Dec 28, 2020 | iPhone

Apple ProRAW | What Is It and How To Use Apple’s New Image Format

Ralph

Ralph

Tags: iPhone, ProRaw
iPhone 11 pro

Apple ProRAW | What Is It and How To Use Apple’s New Image Format

If you are new to camera RAW formats, we will look at what a basic RAW file is and why to use them.  Then we will look at what makes an Apple ProRAW image different and what that means to the photographer.

Apple ProRaw is here and it has been here for a few weeks now.  Most iPhone users, and by most I mean north of 90%, do not shoot RAW photos on their iPhone or any other camera for that matter.  Lots of photographers do use RAW formats with both their larger cameras and sometimes with their iPhones.  What does this new format mean for the average iPhone user?  

Honestly, not very much.  The iPhone takes outstanding photos as it is without much work involved by the user.  Add a little post-photo-taking editing in there, and the image looks great.  For some of the more adventurous iPhone users out there, ProRaw might be something they want to dip their toes into.  Before discussing what Apple ProRaw is, we first need to understand what a RAW image is.

What is a RAW image?

When most people take an image with their camera or camera phone, the image they think of, work with, and share is a JEPG file.  A JPEG image file is a compressed file, compressed so it takes up less space on your phone or memory card and compressed so it takes up less data bandwidth when they get sent or shared.  In the process of compressing the file to a smaller size, data that isn’t needed to display the image as it looks is discarded.  That information is forever lost.

In creating that JPEG image, the camera takes certain liberties with the image file during processing.  The camera selects the proper white balance and exposure values.  The camera then applies sharpening, contrast, and color saturation to the image.  All of these things happen without your input.  The resulting file is much smaller than a RAW file, already processed, and generally ready to be shared right away.  Hopefully, the photographer didn’t have a different vision for the photograph than the camera did.

The biggest downside is if the camera made any poor choices along the way, there won’t be a lot that you, the photographer, can do about it after the fact.  A RAW image file is different.  A RAW image file consists of all of the data that came out of your camera sensor.  Every single pixel you see on a RAW file is as the sensor received it.  There is a little more to it than that, but the concept is sound.

Since a RAW file is simply a dump of data from the camera sensor, the image needs to be edited before it will look like the scene you took a photo of, they aren’t intended to be viewed right away.  A RAW file, unedited, is usually dark and flat and not very appealing on its own.  

Since a RAW image is uncompressed, all of the data from the camera’s image sensor is there.  It then simply needs to be edited in your choice of image editors (I like Adobe Lightroom) and then the image can be exported to a JPEG format that is easier to share.  If you keep the RAW image, you can always go back and re-edit the image in any way you please.  You could try to do the same thing with the JPEG image that you exported from the RAW file, but the results would not be nearly as good.

RAW files are what most professional photographers use for their work.  Weddings are usually shot in RAW.  Portrait photos, RAW.  Landscape photos, also RAW.  Raw is what digital photographers have used for decades and before digital photography took off, film negatives were the physical equivalent of a RAW file.  In fact, Adobe’s format for RAW files, DNG, stands for Digital Negative.  Apple uses the same DNG format for ProRAW.

Now let us discuss Apple ProRAW.

What is Apple ProRAW?

With IOS 14.3, Apple unleashed the ProRAW format upon the masses, or at least the masses using an iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max.  Some people are a little confused about what ProRAW is and how to use it, so here we go.

On normal settings, the Apple iPhone takes fantastic photos, some of the best in the camera phone business, even rivaling full-sized cameras in some cases.  Regular photos taken by an iPhone will be in HEIC format and be the result of a lot of computational photography (read more about computational photography here).  

Before and after example of photo editing process, color correction, brightness and saturation of man silhouette standing on a wooden pier at sunset

As mentioned above, a RAW image is a dump of the image sensor without the benefit of processing, so what is the big deal with ProRAW?  Simply put, ProRAW combines the computational photography algorithms that Apple has put into the iPhone with the RAW sensor data.  The effect is the best of both worlds – a RAW image that also has the image improvements of Apple’s computational photography.

What this means to photographers is they get the RAW image with all of the information they need to edit the photo the way that inspires them as well as the image improvements from Apple’s computational algorithms.  This is a melding of new technology and old-school image capture to bring forth an improvement in image capture.  

This is the kind of evolution that has started to put camera phones ahead of big-bodied cameras, at least technology-wise.  If the big three camera makers would get on board the technology train, just imagine what digital imaging would be like.  I’m looking at you Canon, Nikon, and Sony.

When should I use Apple ProRAW?

In my opinion, there are times to use Apple ProRAW and times when it is just better and easier to shoot in regular HEIC format.  I’ll list those below and then talk about them.

When to use Apple ProRAW:

  • In low-light situations
  • In scenes with a high dynamic range
  • Any time you want as much accuracy as possible in the image.
landscape nature sky person
Low light

Low-Light situations would be a very good time to switch to ProRAW for image capture.  Generally, in a low-light scene, the ProRAW image would have better detail and color rendition than the HEIC file.  Sunsets are a great example.  With a gorgeous sunset, there is a wide pallet of color in the image.  The ProRAW format, with its extra information, would be able to show more nuanced color transitions from blue, to yellow to orange than the HEIC format would.  It would also be better for taming highlights in the image.

bright daylight environment forest
Very high dynamic range

Scenes with very high dynamic range is another example where ProRAW would be a good choice. A very high dynamic range image would be a scene where there are dark shadows as well as brightly-lit areas in the same image. Some examples would be real estate or architectural photography, contrasty street scenes, or even some landscape shots.  The ProRAW image would allow the highlights to be tamed while being able to bring up the shadows.

That said, there are also times when you might not want to use ProRAW for your images.  Quick snaps for social media might not require all of the image information and the requisite processing needed to get them to the platform of your choice.  Well-lit scenes without a huge amount of dynamic range tend to work pretty well in the default, non-ProRAW format of HEIC.  

I’ll often take photos of my daughter playing softball games in HEIC unless there is a color balance problem.  Sometimes her orange team colors combined with reddish-colored sand will play havoc with the iPhone’s white balance.  In this case, I might shoot ProRAW in order to be able to adjust the color of the photo, which I wasn’t able to completely correct in HEIC since so much information was lost.

Conclusion

With the advent of Apple ProRAW, photographers are able to squeeze more information out of the Apple iPhone cameras while still getting the benefit of Apple’s amazon computational photography work in the same image. 

For those willing to take the extra time to edit photos after they have been captured, much more satisfying images can be had.  It is all simply a matter of the quality of the image and the time needed to make that quality happen.  If the image is of such importance that color accuracy and detail are important, then ProRaw is a great choice.  If the image is intended simply to capture the moment, then the standard format is fine. It really is up to the user.

Additional reading

For further reading about ProRAW and computational photography, I suggest the following articles.

Thank you for reading!  If you enjoyed the article, please leave a comment below.  If there is a subject you would like to see covered here, please leave a suggestion at the link in the menu at the top of the page.  Until next time, go take some pictures!

Ralph

Ralph

Ralph is an avid photographer in his spare time. He spends a lot of his photography time shooting sports photos of his daughter, who plays softball and swims. He also has a keen interest in mobile photography.

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