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​Shutterbugs, rejoice: Apple's iOS 10 will shoot raw photos

The option could bring new flexibility and photo quality, letting iPhone photography match a feature already built into Android. Also coming: better photo color.

Apple's iOS 10 brings many new features.

Juan Garzón/CNET

Photography enthusiasts love "raw" photo formats that let them wring as much flexibility and image quality as possible out of their cameras. And now they're going to get that ability on iPhones and iPads.

That's because Apple's next-gen iOS 10 software adds a new programming interface that will let camera apps retrieve unprocessed raw photo data from the camera hardware, according to Apple developer documentation. Google's Android has supported raw photos since the release of the Lollipop version in 2014.

There's a good reason Apple didn't include raw photo support in its top-10 list of new iOS 10 features unveiled at its annual Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) Monday. Raw photography is complex and too much of a hassle for most people to bother with. But with photography now so central to mobile phones, and with photo enthusiasts being such an active and visible type of customer, raw photo support is a major improvement. Raw photos should help Apple's iPhones keep their place atop the list of most popular cameras on Flickr, the photo-sharing site.

Today, iPhone and iPad photographers can only get photos stored as JPEG files. Those take up less storage space and are convenient for viewing and sharing, but they also have limits. Photographers have no choice but to trust the camera's choices for sharpening, noise reduction and white balance, and with a maximum of 256 brightness levels for each pixel, there's often not enough data for editing operations such as brightening shadows or easing bright highlights.

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Raw is no miracle cure, though. For one thing, the small image sensors in phone cameras don't offer the editing flexibility of the comparatively huge sensors in SLR cameras where raw photography first caught on. For another, high dynamic range (HDR) modes, which combine multiple photos taken at different brightness levels, do a better job these days of endowing a JPEG with the full range of bright and dark details in a scene.

It's not clear whether Apple will build the feature into its own camera app. It's a rare feature on Android today, though apps such as Camera FV-5 and Adobe Lightroom Mobile offer it. As Google did with Android, Apple will package the raw data in Adobe's Digital Negative (DNG) format, a move that makes it easier for software such as Photoshop to view the files.

Raw photo support isn't the only camera hardware feature Apple is unlocking with iOS 10. Third-party camera apps will also be able to take Live Photos -- Apple's technology for taking a short video clip, currently available only in Apple's camera app. And on supported hardware, cameras will be able to record a wider range of colors, too, for more vivid photos.