Shooting RAW on an iPhone

With the release of iOS 10, iPhone user can finally shoot RAW!  This offers numerous benefits over shooting JPG files, including increased dynamic range!  You can significantly improve highlight detail by post processing the RAW file.  The benefit over shooting JPG isn’t as large as what you probably see with your DSLR, but the benefit is very real.  You also get higher quality edited files, as the RAW file has greater bit depth.  This also allows you to more aggressively fix or adjust exposure, shadows, white balance, etc.

What’s the downside?  Larger files (the DNG files are about 3X larger than JPG on my iPhone 7).  Though you can always save or email as JPG, so it’s a worthwhile tradeoff.  The other limitation is that Apple’s native camera app does not capture RAW images yet, so you’ll need to use a 3rd party app.  Fortunately, there are now many excellent alternatives to the default camera app:

  • ProCamera ($5).  This is, by far, my favorite camera app.  See below for a review and all the settings I use with ProCamera.  Highly recommended for shooting RAW!
  • Lightroom Mobile (included with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription).  This is an excellent option, and the only end-to-end RAW solution.  It not only lets you capture RAW photos, but you can edit them non-destructively as well, and automatically sync both the photos and the editing settings with the rest of your Lightroom catalog on your computer.  Highly recommended for shooting and editing RAW!
  • Manual ($3).  Offers a simpler interface than ProCamera, but also loses quite a bit of the custom control – and the histogram isn’t really useful for setting exposure.  It offers one really nice feature not found in the other apps, a zoomed display for setting manual focus.
  • RAW (free).  This app from 500px offers a simple way to shoot RAW, but lacks ISO control, manual focus, and most of the bells and whistles found in ProCamera.

 

I use ProCamera to capture my images, and Lightroom Mobile to edit them and sync with my LR catalog at home.

In the following video, I’ll show you how to shoot manual with the iPhone, as well as demonstrate the benefits of RAW vs JPG and how to get the most out of the RAW file.

 

Why makes ProCamera so great?

  • Lock screen widget makes it as easy to access as Apple’s default app, and even tells you what time sunrise and sunset will be.
  • Offers full manual control over everything: shutter, ISO, white balance, and focus.  (Note that aperture cannot be changed with any app, as the iPhone lens has a fixed aperture).
  • 64X longer exposures with “LUX+”.  The app will shoot multiple exposures and automatically combine them, effectively giving you a 6X ND filter.  (Note that I have not been able to test this feature yet, due to a current lack of support for either the new iOS10 or iPhone 7, but assume the app will be updated soon).
  • Remote triggering (via volume buttons on headphones or via Apple Watch) makes it easy to get sharp images on a tripod.
  • Accurate live histogram to help set exposure.
  • Advanced anti-shake features to help shoot handheld in low light
  • Golden ratio grid.  I appreciate rule of thirds in many apps, but I really prefer to use the golden ratio for the majority of my compositions.
  • Intervalometer to shoot time lapse sequences.

What could be better?

  • RAW only mode.  The extra JPG files wastes space and time deleting them.
  • I wish it zoomed the focus area when manually focusing (like the Manual app).
  • Some minor quality issues (white spots in some clipped shadows, the low light and HDR upgrades don’t appear to work on iOS10 or the iPhone 7 yet).
  • All of these could easily be addressed in a future update, and I assume they will be.  It’s already the best shooting app out there, and I’m sure it will continue to get better.

 

Below is a complete list of the settings I use with ProCamera.  I’ve marked the ones I consider most important in red.

Control panel (primary settings, note that continuing to tap the green icons typically offers additional options):

  • ProCamera iPhone app - Control PanelRapid fire:  off.  Turn on when you want to use multi-shot for fast moving action.
  • FE/Lock: off.  It’s easier to ignore this and just do a long hold over the focus square / exposure circle when you want to lock one of them
  • Grids: Golden ratio (green spiral icon).  Very helpful for both composition and leveling horizons/buildings.
  • Tiltmeter: On if you want help leveling the horizon (the phone’s sensor is not accurate for detecting vertical alignment, so just use this for horizons).
  • ISO & Shutter: green M.  This enables manual control of shutter speed and ISO.  I don’t bother with the SI-priority mode, as shutter/ISO unfortunately updates every time you move the exposure circle.
  • White balance: off.  There’s no penalty to change the white balance later with a RAW file, so I find it easier to leave this off for landscapes.  However, this should be turned on if you want to use a 50% gray card for portraits (just put the gray card in front of the camera and hold down on “AWB” to calibrate.  Quickly tap AWB again to return to auto white balance).
  • Histogram: 2nd green option.  This provides a histogram that looks just like the ones in Lightroom or on a DSLR, and provides very helpful information on clipped highlights and shadows.  I sometimes find that clipped highlights fail to turn the right side of the histogram red, so be sure to watch the height of the bar rather than just checking for red bars.
  • Aspect Ratio: 4:3.  This is full resolution without cropping.  Note that the green background completely fills the square to indicate that this is full resolution.
  • Anti-shake and Self-timer: just click either to switch between the two.  This determines whether the second shutter button (to the right of the default shutter button) will use the anti-shake or the self-timer feature.
  • Standard screen display.  Medium prevents the ability to control the flash or front-facing camera.  Light prevents the ability to manually control the camera.

