Updated: Mar 20, 2020
AKA: Attempt #498261 explaining what the heck we creative people do.
I've truly got to thank my younger brother for helping me to arrive here.
No matter the experience level, if you are highly skilled with a camera, or proficient in your output of work -- or both -- you're gonna spend some time being teacher. And in being teacher, this question usually comes up:
'What the ham, herring and hollandaise sauce is a RAW file anyway?'
Having taken many portraits with me, my brother has fallen victim to the addict itch time and again, asking when the photos will be done. Usually, he'd also request new commentary on RAW files, how they work and what exactly they are.
Similarly, while holding portrait sessions, I ofttimes will have clients and subjects review images, which show up on the back of the camera in black and white.
'Will the images be in color?' they'll ask, unless I'm shooting tethered.
My responses, to date, have been some fluctuation of: it's possible, but I won't know for sure until I get to the editing phase and -- to lay your concerns to rest -- I'm shooting RAW, which does capture full color.
So now, let me explain. Grab an apron.
Since a RAW file is not a standalone file that can be read with common applications, like a non-formatted text document or a JPG or an MP3, it needs an uncommon app that can read it (the aforementioned LR or similar software).
For that reason, a RAW file is kind of like a recipe.
Stay with me.
A recipe is simply a meal or beverage that hasn't been made yet. It's a list of ingredients that, when applied together in a certain way, under certain conditions, even for a certain amount of time, produce something consumable.
The better you get that recipe in written/ingredient form (or in the RAW image's case, in camera) the easier it is to follow said recipe as is, not worry about innovation or improvisation and -- enjoy a tasty treat. Conversely, a poor recipe, which can be doctored up on the fly, still might not taste that great, but would be better than if followed as written.
To elaborate further: a poorly lit, poorly shot photo, even if it's a RAW file, can only be edited so much and be thus minimally salvageable. But either way, it can be "cooked" (edited) -- because it's a recipe. The RAW file has all the ingredients and code to make a great image. That's all it is, though: ingredients.
Programs like Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One: all RAW file readers and/or photo editing programs. They are likened to kitchens in this case, which just leaves the photographer/photo editor: the chef and cook, in no particular order because, well, reasons.
He completely lit up when I told him this. I hope that, in reading up til now, you have too.