Back in October, Apple announced that the 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max will support a new ProRAW image format, which will combine Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion with the uncompressed data from the image sensor. With the release of iOS 14.3 a few days ago, the ProRAW capture was unlocked on the pair of iPhone 12 Pros and I immediately set out to test it.
The idea was to show how much of a difference it makes to shooting JPEGs on the iPhone, post the samples, call it a day. But as testing progressed it turned out to be less than a simple affair so the following article was born.
A preface on the method and thinking used in this article. I shoot a lot of photos with my phone (which happens to be the iPhone 12 Pro Max at the moment) and I shoot them in regular old compressed JPEG (or HEIC, in this case). I also edit them on the phone using a few different apps (but mostly Apple’s Photos) – I add a touch of micro-contrast, a touch of warmth, a slight vignette – similar minor enhancements. I also use a proper camera most days and shoot RAW exclusively, but I’ve found that shooting RAW on a phone doesn’t yield better results than the phone’s excellent computational photography does.
So in this article I’ll test whether that’s changed. Will using Apple ProRAW instead of JPEGs let you have better photos? I’ll edit the images on the phone itself, using its own tools (there’s one exception mentioned further on). Now without any more preambles, let’s dive in.
Apple says that ProRAW gives you all the RAW image data along with noise reduction and multiframe exposure adjustments, which essentially means you’re getting the right exposure in the highlights and shadows, as well as reduced noise as a starting point. However, you don’t get sharpening and color adjustments. That means you’re starting with a less sharp, less punchy image and you need to take a few steps to get the DNG to look as pleasing as the JPEG, before you eventually achieve net gains.
Here are a few full side by side images of an untouched JPEG from the phone and an untouched (converted) DNG from the phone. Notice the blandness of the DNG images, compared to the JPEGs.
The next batch of images are JPEGs, edited on the phone to taste, and the corresponding DNGs, edited on the phone to taste. The idea here is to see if the ProRAWs offer a tangible benefit after the edit. ProRAW gives you finer control over sharpening, white balance and highlights. The biggest difference you can see in favor of ProRAW is in the extreme dynamic range test shot (the one shot directly at the sun) – the information and detail in the shadows is clearly superior.
But Apple’s Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion increase the contrast and luminance of certain colors like Orange, Yellow, Red and Green, which results in brighter and more pleasant-looking trees and grass. There’s no easy way to bring that luminance back with the basic photo editing you have with Apple’s Photos app.
So in the end the JPEGs straight out of the phone are better and even after the edits to the ProRAW DNGs the’s little upside to using them. Go with JPEGs in regular, well-lit conditions.
Next, I took the DNGs off the phone and brought them into Lightroom on a PC. I was able to get more detail from the shot (at a slightly smaller noise penalty) and there is a noticeable difference in shadow information in the RAW files.
But this isn’t new – you could always get a bit more out of an image by editing the DNG. However that takes considerably more time, the hassle of using a complicated third party software and the resulting image doesn’t justify the effort. The phone is doing good enough in the second it takes to snap the image and adjust it for you.
I expected to gain the most out of ProRAW in low-light, but Apple’s regular JPEGs turned out as good as the DNG. The edited ProRAW images have the slightest edge in noise and a bit more highlight information, but it took a lot of fine-tuning to get them there.
One big advantage of ProRAW is that it can be used in conjunction with the iPhone’s Night Mode. But looking at the images side by side, I don’t see a meaningful reason to bother editing the DNG file, over the JPEG one. Can you?
I set out to see whether capturing and then editing ProRAW on the iPhone 12 Pro Max will help me get better images than doing what I’ve always done – shooting in JPEG and then lightly editing the image on the phone. It didn’t. Computational photography has gotten so good that it essentially does all the work for you, and instantaneously I might add.
There is always that little bit extra you can get with editing and using ProRAW instead of JPEG will give you a whole lot of extra sensor data. But that will be useful for playing around with white balance or doing artsy, moody edits, that change the entire look and feel of an image. That’s not what I do – I use my phone to capture the world as I see it, with a touch of enhancement.
If you’re shooting RAW on an iPhone with the Lightroom or Halide apps, then you should immediately enable ProRAW and never look back. It’s levels better than those other apps on the merit of sophisticated noise reduction alone.
It would be great if Apple enabled a JPEG+RAW shooting mode, like on proper cameras, I’m sure the A14 chip has the headroom for that. You might want to have the ProRAW files for editing, but also rely on the convenience of the fully-edited JPEGs for the rest.
ProRAW works with Night Mode, but it doesn’t work with Portrait Mode and that’s something that would be tremendously useful. RAW files contain the full potential for editing faces and skin tones.
There is a place for ProRAW and it’s great that Apple unlocked it for its Pro iPhone 12’s. There are tons of people that want the freedom to edit an image “their way” and for those people, ProRAW is just that – a Pro version of a RAW. But I’ll stick to my smart computational JPEGs, thank you very much.