How to shot RAW on iPhone: The ultimate Guide

A few years ago, Apple added an option that enabled third-party camera app developers to save RAW photos on iPhone. Until the release of iPhone 12 Pro and iOS 14.3, you'd need a third-party camera app to shoot RAW photos on iPhone. With the release of the iPhone 12 Pro and iOS 14.3, Apple launched it's own RAW format, called Apple ProRAW.

In this blog post, I'll try to answer your questions about shooting RAW on the iPhone in general and specifically about the new Apple ProRAW format.

Butr first, here are a few sample photos that I shot as RAW (and Apple ProRAW) on various iPhone models.

 

Inverted Pyramid in Bratislava shot as RAW

Kaiserwasser in Vienna shot as a RAW on iPhone

Nature takes back. Apple ProRAW shot on iPhone 12 Pro Max

 

To shoot RAW on iPhone, you'll need a third party camera app unless you own an iPhone 12 Pro. My favorite iPhone camera app to take RAW photos on iPhone is ProCamera App, that I've reviewed in the blog. Other popular camera apps that support shooting RAW are the Moment Camera App, Halide. Even the Lightroom Camera App included in Adobe Lightroom Mobile can save photos in RAW format.

For each of the mentioned camera apps, you'll need to enable the RAW photo format somewhere in the app's settings.

If you own an iPhone 12 Pro model and already upgraded to iOS 14.3, you'll get an additional option to take RAW photos: Apple ProRAW. However, you'll need to enable ProRAW first.

To enable Apple ProRAW, go to Settings and scroll down until you find the camera app settings and tap it. The first option you see should be a configuration option labelled Format. Tap it and then enable Apple ProRAW.

Apple ProRAW only works on iPhone 12 Pro Models and if you've upgraded to iOS 14.3.

Once you've enabled ProRAW, you can turn on or turn off shooting RAW in the iPhone stock camera app by tapping the RAW icon in the upper right corner.

Enable shooting RAW with the stock camera app on iOS 14.3 and iPhone 12

Unless you've enabled Apple ProRAW under Preserve Settings in the camera app's settings, Apple ProRAW will be turned off whenever you close the camera app or put your iPhone to sleep. You'll need to turn it on again to use it.

The RAW File format and file extension

RAW photos shot on iPhone are saved in the Digital Negative format that was developed by Adobe. You can quickly identify such a RAW file by the file extension DNG. Even the new Apple ProRAW files are saved with the DNG extension.

But please beware that, technically, any kind of image can be saved as a DNG. So just because the extension of an image file is .dng doesn't mean it's a RAW file!

Because a DNG file contains the RAW image data plus some additional data in case of an Apple ProRAW file, DNG files tend to become quite huge. Standard (non Apple ProRAW) RAW files are around 11 to 12 megabytes using a color depth or 8 bit. Apple ProRAW DNG files can be even larger, because they may contain additional data and use a color depth of up to 12 bit!

The largest Apple ProRAW file in my photos app is almost 30 megabytes!

What is the difference between the RAW, HEIC a JPG photo format?

First and foremost, it's the compression. Both, the JPEG and HEIC photo format use a lossy compression to reduce the file size. A RAW file is also compressed, but uses a lossless compression. So all the image data is preserved.

Second, if you use JPEG or HEIC, the iPhone camera system will apply some software magic to the photos to improve contrast or saturation and even apply noise reduction. That's not the case when using saving a photos as RAW. This will save the photo as the camera sees it - without any processing.

RAW photos are not intended for sharing but for processing. So, before you share a RAW photo, you'll need to digitally develop it using a RAW editor. And here is a pitfall: DNG files may also contain a JPEG version of the RAW photo that's used as a preview.

So, ff you open a RAW photo with a photo editing app that's not capable of handling RAW photos, the app may just use the embedded JPG preview, and you'll edit the preview instead of the RAW image.

