What are RAW and DNG photos?

Some professional photographers are turning to their smartphones because they can capture RAW and DNG images. But what are these strange terms?
What are RAW and DNG photos?

Smartphone cameras are getting more and more powerful. Amazingly, some of the best ones out there are making professional photographers pick up their phones over their cameras. And one of the reasons for this photography revolution is that a lot of top smartphones can now shoot in RAW or DNG image formats. But what are RAW and DNG images and should you be shooting them?


RAW and DNG photos are completely uncompressed images. They contain all the information your camera captured in its original form. There’s no real difference between them, but DNG is an open source file format, which means more apps will be able to read them. So they’re big files that are perfect for editing, but not very good for sharing or printing.


RAW and DNG images give you a high dynamic range (so show details in shadows and bright spots) but lack contrast (so things can look pale). They’re also often less sharp than you might expect. JPEG images usually reverse these strengths and weaknesses. That’s because a JPEG is one that’s been tweaked by your phone to try and create the best possible image from the RAW data. But you can’t edit a JPEG without losing quality, so if your phone doesn’t process things to your taste you’re stuck.

DNG photo
DNG photoEnlarge Enlarge

JPEG photo
JPEG photoEnlarge Enlarge


If your smartphone’s good enough to give you the option to shoot in RAW or DNG (you’ll find the option in your phone’s advanced camera settings) you should definitely give it a go to see if you prefer the shots. On some phones, you might not notice much of a difference in quality over regular JPEG photos when you look at the shots on your phone, but there are still plenty of benefits to shooting in RAW and DNG.


Your camera isn’t as smart as you and it’s not as powerful as your computer. So when it processes a photo into a JPEG file, it probably isn’t doing as good a job as you could. When you shoot in RAW or DNG, you can do that processing yourself and make the decisions on how the image should look.


Levels of brightness are the number of steps from black to white in an image. The more you have, the smoother your photo will look. JPEG photos have an impressive 256 levels of brightness, but RAW and DNG record between 4,096 and 16,384.

Not only does this give you a smoother image to start with, but it gives you more room to finely edit your photos for the perfect finished product.


White balance fine-tunes a photo’s colours based on the type of light. Under fluorescent light, a white sheet of paper looks a bit yellow, so all the colours need to be shifted slightly to compensate by changing the white balance. With JPEG photos, the white balance is applied to the image and you can’t easily change it. But with RAW and DNG files, you have loads more data in the image, making it easy to adjust the white balance.


With RAW and DNG files, you can use really powerful sharpening and noise tools in programs like Photoshop. These tools will let you bring out much more detail than the ones that are automatically used by your phone to create a JPEG photo.


When you edit a RAW or DNG file, you’re not doing anything to the original data. You’re just creating a new JPEG file and leaving the original untouched. That means you’ll always be able to go back to that original file to make a new version of your JPEG if you decide you didn’t get the edits quite right.


There are two big problems with RAW and DNG photos. The first is that you’ll need to process them yourself using special software. Something as simple as Paint on your PC isn’t powerful enough to even read a RAW file, so you’ll have to find something new and learn how to use it. But the extra time and effort can create some unbeatable photos.

The other problem is that RAW and DNG files are huge. If you’re shooting in RAW format on a Sony Xperia Z3, each photo will be 20.7MB. That would drop to around 5MB if you shoot in JPEG. So if you want to take lots of photos in RAW or DNG, you’ll probably want to invest in a microSD card.

Now that you know how to get the best possible images using RAW and DNG, check out our tips for taking stunning photos with your smartphone and our favourite apps for editing those huge pictures.

What are your thoughts? Join the conversation here…

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