I take photography seriously. I shoot raw exclusively in my landscape and nature work, with a workflow dedicated to maximizing the quality of the image files I capture. So, why would I ever consider shooting with an iPhone?
I also like to test boundaries. I’m not afraid to leave behind my full-frame Nikon in favor of a more spontaneous and nimble system, like my 1” sensor Sony RX-10iii. You see, shooting raw, allows me to extract the highest quality possible from my equipment, small sensor or large. But why an iPhone with its even smaller sensor and minuscule pixels?
Photography may be about equipment, but photographs are all about emotional response. Over 40 years ago I was taught that, although, at the time, I didn’t listen. Back then, I couldn’t understand why a photo made with a 110 Instamatic came ahead of my 2nd place 35mm SLR photograph. It wasn’t until much later I realized people were buying my work for the emotional response stirred in them by the scene or subject of the photograph, not specifically because of the super-duper equipment I used. To a large degree, what I shoot is more important than what I shoot with.
So, the best camera is…
As the saying goes, “the best camera is the one that’s with you”. I know there will be times when an iPhone is all I have with me and a great scene and compelling light come together for a photograph. When said together, “raw capture” and “spontaneous” sound counter-intuitive, but shooting raw is the ticket to the highest possible image quality from any sensor, large or small.
For that reason, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks evaluating camera apps that would allow me to make the most of the limited quality of my iPhone 8 Plus camera (or iPhone X or Samsung Galaxy S8 or Google Pixel 2). Let me qualify that concept of limited quality, though: the 12mp sensor is pretty darn good. It’s as many megapixels as pro-DSLRs had not too many years ago. And with modern sensor technology, algorithms and faster processors, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much quality there is in a puny sensor the size of your baby fingernail!
For processing, I use Adobe Lightroom almost exclusively and have done so for about 10 years. This included developing a Lightroom course for a college photography programme, so I’m pretty confident with getting the most out of Lr. That being said, I have opted not to go the CC route of paying Adobe the $10/month subscription fee for using Lr, so I am using the standalone version for now. This factored into my quest for a raw-capable camera app in the sense that although Lr Mobile includes a very capable camera, I didn’t feel compelled to use it by default.
Oh, the hype!
One thing I’ve learned through this process of reviewing apps is that there is no limit to the amount of hype around the concept of shooting raw, but little in the way of serious application. There must be a hundred or more apps that claim to “shoot raw” – and most of them do. But then they steer users to choosing the latest trendy set of filters or presets to apply to the raw photo. What a waste! Raw is not necessary for this. In fact, as a raw file is three to four times the size of a JPEG, all people are doing is stuffing their limited memory with unnecessarily large files.
If filters or presets are in your workflow, then raw is not the way to go. Shoot JPEGs or, better yet, the new, industry-standard HEIF files now being adopted by Apple in iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra. High-Efficiency Image Format files are half the size of the now 25-year-old JPEG format and include up to 16-bit colour, multiple photos for “burst” mode, a “depth map” for portraits, all while maintaining at least the quality of a JPEG if not even higher quality. Bottom Line: If you’re not taking advantage of raw by committing to proper exposure and processing, don’t waste your memory space with it.
Raw = Work
You see, even when exposed correctly, raw files create work because they need to be processed. For example, many “correctly exposed” raw files look overexposed on a screen. To make the most of every one of those little pixels, “correct” exposure means the image is as bright as can be without clipping the highlights. In fact, a good raw file will also appear unsaturated and slightly blurry. That’s because you’re looking at the raw data from the pixels.
If you want to take full advantage of raw, you must also learn some basic processing. This is when most people realize raw isn’t for them – and that’s okay! I love playing volleyball, but I’ll never take it to the next level by learning the intricacies of the game because I have other things I’d rather spend time on. The same may be true for you and raw.
