How to Shoot Raw Photos on Your iPhone (and Why You’d Want To)

When photographers want more editing latitude with their images, they shoot in raw format, which is the untouched data recorded from a camera’s image sensor. Raw is great for working with landscape photos or portraits that benefit from the larger pool of information each image file.

Until recently, you needed a DSLR or mid-range camera to shoot in raw, but now most smartphone cameras can also capture the format, including the iPhone. Oddly, that doesn’t include Apple’s built-in Camera app. So why shoot raw on an iPhone, and how do you do it?

Compressed Expectations

A raw file’s benefits can also be disadvantages. The greater amount of image data makes for larger file sizes, and because that data is unedited, post-processing is required to end up with even a decent basic image. That’s why nearly all digital cameras shoot in, and default to, the JPEG format. JPEG files are small, and they’re processed in the camera using algorithms that are optimized for how our eyes see colors.

The results are typically good-looking photos. On earlier cameras that were underpowered and offered limited storage space, JPEG was the perfect compromise. Widespread JPEG adoption also means virtually any software or device can read those images. Since iOS 11, the iPhone’s default format is a successor to JPEG, HEIF (Highly Efficient Image Format, with files that end in the .HEIC extension).

The downside to JPEG and HEIF is that they use lossy compression to create good-looking, small-sized image files. The camera captures the image data, the algorithms interpret how the data is turned into colored pixels, and then a lot of the unused data is thrown away permanently to compress the file into a smaller size. When it comes to editing those files, you end up with less image information to work with, and therefore less ability to pull out details or tones that are present in raw files.

How to Shoot Raw on an iPhone

Since iOS 10, Apple has supported raw images at the system level, but as of iOS 12, you still can’t use the Camera app to capture raw images. I suspect Apple’s reasoning is twofold. Since most iPhone owners don’t know or care about raw photos, they could be confused about a raw shooting option. And I this there’s a dash of marketing thrown in, too; Apple’s central messaging is that the iPhone takes perfectly magical photos as it is, so why worry about raw?

But plenty of people want to capture raw images. As an alternative, third-party developers can tie into the operating system to capture images and save them as raw files in Adobe’s DNG (digital negative) format. Several apps offer a raw or DNG mode, including Halide Camera, Adobe Lightroom CC, Manual, Camera+, and ProCamera. (Apple recently compiled an App Store List that includes several others, too.)

In most apps, shooting in raw is typically an option in settings (as in Manual) or a button on the main interface (as in Halide Camera and Lightroom CC). Enabling it doesn’t change how to capture an image—all the fundamentals of exposure, focus, and aperture still apply, with varying controls over how many settings are handled automatically by the app.

Shooting raw (DNG) in Lightroom CC

Shooting raw in the Halide app

What’s different is how the file is handled after the shot. Many apps save the DNG image to the Photos library directly. Some, like Camera+ and Lightroom CC, save images to their own storage so you can use the apps’ image editing controls. In both circumstances, the raw images remain untouched—you can always revert back to the original.

An iPhone Xs Wrinkle

Just before submitting this article, I came across a fascinating analysis by Sebastiaan de With, the developer of Halide, that looks at the image quality produced by the cameras in the new iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max. In “iPhone Xs: Why It’s a Whole New Camera,” he discovered that as part of the computational approach Apple takes with its camera software, the company seems to be prioritizing higher-speed image captures that are then blended with other images to produce a final photo.

To achieve those higher speeds, the camera increases the ISO, which adds noise to the individual images. However, the software applies noise reduction passes to offset the noise. For our raw discussion, that turns out to be less desirable, because, according to de With, single raw images produced by the camera sensor are noisier and a little over-exposed. (He says Halide will include a feature that compensates for this effect in an upcoming software update.)

So if you’re shooting raw images with an iPhone Xs or iPhone Xs Max, you may need to perform a little extra post-processing.

Editing Raw Photos

In addition to having more data available to work with, raw formats support enhanced control over some image characteristics. If you’re already in Adobe’s Lightroom ecosystem, Lightroom CC on iOS shares most of the same editing features of Lightroom CC on the desktop (which also includes the core adjustment tools of Lightroom Classic CC), with raw specific controls for highlights, detail, clarity, and others.

Editing a raw image in Lightroom CC on an iPhone

On the iPhone (and iPad), access to those features depends on the tool you’re using. Apple’s Photos app offers the same controls for raw files as it does for JPEG or HEIF images, which are good, but not extensive. (Photos on the Mac offers far more editing options.) However, it’s noteworthy that starting in iOS 12, devices running Apple’s A9 processor—the iPhone 6s—or later can edit raw images directly in Photos; before, the app created a high-resolution JPEG from the raw source data to work with.

Editing a raw image in the Photos app on an iPad Pro

A raw-specific option is to edit in RAW Power, which digs deep into raw controls such as compensating for luminance and color noise, raw sharpening and contrast, and more. Changes are saved to the Photos library, and you can always revert to the original if you don’t like how the adjustments turned out.

Editing a raw image in RAW Power on an iPad Pro

A Raw Deal

Shooting in raw formats on iOS does take a little extra work, since it’s not an option provided in the built-in Camera app, but for some situations, that effort is rewarded by greater latitude in editing. It’s also easy to experiment—the capability is built into all modern iOS devices. You just need an app that will unlock it.

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Posted on: October 2, 2018

Jeff Carlson

Author and photographer Jeff Carlson (@jeffcarlson, jeff@jeffcarlson.com) is a columnist for the Seattle Times, a contributing editor at TidBITS, and writes for publications such as Macworld and DPReview. He is the author of the books Take Control of Lightroom CC, Take Control of Your Digital Photos, and many other books and articles. He believes there's never enough coffee, and does his best to test that theory. Visit him at jeffcarlson.com

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