Thoughts On RAW Support In iOS 10

If you know anyone who’s big into photography then it’s only a matter of time before the subject of “shooting in RAW” will come up. It’s inevitable. That’s what the pros do right? They shoot RAW because it’s just better….or is it? And now that the iPhone with iOS 10 can support RAW it’s time to take a closer look to see if it’s something to get excited about.

First, a brief explanation of what a RAW file is for those of you who might not have actually had the pleasure of one. Simply put; RAW is the digital equivalent of a photographic negative back when film cameras were all the rage. Some of you might even remember when folks would develop their photos into slides? Ok, maybe not but if you did then it would all make sense (mostly). In today’s world a digital RAW file is essentially whatever data is created by the camera sensor itself and the digital signal processor. The primary reason photographers would bother to create these digital negatives is for control. Yup, us photographers are total control freaks and we just can’t stand the thought of having to live with the “limitations” of JPEG images. Humor aside, for professional photographers shooting in RAW is important because it allows us to extract the maximum potential from each image.

So why does RAW support matter for the iPhone?

It matters because up until now there was no way to create images that pushed the limits of the iPhone’s sensor (or multiple sensors as with the iPhone 7 Plus). Images that were created on iPhone were always run through Apple’s post-processing before then being saved as lossy JPEG files. This unfortunately leads to many situations where detail was lost (often due to too much noise reduction) or color saturation was increased too much (looking at you Samsung). To be fair, Apple’s goal has always been to create the best possible image right out of the camera app. The driving force behind this is the quest to provide photos that can be posted directly up to Facebook and other social media without having to be edited. For the vast majority of iPhone users this is exactly what they want and it works exactly as advertised. Right out of the default camera app the iPhone can produce stunning images that are often perfect for social media, no editing required.

However, that’s not really the case if you are looking to do something else with those images. In particular, I often like to create more “artsy” images that convey some form of “mood” or style. Sure, I can always use Snapseed to edit JPEG files but doing so has always had it’s limits. Now that both Apple and Snapseed fully support RAW images it’s time to take a look at what might be possible.

First off, the default camera app does not support saving images as RAW and that’s ok. Folks using the default app are not going to care about RAW so it’s up to 3rd party apps to handle RAW images. Currently the only app I have that supports RAW is ProCamera 10 which does a great job. For post-processing and final edits I typically use Snapseed which is hands-down the best thing that has ever happened to photography on the iPhone. Snapseed just rocks. It’s free so if you don’t already have it, get it.

So after figuring out how to enable RAW in ProCamera I was able to generate several test images.

NOTE: All test images were generated on an iPhone 6s Plus. I might revisit my conclusions once I get my 7 Plus and have time to test.
Shot in ProCamera on iPhone 6S Plus. Edited in Snapseed.
Close up detail on the above image (iPhone 6s Plus, ProCamera RAW, edited in Snapseed).

My reason for shooting the lamp was two-fold; I wanted to see how much RAW output would affect noise when there was lots of light (from the lamp itself) and I wanted to capture something that would let me evaluate sharpness. Based on my previous experience with JPEG output from both ProCamera and the default camera app I was expecting relatively noisy (grainy) output with “ok” sharpness. The good news is that I was pleasantly surprised that output was actually quite clean with little noise. There is no noise reduction applied at all to the above image. Sharpness was also a bit better than I had expected. Overall I was impressed but further experimentation was needed.

Low light test photo taken in ProCamera on iPhone 6s Plus, no editing.
Close up detail in RAW output from the above photo.

After dropping the light down significantly I was finally able to show quite a bit more noise in RAW vs. JPEG. Even more noteworthy was just how much noise reduction was being applied when using the default camera app vs. using ProCamera. Based on a somewhat subjective visual examination I would say the iPhone produced a RAW image that did appear to contain a minor increase in detail over a standard JPEG image even in this low-light situation. That said, I am not sure how much value this detail would have over the otherwise excellent output from the default camera app.

Close up detail in JPEG output (ProCamera) from the above photo.

In fact, it’s really hard to argue with the quality of the post-processing that Apple is doing within the default camera app. I can say that at least for static objects in low light you are going to be doing much better by sticking with Apple’s app vs. going with even some of the best 3rd party apps.

Close up detail in JPEG (Default Camera App),

Conclusions

So after digging into the new RAW support in iOS 10 I have been able to draw several important conclusions:

  1. In moderate to excellent lighting conditions there is definitely a benefit to shooting in RAW. RAW support in iOS seems to pull in a bit more detail without adding too much noise. Going forward, I will likely make it a habit to shoot any landscape type shots using RAW as the extra detail would be useful in those types of photos.
  2. Dynamic range is only slightly better in RAW. The difference is not huge but it’s definitely there and for those of you who might want to push the limits it might buy you just enough of what you need. To be clear, I was only able to test edits in Snapseed so you mileage may vary.
  3. Noise is very well controlled when the lighting is good but it’s also not as bad you might expect when the lighting is poor. I was surprised how much detail was preserved even in low-light RAW output. Is it still noisy, hell yea, but it’s no worse than many dedicated cameras out there which is better than I had expected.
  4. Apple’s default camera app get’s you 99% of what you need. It’s not like everyone does not already know this but it’s worth repeating. The crazy optimizations Apple does really make a difference and for those folks who are not going to be spending large amounts of time post-processing their photos it’s all you need.

Final Words

For me the implications of my testing are such that I will likely shoot RAW for some of my outdoor/landscape shots going forward as I can see value in the extra detail. For other types of photos I personally will continue to just use the default camera app and ProCamera (for HDR) as the results are consistently better than the RAW output.