Introduction to the RAW+XMP Workflow

RAW image files are a great tool for professional photographers, offering flexibility, editability, and portability. For these reasons, we encourage all our post-production clients to consider the RAW+XMP workflow when using Post services. Here’s an overview of how it works.

What is RAW?

RAW is a generic term for the multitude of proprietary image file formats created by camera makers. Most photographers will be familiar with “CR2” and “NEF”, which are the Canon and Nikon RAW formats, respectively.

The RAW format is an alternative to JPG. The biggest benefit RAW has over JPG is the amount of image information it contains. RAW files hold all the data captured by the camera’s sensor, allowing you to later process the image with a wide range of flexibility. JPGs, on the other hand, are a result of processing that happens in-camera, and much of the data is thrown out to save on file space.

If you’re looking to edit your images after the shoot, RAW is much more lenient when it comes to changing white balance, adjusting exposure, and recovering image data in the highlights and shadows.

RAW files also have a unique workflow aspect to them: XMP files. XMPs are crucial to the RAW+XMP workflow, so we’ll spend some time explaining these little guys.

What is an XMP?

For each RAW file you edit, you will have an associated XMP file.  The RAW file is usually big and holds the actual image, while the XMP file is tiny and holds data about the image.

What kind of data?  Different kinds, but instructions are what we’re most interested in.  When changes are made to an image in a program like Adobe Lightroom, those changes are not actually applied to the RAW file itself — the RAW file always stays untouched so we can go back to the original if needed. Instead, the changes are saved separately as a series of text instructions (think along the lines of “raise saturation by 5″), and these text instructions are — you guessed it — XMPs.

So, we now have one XMP file for each RAW file.  Of course, just opening an XMP file isn’t going to tell us humans anything useful.  We need to give the RAW and XMP files to a program which can combine them and display an edited image.  At Post, we use and highly recommend Lightroom.

Why XMP?

  • Nothing set in stone

As we mentioned, the RAW file is never modified.  All the changes are saved separately for you to accept, reject or add on to.  Think about the alternative:  If you start with a JPG file, edit it in some way, and then save the changes, you’ve lost the original image and have no way of going back.

  • Easier archiving

After realizing your mistake in the above JPG example, you start making sure to always save JPG changes as a new file.  Great, now you have the original and the edited files, but they’re both about the same size: big.

With the RAW+XMP workflow, however, you have the benefit of keeping the original image and the changes — the difference being that the changes (the XMPs) are very small files, so you’re only storing one big file instead of two.  This helps reduce the amount of storage space needed for archiving your images.  Plus, the original image and the changes are conveniently stored together in the same folder.

  • Faster turnaround

Next, consider using a post-production editing service like Post.  Say you decide to send in the RAW files for a wedding you shot last weekend.  The files are big and it takes a while to transfer, but it’s worth it.  If only there was some way, once the images are corrected, we didn’t have to take the time to send all those files back to you.

Enter XMPs.  Once we’ve corrected your images, there’s no reason to send the RAW files back — they haven’t changed!  Instead, you can have your changes returned quickly — usually a download of a few seconds — because all you need back are the XMPs.

Putting it Together – The RAW+XMP Workflow

Now that you know what RAW images are and what their sidecar XMP buddies are, it’s time to put them together into a RAW+XMP workflow. There are many variations on the following, but we’ll keep it simple for now and recommend the following.

  1. Before the shoot, set your camera to the RAW setting.
  2. Shoot like normal.
  3. After the shoot, copy the RAW files over from your camera, and back them up.
  4. Send the RAW files to your editor (Post, right?). If you prefer to do your own image selection, just send the keepers.
  5. Go make money while your editor works on the images.
  6. Receive XMP files back from your editor.
  7. Combine the returned XMPs with the original RAW files (more info on that below).
  8. Review the edits, then either continue to work on the images yourself or export them to JPG for printing and web upload.
  9. Repeat.

Pretty straightforward, huh? Well, there’s always more to learn, so we’ve provided a few other articles on the topic below.

Further Reading



  1. Alex L. Johnson III says:

    What if you strictly use Photoshop CS5 for all editing needs currently and don’t have or desire to get Lightroom then how would the use of XMP files be to your advantage. Also, if a RAW has corrections made to it and that corrected file is saved then as a PSD file instead what are the pros or cons to doing it that way?

    • Hi Alex and thanks for the question.
      Here at PWD we use LR3 for for all our color correction work and Photoshop for retouching. To use RAW files in Photoshop, the files would need to be processed through Bridge or Adobe Camera RAW first. While both of these programs allow for the use of xmp files, the issue here would not be about advantages as much as it would be about compatibility. If you were to process your images (or if PWD processes your images) in Lightroom 3, there’s no guarantee that adjustments made in LR3 and stored in the XMP would translate correctly in PS. The same is true for other programs that utilize xmp files (such as Bridge). All of these programs “read” color differently and process RAW files differently. For this reason, we would not recommend using xmp files in other programs that were originally created in LR3.

      One of the advantages of XMP is the ability to go back and tweak the RAW image without degrading quality.
      If you are using Photoshop to make corrections to a RAW file and then exporting/saving the corrected version as a psd to work on it in PS, then the advantage is that you have a bigger file to work with when you’re retouching as opposed to a processed jpeg. The disadvantage here is that you lose the ability to go back and tweak the actual RAW file and the adjustments stored in the XMP. With PSD you also can create layers to work on with your retouching and can go back into that file and make changes to any of those layers in the future without degrading the quality. If you are not performing any retouching on your corrected file, then creating a PSD really serves no advantage.
      Let us know if you have any further questions.

  2. How does DNG format play into this workflow? It it a problem, since there is no XMP file.

    • Greg, DNG is an interesting creature. It’s a RAW image and XMP data in one file. That means you get the nondestructive editing benefits of RAW, but the XMP cannot be moved back and forth independently. This can be seen as a benefit or hassle depending on your workflow. At PWD, we prefer “normal” RAW files because our clients can get their corrections back more quickly and efficiently.

      For a more in-depth discussion on DNG, see our article here:

  3. Without having LR3, the other option would be for you to re-ftp the files back as jpgs, or send them on a disc or thumbdrive, right? I have CS5, just like Alex, and have no plans to purchase LR3.

    • Cindy, you are correct: You can send in RAW files and receive JPGs back, either electronically or on a disc or drive.

      Note that we do have clients who send RAW, receive XMP, and use Photshop/Bridge (instead of Lightroom) to read the RAW+XMP. If you want to experiment with this, we’re happy to help.

  4. I have PSE 8. Does this mean it wouldn’t work to send my RAW files to you for editing?

    • Koni, though I’m not terribly familiar with Elements, I know it supports RAW formats. It should work with the RAW+XMP workflow just like the full Photoshop. And we can always return JPG files instead of XMPs – those don’t require any special software.

      If you want to work with RAW, I do highly recommend investing in Lightroom or upgrading to the full version of Photoshop. That’s where the real power and flexibility are at.


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