For raw to be useful on a smartphone, the camera app MUST have a highlight clipping indicator: either the live histogram must show clipping as red bars or live pixels must appear on-screen lit up red or as blinking zebra stripes. The next most important feature is Exposure Compensation. For the cleanest possible image, lock the ISO as low as possible, and use Exposure Compensation to adjust shutter speed, raising or lowering exposure. iPhones have a base ISO of 20 which is unheard of with DSLRs but is necessary with large lens apertures of ƒ1.8 and ƒ2.8. Low ISO also means less noise and cleaner, smoother images – essential for small sensors. (see the 100% crop of Speed River, Winter).
Ideally, exposure is as bright as possible with only a very few clipped highlight pixels. This is the simple version of ETTR or “Expose-to-the-Right”. For a more detailed explanation, look up the seminal article by the late Canadian photographer Michael Reichman, who came up with the concept of ETTR over 15 years ago.
If shutter speed matters too much to you, then rethink the shot you’re taking. If you’re trying to stop the motion of sports or kids playing, don’t bother shooting raw – use the built-in camera and shoot HEIFs or JPEGs. If you’re trying to stop the motion of grasses or branches in the wind, then simply be patient for the wind to die down. A faster shutter speed will freeze the motion, but at the expense of image quality as a higher ISO would be needed.
Onto the camera apps
A number of apps floated to the surface as apps designed with raw capture in mind: Lr Mobile, ProCamera, Raw+, Camera+, CameraPixels, Raw! Photo, Halide and ProCam 5. While the iOS Camera app built into every iPhone takes great photos and uses HDR for all its shots now, it does not save raw files and does not offer highlight clipping indicators.
Even amongst these “highly acclaimed” apps, it became immediately apparent, only three were serious about raw: Lr Mobile, CameraPro and Raw+. They were the only ones to offer highlight clipping. Frankly, I was shocked! While the others offer some excellent options for serious photography and may have a live histogram, without highlight clipping, they do not allow you to take full advantage of shooting raw.
Overall, I award Best Raw Camera to Lr Mobile, although ProCamera and Raw+ are very close behind. Lr Mobile has a clean interface with well-placed controls and zebra-striped highlight clipping with exposure compensation in ⅓-stop increments. Its best feature, though, is HDR-RAW: it shoots three frames in quick succession at -2, 0 and +2 EV then auto aligns, merges, deghosts and tonemaps the files, providing a 16-bit hdr-dng ready for Lightroom. Amazing! My full-frame DSLR doesn’t do that. Furthermore, you can set the EV of the “0” photo to bias the HDR capture for shadows or highlights depending on the situation.
ProCamera has the cleanest interface and offers both highlight and shadow clipping in the live histogram and exposure compensation in 1/10-stop increments. Files can be saved, with custom copyright info in the metadata, to a variety of formats including RAW (DNG), RAW+JPG, TIFF, JPG and HEIF and keeps the photos you take in a “Lightbox” separate from your iOS Camera Roll. From there they can send files to any cloud-based service such as Google Drive, DropBox or OneDrive; Creative Cloud users can also send the photos directly to their CC account. I like the Lightbox – it’s helpful for evaluating photos before throwing them in with everything else (or, throwing them out!) The photos are clearly marked with the file type – an added bonus not all apps offer.
If you want simplicity, go for Raw+. Clipped highlights show as red pixels, clipped shadows as blue. With its all-manual interface, set your ISO low for less noise, then adjust the shutter speed to eliminate those clipped highlights. Your photos are saved in the app for easy export to your desktop editor via iOS Files, your Camera Roll or any cloud-based service like Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive – services Lr Mobile does not have available.
One additional benefit of Lr Mobile is its powerful and robust editing suite with extensive metadata options including flagging/rating, title, caption, watermarking and copyright. BUT this is only saved with the raw file if you are a CC subscriber. ProCamera also offers some very good raw editing options and copyright may be added to the metadata as well. These options are helpful for getting that initial post out to Instagram or Facebook, but, as with all other raw camera apps, edits to raw files are not kept when the file is exported unless the photo is saved as a JPEG.
CameraPixels, ProCam 5 and Halide all offer a histogram, but no clipping indicator. However, each offer additional functionality you might find useful:
- CameraPixels has a clean interface with focus peaking and an excellent bracketing feature for either exposure or focus in raw. This allows power users to combine photos for exposure blending or focus stacking. As well, CameraPixels offers an excellent Intervalometer.
