Since the early 2000s, the raw file format has produced some of the highest quality images possible. Digital cameras typically produce images in the JPEG or raw format. Many programs recognize JPEG, but to view raw files is a different story.

A raw image is large and stores more information. Different camera brands produce varying extensions to describe the same format. Depending on your computer operating system and camera, you may need special software to view raw photos.

Keep reading to learn how you can open raw files on your phone or computer.

What Exactly is a Raw File and Why You Should Care

A raw file is a digital photo captured on your camera. Many cameras and even some smartphones can capture raw images in addition to JPEGs.

raw file

Photo by Dave Kennard licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

JPEG files typically compress the photo and filter it to maximize the image’s appearance. It enhances the white balance, color tones, and contrast to make a ready-to-print picture.

Raw formats are two to six times larger than JPEGs, so you cannot store as many on your camera as usual. However, they do not compress the photo and preserve the original coloring.

Furthermore, this imaging file formats stores previous information so you can edit the photo without reducing the quality. It is not a lossy format, unlike JPEG, in which you lose some quality every time you save your images. Nonetheless, an image raw format requires unique programs to view and edit the images.

How to Easily Open a Raw File

To view a raw file, you will need editing software. Top choices include Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.

If you are looking to edit raw images from your smartphone, use Adobe Photoshop Express. Available on iOS and Android, Adobe Photoshop Express will let you view and edit the image whenever you want. The app is available for free, but it does involve in-app purchases.

Keep in mind that each brand has its proprietary version. Canons and Nikons have different extensions that aren’t necessarily compatible with the same software.

One thing in common with most raw formats is that they require a codec to read the data. This codec will let you view a thumbnail, but you will need additional software to edit it.

How to Convert a Raw File

Most of the above software will allow you to convert your picture to JPEG, or even another format. In Adobe products, you can choose the format you want your picture to be when you export it.

Step OK and RawTherapee let you convert them on the interface, which is especially helpful considering their limited editing properties.

Operating Systems

Most computers come with codecs that can read the image’s data on the operating system.

Windows

If you have a Windows operating system, you can install these extensions that may support your file format. Check through to see if the codec supports your digital camera’s specific type.

The Windows 10 extension requires the latest update of the operating system to function correctly. It is updated frequently to accommodate new types of format from recently released models.

windows 10

Photo by Kamal licensed under Pexels

Apple

With a Mac computer, the standard software updates maintain the codecs. If you find you cannot view a raw format, select the Apple logo in the top left corner and click on Software Updates to see if that helps.

downloading box

Photo by Jeff Attaway licensed under CC BY 2.0

Adobe Software

Many Adobe products come with codec software to view and edit a photograph. To update the Adobe software, go to the top left corner, select Help, and then Updates from the drop-down menu. Here you can update all aspects of the program, including the codec.

lightroom interface

Photo by Matthew Keefe licensed under CC BY 2.0

A handful of Adobe products allow you to view and edit raw images.

Adobe has Camera Raw software that lets you directly edit a picture. Adobe Photoshop Elements, Photoshop Lightroom, and Bridge come with it already included, but you can install the plug-in on your regular Adobe Photoshop.

With it installed, just upload the picture into the Adobe software and edit away.

Below we will cover which digital camera extension types are supported by what programs.

Free Software

If you can’t afford Adobe Photoshop products, there are plenty of ways to see your raw photos.

Google Photos, previously called Google Picasa, lets you see many raw images. Make sure to save the picture as “Original Quality” rather than “High Quality” to preserve the image data. For iOS, Apple Photos works as well. Check to see if your camera works with these programs. If you have Windows 10, the Windows Photo Viewer may also see the photograph.

Adobe offers software for Windows and Mac to convert into DNG, which is a more widely supported format.

Stepok OK is an importer that allows you to upload, edit, and convert your picture.

Another option is RawTherapee, where you can import, edit, and convert your images without diminishing the quality. Linux, Windows, and Mac computers all support RawTherapee.

raw data in lightroom

Photo by Shih-Shiuan Kao licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

File Extensions

When looking into software, you may be wondering if your camera’s extension is supported. Here is a quick guide of our recommended programs to help you out before you make a purchase.

  • Canon (CRW, CR2, CR3) – Photoshop, Lightroom
  • Hasselblad (3FR) – Elements
  • Kodak (DCR, K25, KDC) – Photoshop
  • Leaf (MOS) – Lightroom
  • Mamiya (MEF) – Elements
  • Nikon (NEF) – Photoshop, Lightroom
  • Olympus (ORF) – Photoshop, Elements
  • Panasonic (RW2) – Elements
  • Pentax (PEF) – Photoshop, Elements
  • Phase One (IIQ) – Lightroom, Photoshop
  • Sony (ARF, SR2, SRF) – Photoshop, Elements

For a more comprehensive list, check which programs the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in supports.

As far as free software goes, it never hurts to try. You can easily download the program and delete it if it is not compatible without losing any money.