Shooting RAW with iPhone: 7 questions and answers

A few years ago, Apple added an option to save photos shot on iPhone as RAW files. While the stock iOS camera app does not have this feature as of iOS13, many third-party camera apps allow you to save your photos in RAW format.

In this FAQ, I'll answer 7 questions about shooting RAW with iPhone.

Can I shoot raw with iPhone?

Yes, you can shoot RAW with iPhone, but you'll need a third-party camera app like ProCamera. The stock camera app does not support saving RAW files as of iOS 13.

Other popular apps capable of shooting RAW are the Moment Camera App, Halide and the Lightroom Camera App included in Adobe Lightroom Mobile.

If you're evaluating any third-party camera app, carefully check its description. A third party iPhone camera app does not automatically support shooting RAW. It has to support it explicitly.

RAW image files shot with iPhone have the extension DNG, which is short for digital negative, a RAW image file format developed by Adobe.

What is the difference between a RAW and a JPG photo?

A JPEG photo taken with stock iPhone camera app is automatically processed by the camera app. It applies adjustments like noise reduction, contrast, or vibrancy, just to name a few.

JPEG photos are saved in a compressed format which typically results in much smaller file size and thus much less image information compared to a RAW file.

A RAW file, on the other hand, is saved unprocessed and uncompressed. It's saved as the camera "sees "it. You'll need a RAW photo editor to digitally develop a RAW photo before you sharing it. One of the most popular RAW photo editors on iPhone is like Adobe Lightroom Mobile.

It's also worth noting that a RAW photo may look worse than a corresponding JPEG file on first sight because the camera does not apply any automatic editing. Here's a screenshot from Adobe Lightroom to illustrate that.

Unedited RAW photo in Lightroom Mobile

Unedited RAW photo in Lightroom Mobile

Developed RAW Photo in Lightroom Mobile

Developed RAW Photo in Lightroom Mobile

Notice how much details you can recover from the dark areas of the photos if you shoot in RAW.

How do I edit a RAW Photo on iPhone?

You can compare editing a RAW file to developing a classic analog film. That's why the process of editing a RAW file is often referred to as to digital develop a photo.

You'll need an app that is capable of reading a RAW file. One of the most prominent RAW editing apps on iOS is Adobe Lightroom.

Some camera apps, like ProCamera, also allow you to edit a RAW file.

Most important, before you do anything else with your RAW photo, like retouching it or even sharing it, you need to edit, or, as I mentioned above, digitally develop it.

If you open a RAW file with any other retouching app, the app may just use the embedded JPG preview and you'll edit just that instead of the RAW photo.

Why should I shoot in RAW with iPhone?

A RAW photo is saved as the image sensor sees it in an uncompressed format. Thus, the picture contains much more information than a compressed JPEG photo.

Because there's more image information in a RAW photo, you can produce a much higher quality, final, photo. For example, you may be able to fix burnt highlights or blown out dark areas that would otherwise be unrecoverable from a JPG photo. Those areas would be merely white or black. With a RAW file, you may be able to recover some detail from those areas.

Also, applying noise reduction in a RAW editor gives you much better control over the noise reduction instead of relying on the automatic process of the camera app. This leads to better results with more detail but less noise in the final photo.

On iPhone, I noticed that especially when it comes to detail, a RAW beats a JPEG by far.

Inside of a church in low light shot as RAW and developed with Lightroom Mobile

Inside of a church in low light shot as RAW and developed with Lightroom Mobile

When should I shoot in RAW?

That question is difficult to answer. In the DSLR world, you'll often hear that you should always shoot in RAW. As you can use your iPhone as a snapshot camera as well as a camera for deliberately shooting a scene, the answer to this question is a little different.

As shooting RAW involves some post-processing steps, I handle it the following way:

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

Why do RAW Photos look blurry in Photos App?

That depends on the settings of your camera app. If you set your camera app to save a pure RAW file, then a low-resolution preview is embedded in the RAW file that is displayed in photos app. The resolution of this preview is so low that it will look blurry in photos app. Open the RAW file in a RAW editor to see it in its full glory.

If you set your camera app to RAW + JPG, then the camera app will save an additional full resolution JPEG.

Are RAW Photos flagged in Photos App so I can identify them in Photos app on iPhone?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. As of iOS 13, there is no flag or label that will indicate a photo is a RAW file. This applies to DNG files shot with iPhone and even RAW files shot with a DSLR like NEF files from a Nikon camera or ARW files from a Sony camera.

Adobe Lightroom displays a DNG sticker on RAW photos to make it easy for you to pick the correct file.

Apple, do you hear me?

Conclusion

Shooting RAW will result in a much better final image quality. On the other hand, you need to invest time to process each and every RAW photo. But especially if you're photographing fantastic landscapes or stunning architecture, shooting RAW is well worth the additional effort as the final result will be a much better image.