It's also worth noting that an iPhone RAW photo may look worse than a corresponding JPEG file at first sight. And that's because the camera does not apply any automatic adjustments to the RAW image. Here's a screenshot of Adobe Lightroom Mobile to illustrate that.

The first photo is an unedited RAW photo, while the second one is a screenshot of the same picture with some adjustments applied.

Unedited RAW photo in Lightroom Mobile

Developed RAW Photo in Lightroom Mobile

Notice how many details you can recover from the photos' dark areas if you shoot in RAW. That's one of the reasons I like to shoot RAW!

Which photo editing apps support editing RAW photos on the iPhone?

Short answer: quite a few! One of the most popular RAW photo editors on iPhone is Adobe Lightroom Mobile Premium. I'm highlighting the word premium here because you'll need to have a paid subscription to develop RAW photos with Lightroom Mobile. If you're thinking about subscribing to Lightroom Mobile, here's a detailed list of free and premium features in Adobe Lightroom Mobile.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of Lightroom Mobile. Aside from the RAW editing capabilities, it comes with lots of near features that I use regularly.

If you own ProCamera App, you'll not only be able to shoot RAW on your iPhone, but you can also develop RAW photos using the built-in RAW editor. ProCamera already supports shooting and editing Apple ProRAW photos. Adobe promised to deliver ProRAW support soon.

Why should I shoot RAW with iPhone?

Simple answer: Because a RAW photo contains much more image information and allows you to enhance a photo to a much greater extent than a JPEG photo.

For example, you may be able to fix burnt highlights or blown out dark areas from a RAW photo that would otherwise be unrecoverable in a JPG photo. In JPEG photos, such regions would be merely wholly white or black.

Further, applying noise reduction to a RAW photo gives you much better and more fine granular control. So you can get better pictures with less noise compared to a JPEG photo.

As a summary, when it comes to detail and low noise, shooting RAW beats shooting JPEG - at the price that you'll need to edit and develop each RAW photo before publishing it. Here's one sample photo to illustrate that.

Inside of a church with low light shot as RAW photo on iPhone

When should I shoot RAW on iPhone?

That question is difficult to answer. In the DSLR world, you'll often hear that you should always shoot RAW. But as you can also use your iPhone as a snapshot camera, I recommend to handle it in the following way (like I do):

  • Whenever I'm out shooting in the sense that I take time to compose a photo that I want to share, I shoot RAW with iPhone using ProCamera app.
  • Snapshots, like "Barbecue with friends," I typically shoot as JPEG using the stock camera app.

Why do RAW Photos look blurry in Photos App?

That occurred in the first days when the iPhone started to support RAW files. The main reason was an embedded, low-resolution preview that a camera app created while shooting RAW and that was displayed as a thumbnail in the Photos App.

Today that shouldn't happen anymore. Even if you set your camera app to RAW + JPG, the camera app should save a full-resolution JPEG preview.

Are RAW Photos flagged in Photos App to identify them?

You can't tell if a photo is a RAW photo the thumbnail view of the Photos App on iPhone or iPad. But starting with iOS13, the Photos App will display RAW in the upper left corner if you tap an image to see it in its full glory.

RAW Sticker iOS Photos App

But Adobe Lightroom will help you. If you import a photo, it'll display a DNG sticker for RAW photos even in thumbnail view to make it easy for you to pick the correct file.

Conclusion

Coming from the DSLR world, I was quite excited when Apple started to allow third-party camera apps to save RAW photos. I got even more excited to learn that iPhone 12 Pro and iOS 14.3 will ship with their own RAW format, Apple ProRAW.

Generally, shooting RAW will result in a much better final image as the RAW format contains the original and uncompressed image data - just as the camera sees it.

On the other hand, you'll need to invest time to process each and every RAW photo separately before sharing it. But especially if you're photographing scenes like extraordinary landscapes or stunning architecture, shooting RAW is well worth the additional effort as the final result will be a much better image.