I am trying to understand RAW better.

I have a Canon EOS 20D, and shoot in RAW+Jpeg mode. According to the specs in the manual, the RAWs of the 20D are 12 Bit. I understand that this means each pixel contains 36 bit of information. A Jpeg only has 3*8=24 bit of information.

In RAW+Jpeg mode, the 20D actually generates two Jpegs: one in full resolution (3504x2336), and one in down scaled resolution (1536x1024) that is embedded in the RAW file for preview purposes.

Sorry, have to post a whole battery of questions, don't know how to summarize my question, so here it goes:

How exactly are the 36 bit of the RAW mapped to the 24 bit of the full resolution Jpeg? Does it just take the 24 bit in the middle of the 36 bits, or at the beginning, at the end or what? Or is there a more sophisticated mapping going on?

Is the mapping the same for the separate full resolution Jpeg and the embedded preview Jpeg?

When I open a RAW in Raw Therapee, it again needs to be mapped down to 24 bit to be displayed at the screen. Is this again the same mapping or a different one?

Also, the RAW images always look very flat and drab, with very dim colors. (Only with Raw Therapee I can bring out a pop and vibrancy which I love from film). The fact that the RAWs and derived Jpegs always look so drab without post-processing, is this related to the bit reduction mapping, or has it different reasons?

  • \$\begingroup\$ You may find this answered by What is RAW, technically? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 15:59
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ mattdm, I don't feel that this relates to my question at all. The link you provided leads to a discussion of what RAW is. I think I understand what RAW is, my question(s) is more the mapping between RAW and Jpeg. \$\endgroup\$
    – user19032
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 16:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Those two concepts are closely linked. I've provided an answer below, but it's really just a rewording of part of the answers there. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 16:46

2 Answers 2


First, you are making a common mistake thinking it is 36 bit. I made the same mistake for a while. In reality, RAW data is monochrome and thus only 12 bit in your case since each pixel doesn't have any color information without looking at neighboring pixels.

Beyond that, it depends on the software being used. Color, as mentioned, is derived from the color of the filter on that pixel and the value of neighboring pixels of other colors, but the pattern used can vary.

Similarly, the reduction in bit depth varies even more. It could be a linear map that brings the darkest to darkest and brightest to brightest. It could just grab the middle. It could try to make processing judgements about what a dark black point and what a bright white point should be and adjust according to that. It really depends on how the software decides to do it and then how you adjust the mapping during development.

And that's really the point of RAW. It's designed to allow you to make selections about how to do that mapping as the photographer. If you just want an automatic process to form an 8 bit file for you, simply shoot JPEG. Using RAW is a waste of space. The point of RAW is that it lets you control the process of converting it to an 8 bit space by hand, and thus ensures you get the information you want out of it.

As for why it seems drab initially, it is probably just a stylistic thing for how the logic works. With Lightroom, it tries to make choices to make it look much more like a JPEG would by default, but adjustments are still needed in either case. That initial adjustment is going to vary from software to software and camera to camera and even photo to photo potentially.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm - by unintelligent I simply meant that it doesn't apply complex logic to make a guess about the desired outcome. I was speaking algorithmically. The logic is fixed rather than trying to figure it out. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 19:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm - fair enough, changed my answer accordingly. I've not personally used Rawtherapee, but figured that the drabness was just a simple selection of some basic color without any logic. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Henderson
    Commented Nov 16, 2013 at 21:58

The RAW sensor data is linear. JPEG images use a gamma curve, which means that increasing data values represent an exponential increase, which is a more efficient way of storing things because the human vision system isn't linear either. (Without this, excess precision is wasted on varying hues of bright colors, leaving not enough for the darker end of the range.) Film, incidentally, works this way intrisically.

So that's part of it.

Whether the ends of the curve are compressed into the available range or clipped depends on your processing choices — usually some of both. This is actually handy because you don't always (or even usually) need the whole range to make a photograph, so you have latitude to adjust the apparent exposure even after the fact.

The JPEG also involves other processing, like demosaicing, which is relevant here because in most digital cameras, including yours, each photosite is actually single-color; that alone is only the 12 bits of information, not 36. Your RAW converter (or the one in the camera) uses surrounding pixels and (relatively smart) algorithms to extrapolate the other channels. This may use some amount of information from any number of surrounding pixels (see for example this approach using cubic convolution), so it's a bit hard to say the number of bits that inform the JPEG pixel value in general.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Since the colors used for Bayer filters do not correspond to the colors used for RGB reproduction systems (or CMYK, for that matter), all three colors are interpolated during the demosaicing process. What we call "red", "green", and "blue" filters are not really red, green, and blue, all of the cute little drawings on the internet notwithstanding. Out "red" (Long), "green' (Medium), and "blue" (Short) retinal cones are not most sensitive, respectively, to red, greed, and blue, either. We started calling them that long before we were able to measure the sensitivity of each precisely. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 15:48

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