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How to Work With RAW Files in the macOS Photos App

mac os big sur photos icon

You can edit photos in a variety of formats with the macOS Photos app. For some folks, working with the RAW format offers several benefits.


Of course, keep in mind that files in the JPEG format, the standard file format in the digital photography world, are stored as compressed files. This means they take up less storage space than RAW files. 

Unlike a JPEG file, RAW format is uncompressed and isn’t actually an image file, but is a collection of data from your camera’s sensor that are saved on your camera. Software like Photos allows you to view the data as images and edit the RAW files. The benefits — as noted by Format magazine are:

  • Your camera is capturing absolutely all the data it receives from the camera’s sensor so you have more data to work with.
  • RAW has a higher brightness level than JPEG.
  • The RAW format contains 68 billion more colors than JPEG files.
  • RAW files have a higher dynamic range than JPEG files.

See the image below — courtesy of Digital Photography School — to get an idea of the differences.

Image comparison of a mountain showing color difference between jpg and RAW

The best way you can use the RAW format is after you’re done shooting, during the editing process. Which is where Apple’s Photos comes in.

About RAW Files on a Mac

There are some things you should know about the availability of RAW files on your Mac depends on a few conditions:

  • If you have the Download Originals to this Mac option turned on in Photos (Photos > Preferences > iCloud > Download Originals to this Mac), then your RAW files are always present in Photos on your Mac.
  • If you have the Optimize Mac Storage option turned on, then your RAW files are stored in iCloud Photos. The Photos app saves disk space on your Mac by displaying optimized JPEG versions of your RAW images. If you edit an optimized image on your Mac, Photos downloads the RAW file for that image.
  • When Photos downloads a RAW image from iCloud Photos, it creates a new full-sized JPEG for optimal viewing on your Mac. It won’t replace the RAW and embedded JPEG file already stored in iCloud. iOS devices will view the embedded JPEG.
  • RAW files that you store outside the Photos app library (say, in your Pictures folder) are always present on your Mac, but aren’t stored in iCloud and won’t stay up to date in the Photos app on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

How to Import RAW Image Files Into Photos

To import RAW image files into Photos, open the app and:

  • Select File > Import.
  • Go to the folder containing the files you want to import as RAW.
  • Select a file or files and click Import.
  • In the Import view, select the images to keep, then click Import Selected.

Use a RAW File as the Original in Photos

Some cameras allow you to shoot photos in both RAW and JPEG formats simultaneously. When you import your pics from these cameras, Photos uses the JPEG file as the original. However, you can tell it to use the RAW file as the original instead.

In the Photos app, double-click a photo to open it, then click Edit in the toolbar. Choose Image > Use RAW as Original.

How to Shoot RAW Photos on an iPhone

If you’re like me, you take most of your photos with your iPhone. However, the iOS Camera app doesn’t support capturing RAW photos. However, there are several third-party apps that allow you to do this, such as the free VSCO, which is pictured below, and the $5.99 Halide.

VSCO: Photo & Video Editor

Dennis Sellers
the authorDennis Sellers
Contributing Author
Dennis has over 40 years of journalism experience and has written hundreds of articles. For the past 20-plus years, he's been an online journalist, covering mainly Apple Inc. He's written for MacCentral, MacWorld, MacMinute, Macsimum News, Apple Daily Report, and is now contributing editor at Apple World Today.
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  • Your statement, “However, the iOS Camera app doesn’t support capturing RAW photos.” is not true. I have an iPhone 12 Pro Max with IOS 14.5 and there is the option on the camera screen to shoot in RAW in the top right of the screen.