What is Apple’s iPhone ProRAW Picture Format?

The first iPhones to embrace ProRAW are the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, Apple’s take on the RAW image format. RAW files are a must in professional photography to get the best out of your pictures, but what does this mean for the iPhone?

What does ProRAW mean?

ProRAW is Apple’s RAW image format implementation, available on the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and possibly on future iPhones. On mid-to-high-end cameras, the RAW format is usually found, enabling photographers to capture as much data as possible in a scene. Whereas when you squeeze the shutter, lossy formats such as JPEG and HEIF will discard “unnecessary” data, RAW formats hold on to most of it.

Essentially, these files are raw data, hence the name. An image editing program such as Photoshop or Apple’s own Photos app renders this data. You may alter how the picture is made after it’s taken by changing certain parameters. RAW files are suitable for making edits, such as modifying the exposure, where shadows and highlights maintain more clarity in an abundance of raw data.

It could help to think of RAW images as the film era’s negatives. The file is not used to share images but rather to edit them before exporting them to more efficient formats, such as JPEG. This is why RAW files in applications such as Photoshop and Lightroom are widely used by professionals and photography enthusiasts who spend more time poring over their edits.

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The ubiquitous digital negative file format is used by Apple’s ProRAW. DNG, meaning that in any editor that supports it, you can (theoretically) open a ProRAW image. Files from DNG. This differs from camera manufacturers such as Sony, which also use proprietary formats, which can make it difficult for older software to edit images. Apple suggests using editors that help ProRAW directly, so you may want to use a different app if you see unexpected results.

On your iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max, you can use ProRAW with all the lenses. With features such as SmartHDR, Deep Fusion, and Night mode, the format is also compatible.

Don’t confuse it with ProRes RAW, a lossless video codec used on high-end cameras, which is similarly named. ProRAW is purely used for still images and is not video compliant.


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Potential Shoot Disadvantages in ProRAW

The size of the files you produce is the main downside to shooting RAW on any camera, iPhone 12, or otherwise. Although lossy formats like JPEG discard as much data as possible to minimize the file size, much more space is taken up by RAW files. Apple notes that files with ProRAW are “10 to 12 times larger” than files with HEIF or JPEG.

A ProRAW file averages about 25 megabytes, resulting in 40 images per gigabyte of storage per phone: if you have an iPhone Pro with a smaller capacity, you will probably need to manage your files to avoid running out of space. You probably don’t want to keep many ProRAW files hanging around on your iPhone forever, even if you go for the 512GB option.

You may need to increase your storage plan from 50GB to 200GB or 2TB to make room for your lossless images if you are using iCloud Files. For archival purposes, you may want to transfer these elsewhere while keeping HEIF or JPEGs for sharing in your library. On your hand, this will require a bit of manual management.

You fire only in ProRAW when you want to shoot in ProRAW. This is distinct from several cameras in both JPEG and RAW that endorse shooting. For more versatility in your editing suite later, this makes it easy for you to easily share a JPEG when needed while holding on to the RAW data. With the iPhone, once you have edited them, you will have to make JPEGs from your ProRAW files.

You forego all of the processing that Apple applies to regular HEIF/JPEG snaps when you grab an image in ProRAW. This is not a concern for photographers who want editing power, but it means a ProRAW shot sometimes looks worse than even a JPEG shot straight from the camera (with no editing applied). Tests conducted by GSMArena prove this.

It’s also worth noting that alongside ProRAW, Live Images are not recorded, and you can’t shoot ProRAW photos using Portrait mode.

Ultimately, the format should be determined by your intent: Is this picture for Facebook or Instagram sharing? Choose HEIF/JPEG. Do you plan to spend time later editing your picture, or do you need the best possible printing quality or more “professional” purposes? Maybe ProRAW gives you an edge.


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But why go for ProRAW?

In terms of photography, there are a few cases in which you might want to choose ProRAW to open up new possibilities. You may not have a mirrorless or digital SLR camera that supports RAW shooting, to begin with, so the iPhone 12 Pro can ease you into the lossless image editing world.

But let’s have a more specific example to look at. You’re with your family at the beach, and you want to take a photo at a later date to share with everyone. You might want to have the photo printed and framed later, so in the viewfinder, you hit the RAW button.

You’ll limit the amount of visible compression in the picture by shooting ProRAW. There will be more blue shades in the sky than if the picture had been compressed to the point of banding being introduced. In terms of shadow and highlight detail, you’ll also capture a lot more data.

This allows the highlights to be pulled back and the sun (and its reflections) to be a little less blinding while preserving color data. If any subjects in the photo are a bit dark, without the image quality taking a severe hit, you can extract more detail from the shadows. Without the image falling apart, you should be able to make more edits, as it would with a heavily compressed JPEG.

You may need to do more work on the image in the post to get it up to standard because, depending on the conditions, the iPhone processes non-RAW images with sharpening, noise reduction, and more. Ultimately, though, at the end of it, you will have more control over the completed picture and a more pleasant picture than if you had relied on HEIF or JPEG.

And since it’s just a tap away to enable RAW in the camera app, you could always just fire off a few non-RAW photos for comparison anyway.


How to Trigger ProRAW on an iPhone

You’ll first need to allow the ProRAW option in your iPhone’s Settings to use ProRAW. Go to Setup > Camera > Formats and allow Apple ProRAW.

Know, this is an iPhone 12 Pro feature as of the end of 2020 that includes iOS 14.3 or later. Try to upgrade your iPhone’s software if you have an iPhone 12 Pro model and you don’t see a choice. Future iPhones launched in 2021 or later are also likely to support ProRAW, but the feature will only be available for a few years on Pro models.

Start the Camera app either from your home screen, via the Control Center, or by asking Siri, with ProRAW switched on under Settings. You can see a “RAW” button in all compatible modes near the Live Images toggle. It will have a line across it while inactive. To trigger it, tap on it and shoot in RAW.

You can now take pictures as you normally would, with RAW shooting allowed. To save room, remember to turn the RAW off again.


Unable to Use ProRAW? Fire RAW with these apps

ProRAW is only available on the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max as of the end of 2020. It’s not going to come on older iPhones, but it could come on future iPhones.

If your iPhone doesn’t help ProRAW, you can still use a compatible iPhone app to fire RAW. From freebies such as VSCO and Adobe Lightroom to paid apps such as Manual ($3.99) and freemium apps such as Halide, there are many iPhone camera apps that can do this.

Unfortunately, from these applications, you will not get the same RAW file quality as you will from an iPhone 12 Pro using the stock Camera app. CNET tested this and discovered that, compared to similar applications, ProRAW helps reduce noise and improve color reproduction. You lose access to features such as Night Mode and SmartHDR as well.


ProRAW is good, but not necessary, to have

For most people, ProRAW isn’t a game-changer. Based on ProRAW alone, it will be difficult for Apple to persuade the average iPhone user to upgrade to the Pro tier. Even for photography enthusiasts who presumably already own cameras with larger sensors that already take better images, it is hard to recommend the upgrade. With that in mind, if you already own a computer that can do it, it’s a good thing to have access to.

Here’s the hope that ProRAW will filter down to non-Pro users as the systems-on-chip of Apple will become more effective and productive in the future. Let’s not forget that the most expensive iPhones were once reserved for features like multiple cameras, Portrait mode, and even Face ID, and now they’re on practically every model.

Learn more about the difference between JPEG and HEIC for an update on iPhone photography formats.


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