, usually JPEG.

Since they are data files, more information is retained giving the photographer more freedom when editing. RAW files are made up of light and colour information that is converted from binary language (zeroes and ones) into viewable images, but more on that later.

If you are using a camera that can shoot in a RAW format, it is likely that the camera’s manufacturer will have free software available to convert the RAW files into an image. If you are wanting to use third-party photo-processing software, most support RAW files from the major camera manufacturers listed above.

These files also contain metadata which can be described in two groups; information about the hardware such as what camera and lens was used, and information about the image like date, time, camera settings, and sometimes location.

Do All Professional Photographers Shoot in RAW Format?

In general, photographers will shoot RAW during professional shoots to preserve as much information as possible for when they edit their photos. On that note, professional photographers virtually always edit their photos when hired for client work.

Since RAW files have little to no compression, information loss is minimized. This means there is more information retained while shooting. RAW files have a better dynamic range than JPEGs which means shadows and highlights can be recovered better without introducing noise.

If you’re wanting more insight into noise, check out my article explaining precisely what noise is and how to avoid it in your photography.

Another feature of RAW files in photography is that they allow you to change your white balance while editing.

Now that we understand that RAW files have more information and are larger files, it’s important to understand that they also have more range when it comes to colour tones.

RAW files usually have between 12 to 16 bits per colour channel (RGB) while JPEGs generally only have 8 bits per colour channel.

For context, bits are a measurement of data, they’re small pieces of information that are formatted in binary language (zeroes and ones).

When you hear “8-bit” in the context of an image, it means the image has 28 (256) tones. The way we figure this out is with permutations.

Imagine we have eight spots and for each, we pick either zero or one. Since we are using binary language (two options, zero and one) and we are calculating the number of tones in an 8-bit image, our calculation will be 2 to the power of 8.

In contrast to 8-bit, which has 256 tones, 12-bit has 212 (4,096) unique colour tones and 16-bit has 216 (65,536) unique colour tones. This is why RAW files are so powerful, they hold exponentially more information than JPEGs.

On top of having more information, dynamic range, and unique colour tones, RAW files avoid the compression, sharpening, and noise reduction that may happen in the camera.

Why Don’t Photographers Give Out RAW Files?

A common question photographers get is this: do you give out your RAW photos? Though ultimately it is up to you as a photographer whether or not you want to share your raw, unedited photos, it’s important to understand why most professionals choose not to share RAW files.

Think about it this way; you wouldn’t go to a nice restaurant and want the chef to serve you unseasoned chicken or a salad with no dressing. Buying quality ingredients, like taking technically good photos, is only part of what makes a good meal (or photo). The other part is how the chef seasons and cooks your meal, or how the photographer edits their photos.

With that said, here are some specific reasons why many professionals do not share their RAW files:

The file is not converted, remember a RAW file is just data, it needs to be converted to a viewable image for conventional use.

Clients are unlikely to have software that can develop RAW files properly. Even if they did have the proper software, they cannot likely edit their images to look how they envision. Part of choosing a photographer is looking at their portfolio and deciding if you like their shooting and editing style.

The photographer’s artistic vision is not complete. Every photographer has a different process, but many of us shoot with the final product in mind. This means the photo we take needs editing to look the way we envision in our minds.

Photos reflect the photographer, their ability, and their brand. Every photographer wants their images to be things they can be proud of. As I mentioned before, editing is a major part of a photographer’s process, which is why they would like it to be done to their standard.

Now, for some, this may bring up the question: “if I hired a photographer, aren’t those photos mine?”. For most situations in Canada and USA, photographers own the copyright to their photos when you hire them for a shoot. This would make editing a photographer’s photo without their consent copyright infringement.

For this reason, many photographers elect to include a no-edit clause in their contracts meaning clients cannot make edits like adding filters and changing colours to the photographer’s images.

This is precisely why photographers have portfolios for potential clients to review, so clients aren’t surprised when they get their photos.

It is the photographer’s responsibility to inform clients exactly what the deliverables will be and how the images can be used before signing contracts and committing to a shoot.

Back in the days of film, it would be tough to find a photographer willing to part with their negatives. Nowadays, in the digital age, RAW files are just the same as negatives, they need to be developed by someone who knows how to properly do so.

What Are the Disadvantages of Shooting RAW?

Although it is true that most professional photographers shoot in RAW format, that doesn’t mean RAW files beat JPEGs at everything. There are some disadvantages to shooting RAW, it is up to you as a photographer to weigh the benefits and drawbacks and shoot accordingly.

One of the main drawbacks to shooting in RAW format is that the files are uncompressed so they can be anywhere from 2 to 5 times as large as JPEGs.

This is an issue when shooting for two reasons. The first issue with larger files is that your storage will run out faster when shooting. The second issue is that your camera can slow down, this is especially noticeable while burst shooting because your camera has more information to process in between shots.

To counter these two issues, you’ll want to upgrade your SD card. You’ll want one with more storage and faster write speeds. I recommend the SanDisk Extreme PRO with a minimum storage of 64GB, but you may want 128GB just to be safe.

Another drawback of shooting in RAW format is that these files take specialized software to open and process. This software usually costs money and takes time to learn how to use. JPEGs are ready to share, right out of the camera, though you have less freedom should you choose to edit them.

If you’d like some insight into photo processing software, I have an article breaking down three of the top photo editing software for photographers. Don’t worry, I picked three options from different price ranges, including completely free software!

For us photographers, our photos are our art. This makes sharing our photos extra special. A drawback to shooting RAW is that these file formats are not widely accepted. For example, certain file formats may not be accepted by social media sites. This means you may end up having to convert your files before uploading.

The final drawback I’ll cover is that processing RAW files takes longer than JPEGs which can be ready to upload immediately. Take Fujifilm’s film simulations as an example. The photos you take with these in-camera are ready to use, stylized, and good to upload in a widely accepted format.

Should I Shoot in RAW or JPEG as a Beginner?

The first thing any photographer wants to do when they get a new camera is to go out and shoot. Because of this, many beginner photographers end up shooting in JPEG because they simply haven’t looked through the settings of their cameras and adjusted to their preferences.

One key thing to consider on this matter is how much time you’re willing to invest in editing your photos. If you’re just looking to point and shoot, shooting JPEG is the way to go as there is no post-processing or conversion needed, though you can edit if you’d like.

If you have access to capable software, like Adobe Lightroom, and have time to edit, then I highly recommend shooting RAW. Shooting RAW will give you practice editing your photos and will help you find your style.

I will mention that shooting RAW & JPEG simultaneously is an option on most cameras but it takes significant amounts of storage and processing power. Also while shooting both RAW & JPEG, the RAW files are usually somewhat compressed so there will be some information loss as opposed to shooting purely RAW.

I highly recommend only shooting RAW & JPEG simultaneously if you have dual SD card slots. Many cameras allow you to route all of your RAW files to one SD card and JPEGs to the other.

RAW vs JPEG is a classic head-to-head in the world of photography, another classic comparison is colour vs black-and-white. Many beginner photographers don’t consider the possibility of shooting in black and white. I have an article breaking down why you should be shooting in black and white.

Jeremy Goh

Jeremy grew up volunteering at church and has also worked in a church setting. Along with working as a freelance creative, Jeremy is studying for a business degree in finance and international business.

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