Unlike other image file types, there is no universal standard for RAW data. Each camera manufacturer uses its own variations, and often RAW file types are different between cameras from the same brand. Because of this, when you buy a camera capable of RAW output, it will usually come with a proprietary RAW file converter that can be used to hand-process the images. Some of these programs are better than others, but most will allow control over exposure correction, white balance, contrast, saturation and sharpness, and usually noise control as well.
The screenshot below is the RAW converter software supplied with the Sony Alpha A100 DSLR, which provides a wide range of adjustments for fine-tuning picture quality. Itâ€™s one of the better ones; some others are not as versatile.
A more popular alternative is to use the Camera RAW plug-in for Adobe Photoshop CS2. This is available as a free download, along with instructions for installation, from Adobeâ€™s website.
The Adobe Camera RAW plug-in will also work with Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0, the latest version, which is considerably more affordable and user-friendly than the full professional version of Photoshop.
Note that Adobe Camera RAW only works as a plug-in for these Adobe programs, and cannot be used as a stand-alone program.
New versions of Camera RAW are released frequently, updated to cope with files from the latest DSLRs. The latest version, 3.6, handles files from the Canon EOS 400D, Fujifilm S9600 and Pentax K100D among others.
Adobe Camera RAW itself is very versatile, more so than most of the proprietary RAW converter programs. It offers precise control of exposure compensation, shadow intensity, brightness, contrast, saturation, colour temperature and tint, as well as histogram curves, compensation for lens problems such as chromatic fringes and vignetting, three different levels of sharpness and specific pre-set colour profiles. As well as this it can straighten lop-sided horizons, show shadow or highlight clipping and allows final output in a range of image sizes up to 6,144 x 4,101 pixels (over 25 megapixels) with minimal loss of quality. Images can be saved as an uncompressed TIFF file, so there is no danger of loss of image quality due to JPEG compression.
Another RAW converter program favoured by professionals is the amusingly named but highly sophisticated Bibble, now up to version 4.9, from Bibble Labs Inc.
There are two versions available, Pro and Lite, costing $129.95 and $69.95, but a 14-day demo version is available for download from the companyâ€™s website, so you can try it out before you buy. Bibble is a highly advanced program and is vastly more complex and versatile that even Adobe Camera RAW, but itâ€™s not for the faint-hearted. It allows you to alter every aspect of your RAW image, from simple white balance adjustment to multi-channel colour correction, but learning to get the best from it will take some time. Fortunately there are training videos available for download from the manufacturerâ€™s website.