- ProCam 5 offers a “Night” mode for extended shutter speeds of ⅛, ¼, ½ and 1sec. with raw or TIFF capture. A second helpful mode is “Slow Shutter” which blends photos over 4, 8, 15 or 30 seconds, plus Bulb. These files are not stored as raw, but as the larger, but equally high-quality TIFF files. Lastly, ProCam 5 has an excellent “Depth” editor for the iPhones with “Portrait” mode (plus models and X). Note: Files shot in the ProCam 5 app are sent directly to iOS Photos and may be edited there non-destructively. Accessing iOS Photos through the ProCam 5 app adds a file type label to each photos making it easier to identify the RAW, HEIC, JPEG and TIFF photos.
- Despite the huge hype it’s received, Halide doesn’t really offer anything more as a raw camera app except its filters. It says “premium camera” but it’s not. It has focus-peaking (also offered by Lr Mobile and ProCam 5) and “gesture-based” settings, but they all have that. Don’t waste your money on it.
- Camera+ and Raw! Photo, which were also tested, are pretty basic raw capture cameras as well and do not really have any stand out features.
In the field
So, after all this reading and playing indoors, I thought I should at least get outside to put these apps to the test in the field to discover just how well they work in real conditions – difficult conditions – like those of a cold, Canadian winter.
The real winner is, again, Lr Mobile as it was the easiest to use with cold hands and produced the best photos overall. Being able to capture HDR-RAW photos is a real plus when working in high contrast lighting conditions as I was. I also enjoyed using ProCamera and Raw+ as they, too, were easy to manipulate with cold hands and the clipped highlights in both ProCamera and Raw+ were essential. In bright snow, none of the other apps could produce reliable exposures as they did not have clipping indicators. CameraPixels’ 3 bracketed raw files were very easy to take but, with Lr Mobile making HDR-RAW all combined in one file, the work was done for me.
Raw editing on iPhone – Really?
Now that you have some great raw images, the immediate reaction is to process them and get a few out to the world – and you can, thanks to the beauty of modern technology. But, here’s where it gets a little complicated. The best editor is still your desktop editor although Lr Mobile, ProCamera, and Camera+ have some very good to excellent raw editing functions including Curves and Sharpening options. The other apps send the photos directly to iOS Photos for editing; not a bad thing, really, as iOS Photos has an extensive series of non-destructive editing functions with a histogram, but, sadly, no clipping indicators! The downside is that everything gets thrown together and, on a phone, you can’t tell raw from jpegs from heif.
To someone already familiar with Lightroom, Lr Mobile’s editing suite will seem very familiar; but remember, editing is lost when you export the file unless you have an Adobe CC subscription. So, consider the editors built into the apps as being helpful only for dressing up files before exporting them as JPEGs. The real editing is best done using your desktop editor.
If you are using a desktop editor other than Lightroom CC/Photoshop such as Lr standalone, Affinity Photo, Capture1, etc., export the Lr Mobile DNG files to iOS Files; unfortunately, only one at a time is permitted! From there, you can import the files into your desktop raw editor. As mentioned above, ProCamera and Raw+ files can be exported to various cloud-based services for importing to your desktop or laptop.This is infinitely easier than Lr Mobile’s limited capability for exports. There is also Apple’s proprietary AirDrop service for moving files, which is very fast if your phone and computer are compatible.
Clear as water or clear as mud?
So where does this leave us? At this stage, it’s important to ask yourself: How important to me is shooting raw on my smartphone? If it’s still something you want to pursue, Lr Mobile is the way to go, especially if you are using Adobe CC. But even if you’re not an Adobe-ite, it’s a free app and it’s very complete with HDR-RAW, even if you are constantly reminded to sign up for Adobe’s CC. Be sure to also try out ProCamera or Raw+, specifically because of their clipping indicators. You may find one fits your own personal shooting style and workflow better than the others. Happy shooting!