Google, Apple, Adobe make your phone photos better by boosting raw format

Outgrowing JPEG's limits? Here's good news.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read
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If you take your smartphone photography seriously, it might be time to change your habits. That's because of improvements to a core camera technology: the raw photo format.

Photographers with SLRs and other higher-end cameras have known for years the advantages of skipping ordinary JPEGs and instead shooting raw, which means using the unaltered data directly from a camera's image sensor. For them, the superior flexibility and image quality of raw photos outweigh the hassles. For shooting raw photos on smartphones , though, the drawbacks have been more serious and the benefits have been less clear.

But some of tech's biggest companies are breathing life into raw photography on phones. And that means this could be a good time to give it a whirl if you're the kind of person who takes pride in your portfolio at Instagram, Flickr or other photo-sharing sites.

What's better about raw on phones now? Google's Pixel 3 smartphones bring a radical new approach to raw photos that captures more image data. Adobe Systems 's Lightroom photo software has overhauled its raw approach to capture better images in the first place. And Apple's newest iPhone models use bigger image sensors that help improve raw photo quality.

"Our philosophy with raw is that there should be zero compromise," said Marc Levoy, a leader of Google's computational photography team that's radically reshaping how we take pictures with our phones.

Raw photos have color options far beyond JPEG. This shot from a Google Pixel 3 can be transformed in Lightroom into a scene that's ethereal, autumnal, verdant or spooky.
Enlarge Image
Raw photos have color options far beyond JPEG. This shot from a Google Pixel 3 can be transformed in Lightroom into a scene that's ethereal, autumnal, verdant or spooky.

Raw photos have color options far beyond JPEG. This shot from a Google Pixel 3 can be transformed in Lightroom into a scene that's ethereal, autumnal, verdant or spooky.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

That's the reason many photographers got into raw photography in the first place with traditional digital cameras. Among 1,800 professional photographers in the US, 68 percent shoot raw and 20 percent shoot a combination of raw and JPEG, according to an October Keypoint Intelligence survey. Enthusiasts follow in the pros' footsteps, said Ed Lee, an analyst with the firm.

"They want to be able to do the whole processing," Lee said, keeping their options open and not having to worry that the camera is making all the right choices.

The pluses of shooting raw

Raw sensor data gives you advantages over the 26-year-old JPEG format and the newer HEIC format that Apple and mobile-chip maker Qualcomm want us all to use. If you're using those formats, the camera makes decisions about color balance, exposure, noise reduction, sharpening and other image attributes -- then locks its decisions irreversibly into the processed photo.

Shooting raw preserves the flexibility so photographers keep control over all those choices. Raw is great if you think your phone is making faces look too orange indoors or turning details into a smeary mess or blowing out bright details you want to preserve. And raw doesn't lose details through compression the way JPEG or the newer HEIC format do.

Both Apple's iOS and Google's Android let phone apps record raw photos in Adobe's DNG (Digital Negative) format, which you can import into software like Adobe Systems' Lightroom, Bergen's Darkroom or Google's Snapseed. To actually take a raw photo, you'll need software like Halide or VSCO on iPhones, Open Camera for Android, Google's camera app on its Pixel phones, or Lightroom for either iOS or Android.

Watch this: 3 hidden iPhone photography tricks

Raw deal

There are still big drawbacks to raw photos on phones, though. If you're a casual user happy with your phone's photos, don't feel bad about sticking with what works.

The biggest is that you still have to manually process raw photos before you can share them with your friends and family. Photo enthusiasts might have the patience -- indeed, many enjoy editing photos -- but it's not for everyone. Getting raw photos off your phone and onto your laptop also can be a pain.

The second is that some of the newest photography advances -- iPhones' 3D depth maps or Pixel phones' Night Sight, for example -- aren't an option for raw photos, at least for now. Google's Super Res Zoom technology can produce a raw file, but it's cropped compared to the JPEG, negating the feature's telephoto advantage. Even one basic iPhone camera feature, image stabilization to counteract your shaky hand, isn't available when shooting raw, Adobe said, which worsens low-light performance.

But it's still worth it in the view of Ben Sandofsky, one of the developers of the Halide camera app, who likes to make his own choices about things like color and exposure.

"Simple adjustments in color can send so much more emotion," he said. That's why Hollywood employs people whose sole job is color grading to give movies or scenes different moods.

He also likes shooting raw to pull back overexposed faces and to fine-tune the amount of noise speckles left in the image. Noise reduction can make for a smoother image but at the cost of preserving details. "The iPhone has always overapplied noise reduction, and there's never going to be a setting to turn it down," Sandofsky said.

Google's new raw approach

If you like shooting raw, you should look at Google's Pixel 3. On it, for the first time, Google's camera app can shoot raw, and not just any raw. When the app takes a JPEG photo, it combines several frames taken in rapid succession. This approach is designed to preserve both shadow and highlight detail -- a benefit generally called high dynamic range that Google calls HDR+.

Google Pixel 3 raw dynamic range
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Google Pixel 3 raw dynamic range

Google's Pixel 3 can take raw photos with a broad dynamic range. That lets you boost exposure to show shadow details or clamp down on bright highlights, as these exaggerated edits show.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Ordinarily, phones' tiny image sensors have lousy dynamic range that's quickly apparent when you take an ordinary raw image. But Google taps the HDR technology it uses on JPEGs to create raw images, too, significantly improving dynamic range. Each color in the raw image -- red, green, or blue -- is recorded with 16 bits of data over that wide dynamic range, giving you more flexibility to edit the image than you get with JPEG's 8 bits.

"On competing phones, if you switch to raw mode, it stops merging frames. It looks terrible in low light," Levoy said. "Ours looks just as good as the HDR+ ... There is an incredible amount of dynamic range."

Lightroom's new raw approach

Adobe launched Lightroom more than a decade ago as a tool to edit and catalog photos, especially raw photos, which the company long has championed for their image quality. Now you can use Lightroom to take photos, too, because the software runs on phones, not just PCs. That means Adobe has a new chance to preach its raw gospel.

To get around raw's shortcomings on phones, Adobe advocated its own HDR raw technology, which combines multiple frames into one photo. But there were still problems -- notably pinkish blobs in dark parts of the image.

Adobe updated its Lightroom app's HDR tool so you can shoot scenes with challenging lighting without blighting dark areas with pink blotches, as in this shot.

Adobe updated its Lightroom app's HDR tool so you can shoot scenes with challenging lighting without blighting dark areas with pink blotches, as in this shot.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Here's why Lightroom is worth a new look now, though. In October, Adobe overhauled its HDR and raw technology.

The pink spots are gone. "We have a much better way of extracting shadow values more accurately from raw data," said Eric Chan, an Adobe senior principal scientist.

Apple's better iPhone sensor

Physically larger image sensors are hard to squeeze into phones -- mostly since they require larger lenses -- but they offer a big advantage in photography. The larger pixel sites can record more precisely how much light arrived during a photo. That translates into better dynamic range and better color.

Watch this: Shoot raw photos in iOS 10

And Apple put a bigger sensor in the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max this year, to the pleasure of raw photo fans, who get higher-quality source material to work with.

It makes a difference. "We're definitely seeing improved quality of raw files thanks to the larger sensor of the XS and XS Max," said Josh Haftel, an Adobe product manager. Adds Halides Sandofsky, "It looks like the dynamic range on the iPhone XS is way higher than on the iPhone X."

A phone's sensor still won't have the same performance as a compact point-and-shoot or bigger camera from Canon , Nikon or Sony . But by combining multiple shots, shooting raw on phones is getting better.

So if you care about your photos a lot, now's a good time to try a taste of shooting raw.

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