How do I open a RAW file?

My wife has a new Digital SLR camera and has taken some photos in a format called RAW. When I double click on these on my computer it tells me that I can’t open them. What are they and how can I see these?

It's NEW!! Nikon D50
Image by mayme via Flickr

Most DSLRs give you a number of options around the photos you take. You can save them in different resolutions, at different settings and you also have a choice of how you save them on your memory card. RAW is the native format of the photo but there are a couple of things you need to know about them:

  • RAW photos contain all the information the camera captures. This gives you all the flexibility you need to modify the photos in a post-production phase. You can change the exposure and all sorts of other aspects of the photos.
  • RAW photos are huge. They aren’t compressed or processed, so they are usually pretty large

In order to use use RAW photos you normally need to convert them into something more palatable for your computer. Most graphical packages will do this for you, but Windows doesn’t contain software natively for this. So, how can you see what that RAW file contains without needing any heavy machinery or safety equipment?

One trick you can use however involves extracting a JPG out of the RAW file. Most RAW files contain a JPG representation of the image so that the camera can show you a preview of the image without having to process the whole file. You can use a free utility called Instant JPeg from RAW to pull this out. The photo will not be a high quality one, but it can serve a purpose which you get the proper tools to handle the file.

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