 

Photo mode options (on the settings sub-menu):

  • ProCamera iPhone app - SettingsUse Lightbox: off (the default camera roll offers more capability, including the ability to import the photos into Lightroom mobile for RAW editing or automatically sending to Lightroom on your computer)
  • Stabilization:
    • anti-shake: slider to the far left to get a fully sharp image (and the settings to the right easily let you shoot with a moving camera)
    • Stabilization: on (turn this off if you are using rapid-fire and want the fastest possible shooting for sports, etc)
  • Self-Timer:
    • Set the delay and series as desired
    • Lock focus on
    • LED blink on
  • File format:  RAW
  • Fullscreen Trigger: off (so that you can still manually focus)
  • Photo Zoom: off.  I don’t want to use digital zoom (cropping later does the same thing).  Note that you will likely want to leave this on if you have an iPhone 7 Plus, in order to use the optical zoom.  [Note: This menu option is only shown after you click “more” at the top of the settings menu.]
  • Auto-save: on (I trust that the image represents what I just shot, and it’s easy to click into the camera roll at the bottom of the screen)
  • HDR settings:
    • Save LDR off (I’d rather shoot HDR or not, but I don’t want double images)
    • Auto-save off (I’d like to review my HDR shots and see if I need to reshoot)

 

Video mode options

  • Video focus Mode: continuous on
  • Video stabilization: on
  • Video zoom: On (since cropping video is more complex than cropping stills)
  • Audio Level Meter: on (to see the audio is too quiet or loud)
  • Focus and Exposure
    • Exposure-Circle: on (to be able to use auto-exposure)
    • Exposure Retical (HDR): off
    • Exposure-Priority: off
    • Manual focus: on (though I rarely override the auto-focus)
    • Always active: off
    • Show lens position: off (so the close/far zoom indicator is only showing when
  • Volume buttons: on  Enabling this setting allows you to use the volume buttons built into the Apple headsphones as a remote release cable.  (I don’t recommend ever using the buttons on the phone itself, as they cause more shake than tapping the screen.)
  • Geo-tagging: on (if you want location data recorded in your photos)
  • System-sounds:
    • System-Sounds: on
    • Video Sounds: off
  • Copyright: put your name here to add copyright info to all your photos [Note: This menu option is only shown after you click “more” at the top of the settings menu.]
  • Today widget:
    • This is the widget you use to quickly get to the camera from the locked screen.  If you don’t see it when you swipe left from the locked screen, just click “edit” at the bottom of that notification screen.  Find “ProCamera” below, click the green plus to add it to the lock screen.  Then click and drag the right bars on the right of ProCamera in that setup window to position it at the top of the list of notifications.
    • Sunset: on.  see local sunrise/sunset time.
    • Blue hour / full moon as desired.  Note that you need to click “show more” in the widget display if you want to see this info.

 

Services

  • Creative cloud.  Sign in if you have Photoshop CC and want to be able to send photos directly from your phone to Photoshop.  This feature is pretty incredible.  Once set up, just click the sharing icon next to a photo, and you can have the photo automatically open up in Photoshop on your computer.  It’s practically like shooting tethered.  There is no built-in support for Lightroom at this time.

 

Editing the RAW image

Processing a RAW image is very different from a JPG on a phone.  Be sure to watch the 2nd part of the video above to see a head to head comparison.

Here’s a comparison of the the exact same image as an unedited JPG and RAW. Lightroom’s shadow (blue) and highlight (red) warnings have turned on to see clipped detail.  The JPG image has lost a substantial amount of detail in both shadows and highlights.  The RAW file also includes some unrecoverable highlights in the sky and buildings to the right, but that is to be expected in such an extremely high dynamic range scenario.

iPhone JPG vs RAW - clipped highlights and shadows

 

For this next comparison, I adjusted the highlights slider in Lightroom (-73) to recover the blown highlights in the sky.  I then applied the exact same adjustment to the JPG.  There is clearly a dramatically better ability to recover blown highlights in the RAW file.

iPhone JPG vs RAW - highlight recovery

 

