Microsoft released a new camera codec package on Wednesday that supports over 100 RAW photo file formats. Once installed, RAW image files can be previewed from within Windows Explorer and Windows Live Photo Gallery 2011.

RAW image files are similar to a negative from a film-based camera. Like a film negative, these digital negatives must first be processed before they are ready to be used. As the name suggests, RAW files contain all of the information from a single photo where as a JPEG or similar compressed file loses a lot of valuable information in order to minimize file size.

Most professional photographers prefer to shoot in RAW as it offers many advantages over standard compressed formats. Some of these benefits include bypassing a camera's automatic noise reduction and sharpening features, which can often create unwanted effects. Other benefits include the ability to fine-tune white balance, hue and saturation as you see fit, rather than relying on the camera to decide what it thinks is best for your picture.

"This new update unlocks the power of every photo on your computer so that your PC is capable of organizing, viewing and editing your digital memories, whether they were shot with a camera phone, point-and-shoot camera, or a higher end DSLR," said Brad Weed, Group Program Manager, Windows Live.

Prior to this update, viewing and editing RAW files meant you had to use a third-party application like Adobe Photoshop or FastPictureViewer. Needless to say this was a pretty painful and time-consuming process, especially if you have thousands of RAW photos on file like I do.
The codecs are available in both 32 and 64-bit versions and can be downloaded directly from Microsoft's website. Windows 7 and Vista Service Pack 2 are supported under this release.