If you take digital photos in one of the dozens of different RAW formats (the uncompressed, unprocessed data from the camera sensor), you'll get more control over the way the picture looks.
But you also have to install software from your camera manufacturer or a program like Aperture or Lightroom to view and edit RAW images in Windows.
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The new Windows Camera Codec pack changes that; install it and you can view RAW images in Windows Explorer and the latest version of Windows Live Photo Gallery.
You can also import RAW images with the Photo Gallery tool and edit the images in Photo Gallery, including the Photo Fuse and panoramic stitch tools.
Although what Photo Gallery does is tell you to make a JPEG copy to edit so it preserves your original (which is what you want it to do), but it doesn't actually make the copy for you when you click an editing tool (which we might prefer). If you add tag, geotags or captions to the RAW file you'll get those in any JPEG copies as well.
"We're not creating a new enhancement to replace Lightroom or Photoshop," Aquino-Jose told us, "and we respect the editing software you install from the manufacturer, but we're enhancing on top of that."
SEE RAW: With the Camera Codec Pack, RAW files like .NEFs get previews in Explorer
One thing you can't do is print a RAW image directly from Explorer (which you can with JPEGs), but if you open the file in Photo Gallery or the photo viewer you can print it like any other image.
Working with multiple RAW formats
Back in 2005 Microsoft tried to build RAW support into Vista by supporting Windows Imaging Component codecs for RAW format files from camera manufacturers; Canon and Nikon and a few others supplied WIC codecs for a handful of versions of RAW formats but it didn't cover enough file formats to be comprehensive and the codecs are often only available for 32-bit Windows.
"Even with the manufacturer's codec pack and software, the experience on Windows has not always been smooth," Aquino-Jose admitted.
OPEN RAW: Windows Live Photo Gallery can work with RAW files now too
The Camera Codec Pack works with multiple RAW formats (including DNG) from 120 different cameras from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Leica, Minolta, Epson and Panasonic, in 32 and 64-vit versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7, and more models will be supported as they come out. "We consider this version one," Aquino-Jose told us,"120 formats, with more to come.
Camera manufacturers update their codecs; we want to enhance experience for consumers so we will be regularly updating the codec pack with RAW file formats."
EDIT – ALMOST: Editing RAW files means making a copy (good) yourself (bad)
You can download the RAW for Windows codec pack directly; if you have the recent QFE2 update for Photo Gallery (and no WIC RAW codecs installed already), trying to open a RAW format file in Photo Gallery will also trigger a dialog suggesting you download the codecs.
If you don't have the update, you'll be able to view images in Photo Gallery if you install the codec pack but you won't be able to edit them.
We tried the codec pack out with a range of DNG and .NEF RAW files.
It took Explorer a little longer to display thumbnails for a folder of RAW files than for JPEG images, but that's because the files are larger and they don't have a thumbnail stored in the RAW file the way a JPEG does, so the first time you look at them Windows has to calculate a thumbnail preview to use. Once that's done, viewing RAW images is as fast – and as simple – as viewing JPEGs. Finally.
GET RAW: If you have the right version of Photo Gallery, you'll see this prompt