Apple and the app makers try to make the JPG look as good as possible, because it is meant for sharing and the ability to edit a JPG is very limited.  However, RAW images are unfinished and therefore may initially look inferior to JPG before editing.  There are several tweaks you might consider when processing your RAW files to make them look their best:

  • Use a lot of noise reduction in shadow areas.  Shadow details in JPGs are very limited and the small sensors on a camera phone are very prone to noise.  So JPGs employ very heavy noise reduction.  If you lighten your shadows in RAW significantly, expect to see much more noise than you are used to with a JPG.  But you will also have much more detail, you just need to separate the detail from the noise.  Try pushing the color noise reduction in Lightroom all the way up (this generally improves the image quite a bit).  Additionally, try pushing the luminance noise reduction in Lightroom up much higher than you are used to, or use luminosity masks in Photoshop to apply noise reduction to shadow areas.  You may also wish to back off on the detail slider a bit.
  • Boost contrast.  A DNG captures a much greater dynamic range than a JPG, which also means that the default contrast is lower.  After adjusting the highlight/shadow/white/black sliders, I like to adjust the tone curve to bring back contrast.  You may also wish to use Photoshop and/or luminosity masks to make targeted adjustments to enhance contrast.
  • Boost vibrance and clarity.  Note that this is really a matter of taste, and how much you want your processed RAW file to look like other colorful/detailed mobile phone images.

These extra steps to process a RAW file are well worth the dramatic benefits in highlight and shadow detail in any image with dramatic light.

As an unscientific test, I tried my best to adjust one of my RAW images to match it’s corresponding JPG.  While I wasn’t able to get a perfect match, I was able to get reasonably close using the following adjustments on the RAW file (while leaving the JPG untouched):  +50 highlights, +30 whites, -100 shadows, +40 clarity, +50 vibrance, 75 luminance noise reduction, 100 color noise reduction.  As you can see, these are significant adjustments from the baseline (0) values, and show both the loss of data in the JPG, as well as substantial processing that has been applied to the JPG.

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  • Mike R.

    Extremely helpful! Thank you!

  • I can not use my earbuds to trigger the shutter. They only work with the native camera app in both ios9 and now ios10. I allways feel that it is the only flaw ProCamera has….

  • Cybertron

    Hi Greg, Nice tutorial. Do you know if there’s a way to import Raw pics (shot on iPhone 7 using Camerapro) to import to mac without spending $50 month on creative cloud subscription? (I have Lightroom on mac but not creative cloud)

  • You can edit the RAW files with anything that supports the DNG format. I use the Creative Cloud Photography plan ($10/month for Lightroom, Photoshop, and more). But there are many other options at lower prices or free to edit such files.

  • Baka Buubus

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for the tips – bought ProCamera today!

    I have a question about getting shots from my iPhone to my Mac. I’ve never used the “sync” function in iTunes, nor do I use the import function in the Photos app (as I only use Photoshop/Lightroom).

    At the moment I use a third party app to manually transfer my photos (via drag and drop) to my own local folder structure. But I just noticed this has destroyed things like Live Photos and Slo-mo, as well as changing the images dates to when I transferred them, not the date they were shot (although the EXIF still contains the date they were shot, it means I can’t see this in the Finder).

    What software do you use to get your iPhone photos onto your Mac fully intact, and still use your own folder structure?

  • I import my photos and videos via Lightroom’s import interface on my laptop. I’d probably just email a slow motion export if needed (and assume the frame is still all there to edit as needed if I did a direct import, but don’t do serious video with my phone).

  • Baka Buubus

    Thanks, Greg.
    Yes, Lightroom works for regular images and videos, but like most software seems to screw up live photos…will continue to look for alternatives.

  • Yeah, Live Photos show as extra videos in Lightroom. I’ve turned that feature off on my phone. Not sure what a good alternative would be.

  • Abigail Harman

    Hi Greg – thanks for the tips! I have been longing to shoot RAW on the iPhone. I have iPhone 6 but unfortunately I cannot see a way to shoot RAW with this app. It gives a TIFF option but no RAW. Will RAW only work on iPhone 7 perhaps? Thanks, Abbe

  • RAW requires an iPhone 6s or newer, the original 6 is not supported.

  • Jorgen Aage Jensen

    Thanks for the review. Is there another way in Pro than going by Lr to get one’s dng-files from the iPhone to the iMac and still have them as dng? It seems to me that via Lr files are transformed into jpg. In other words: Can you export dng from iPhone directly to harddisk on iMac, and still have them as dng?
    Best regards
    Jorgen Aage Jensen

  • Should be able to import on the phone, but my workflow is to just plug the phone in via lightning cable to my computer and import via Lightroom (no different than plugging in my DSLRs). Definitely still a DNG.


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