ProRaw, the new photo format Apple introduced on its iPhone 12 Pro Max, is the number one thing pulling me away from my Pixel phone. I still love my Google Pixel. But more and more often, I reach for my when taking a shot. Its telephoto camera, which sits alongside wide-angle and ultrawide cameras, is a big draw. The control the ProRaw format gives me when I edit my shots, however, is the key to my shifting photography habits.
The new ProRaw technology lets me achieve a look that's more pleasing and natural than I can get with the standard JPEG or HEIC photos most camera phones produce. That's important for both my nature and family photos.
The new format gives Apple an edge after a decade in which its once-superior iPhone cameras lost ground to Google, whose image-processing software dramatically improved smartphone photography. Apple's investments in photography should help keep iPhone customers loyal -- especially the creative types Apple loves to showcase in its ads -- even as companies like Samsung try to win us over with features like big-zoom telephoto cameras.
Google led the way but lost the lead
Google deserves credit for pioneering computational photography techniques that compensate for the shortcomings of smartphone cameras. It's made smartphones a better option for photography enthusiasts, like me, who are accustomed to lugging around a DSLR.
One of my favorite Google technologies is called computational raw, a direct competitor to ProRaw that beat Apple to the market by two years with the Pixel 3 release. It's key to wringing out of tiny phone sensors more image quality than I thought would ever be possible.
Apple began offering ProRaw with the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max in 2020. That's when Google scaled back its photography ambitions, betting that people would prefer a good value over a pricey flagship phone during the . Google's Pixel 5 has just wide and ultrawide cameras; the iPhone 12 Pro models sport wide, ultrawide and telephoto cameras.
The iPhone 12 Pro models start at $999 compared with the Pixel 5's more modest $699 price tag. The Pixel 5 is a good choice for plenty of people. I just happen to be someone who needs a telephoto camera, in particular the 2.5X zoom in the iPhone 12 Pro Max, whose price starts at $1,099.
Apple's ProRaw works just fine with its 2.5X optical zoom. In contrast, Google's computational raw suffers from lower resolution when used with the Pixel's Super-Res Zoom magnification trick. I'm interested in the 3X and 10X zoom cameras on Samsung's new Galaxy S21 Ultra, but Samsung doesn't enable the ability to capture raw images from those cameras.
Why ProRaw is good
The biggest advantage of ProRaw is that it offers photographers more of the flexibility they're used to with higher-end SLR and mirrorless cameras from the likes of Sony, Nikon and Canon. To create a compact JPEG or HEIC, a camera throws out image information it doesn't think you'll need. Shooting raw keeps more of that original data. Apple, like Google, packages the raw data using Adobe's flexible DNG (Digital Negative) image format.
I started shooting raw with my DSLR years ago to get better control over exposure and color. I was looking for the ability to fine-tune shadow detail, brighten highlights and fix color casts according to my taste rather than my camera's guesswork.
Apple's ProRaw, like Google's computational raw, gives me that freedom but with smartphone photography. Ordinary raw photos from a smartphone are limited by the data captured in a single image. ProRaw, though, marries multiple frames into a single shot with Apple's Smart HDR to offer a wider span from bright to shadow and more tonal detail than a JPEG or HEIC. (The technical term for that is dynamic range.) And it applies Apple's Deep Fusion technology, a pixel-by-pixel analysis of each shot to reduce noise while preserving texture and color. ProRaw gives me the flexibility to preserve more of both the brilliant sky and deep shadows of sunset scenes.
The second benefit is color flexibility. Cameras struggle to judge how best to compensate for tints like the deep blue of shadowed scenes or the warm oranges of sunrise and sunset. ProRaw preserves more color information, allowing me to warm up the tones of someone's shadowed face so it doesn't look like hypothermia has set in.
Another big advantage of ProRaw involves the sharpening algorithms all cameras employ to make edges crisp and eyes sparkle. I find Apple's sharpening often goes too far, turning busy scenes like a tangle of branches into a jittery mess. When I edit a ProRaw image, I can dial that down.
For a lot more detail, check my colleague Andrew Hoyle's deeper look at.
My ProRaw gripes
I don't mind that Apple hides ProRaw mode until you specifically enable it. Most people don't have the time or need to fool with photos as much as I and other raw photo fans do. I also am happy that another preference lets you set your iPhone to stay in ProRaw mode once you've engaged it. (By default, the phone switches back to JPEG shortly after you're done taking ProRaw photos.)
What I don't like is squinting at my phone screen in bright sunlight to check the icon that indicates whether ProRaw is enabled. A few times, I disabled it with my thumb and missed shots that should have been ProRaw.
I'd prefer that Apple, like Google, would record both a computational raw photo and a JPEG of each shot. Apple opted for what it deems to be a simpler either-or interface, but I prefer the flexibility.
One reason I still reach for my Pixel 5 sometimes is that its camera launches almost instantly with a double tap on the power button, a process that can begin when the phone is still in my pocket. The iPhone requires a long press on the lock screen's camera icon, which is slower.
Still, the flexibility of ProRaw combined with the range of the iPhone 12 Pro's three cameras is why it's almost always the first phone I grab when it's time to photograph a nature scene, my kids or other subjects. It's great that smartphones are steadily encroaching on the turf once held exclusively by higher-end cameras.
If you're happy with JPEG and HEIC shots straight out of the phone's regular camera, I won't think less of you. You often can get good photos without ProRaw. But if you want more out of your photos, ProRaw delivers the goods.