Microsoft adds RAW photo file support to Windows

Some welcome news for serious photographers running Windows: Microsoft has added support for the RAW file format from within Windows Explorer as well as Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011.

"Dealing with raw images on Windows hasn't always been easy," admited Brad Weed, group program manager for Microsoft's Windows Live in a blog post emailed to me in advance of its posting.

Microsoft today announced the release of a Camera Codec Pack that supports more than 120 RAW file formats from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Pentax, Leica, Minolta, Panasonic and Epson. Once installed, Explorer windows will be able to generate thumbnail images from RAW files.

RAW files, often called digital negatives, include all the data that a camera captures electronically. That data is usually processed in some way to produce a viewable image, a bit like film negatives need processing to create prints. Many photography enthusiasts prefer shooting with a RAW format because 1) those files include much more data than a JPG and 2) RAW gives them greater control over what the final image will look like, much like doing your own darkroom work instead of sending film out to be processed. (Am I dating myself here?)

RAW files in Windows Explorer before the Codec

RAW files as they appeared in Windows Explorer before the Camera Codec Pack

However, not all software can deal with RAW files, including many low-end image editors. Until today, Windows Explorer didn't, either; Explorer could not generate thumbnail images of RAW files the way it did with JPGs. So, even if you chose to display image thumbnails within Explorer, all you'd get is icons showing the application you've associated with that file type. (I've linked my RAW files to be opened in Photoshop Elements, hence the PSE).

RAW files in Windows Explorer using the Codec

RAW files as they appear in Windows Explorer using the Camera Codec Pack

I'm not sure how many people will be using Windows Live Photo Gallery to edit RAW files. It's hard to imagine that many photographers shooting RAW are using Windows Live to edit their images, as opposed to, say, robust editors such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom or Apple Apeture -- all of which include RAW editors. However, the ability to see RAW thumbnails in Explorer should be useful for hobbyists using the Windows platform. I've already downloaded and installed the Codec on my Windows 7 system at home, and it's nice to see thumbnails of my RAW files instead of icons of the software I use to open them. And I suppose the Windows Live capability could in handy in a pinch, for someone encountering a RAW file who doesn't usually deal with them.

You can download and install the Codec Pack manually from the Microsoft Download Center.

If you're wondering, Mac OS X is already able to generate thumbnails for RAW files, and Apple's consumer-level iPhoto software pulls in RAW files and automatically processes them (unlike Apeture which gives the user more control over that conversion).

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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