Are you afraid of making a social gaffe by asking what Camera RAW is? Have you heard the term but don't understand what it really means? Well, sit back; I'm about to lift the lid on Camera RAW. I'll tell you what it is, why you'd want to use it, and how to use it. I'll also show you how you can get your hands on some Camera RAW images, even if your camera doesn't capture images in a raw format, so you can experiment with them to learn more about the format.
What Happens in Your Camera
When a photo is captured by a regular digital camera, all sorts of processing is applied to the data that the camera's sensors record before you actually get to see your image. In fact, if you saw the data that the camera's sensors captured, it would be meaningless to you. The processing converts the captured data into a color image and cleans it up by fixing typical problems before you see the processed result on your camera's LCD screen and the final version is saved to your camera's memory card. In addition to basic processing, the camera's software adjusts the white balance, contrast, color, and sharpness in the image, and in some cases it might even fix problems such as red eye.
While this setup suits most people most of the time, it isn't great if you're a professional photographer or a serious amateur. In this case, you may not want your camera's software to "fix" your image for you; you may prefer to do that yourself. Enter Camera RAW—in simple terms, it represents the unfixed image. If you capture an image and save it in Camera RAW format, you can do the fixing yourself instead of leaving the work to the camera's software.
In many cases, this makes good sense. For starters, there's a lot more computer power on your desktop than there is in your camera. Creatively, you're also more likely than your camera to know how you "saw" the scene, so it makes good sense for some adjustments, such as white balance, to be made by you and not by the camera's software.