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How to use the iPhone's ProRaw mode to make your photos look better than before

Apple ProRaw will take your iPhone photography to the next level, but you need to know how to use the new format first.

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The iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max come with Apple ProRaw photo support. Once you enable ProRaw, you'll see a new "RAW" button at the top right of the native camera app.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Apple gave phone photographers an upgrade to get excited about last year. With the release of the iPhone 12 lineup, Apple added a new raw photo format to the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, called ProRaw, which gives you the customization of a raw file infused with the iPhone's computational photo smarts. We don't know whether Apple will expand ProRaw into all four variants of its rumored iPhone 13 lineup, which we expect to see next week. But what we do know is that ProRaw is worth trying out, even if you're not a pro.

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Currently, if you take a photo on your iPhone, it's saved as either a JPEG or a raw file. Think of a JPEG file like a meal served to you at a restaurant. You're basically stuck with how the restaurant prepared the food and you don't have many options to change it. In a JPEG file, your phone decides the color balance, exposure, noise reduction, sharpening and other aspects of a photo.

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A raw file is more like a bag of groceries with all of the ingredients you need to make a meal. You can customize a photo to look the way you want. The camera sensor on your phone is tiny, however, especially compared to larger sensors on a mirrorless or DSLR camera, which means it gets a lot of image noise and has small dynamic range. However, JPEGs (or the newer HEIC format) get a boost to "fix" those tiny sensor shortcomings in the form of Smart HDR, Deep Fusion and Night Mode in the iPhone.

Raw photos can only be taken on the iPhone with a third-party app like Halide or Moment, and lack any computational help. This means you can either take a JPEG file with the native iOS camera app and get Apple's computational boost or take a raw photo with a third-party app without it. 

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By default, Apple ProRaw is not enabled. You need to go into the camera settings to turn it on which will add the "RAW" on-off button to the iOS camera app.

Patrick Holland/CNET

The addition of ProRaw changes all of this. It will be native in the iOS camera app on the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, but it won't be on by default. To enable it, go into Settings > Camera > Formats and under a new Photo Capture section there's a toggle to turn Apple ProRaw on and off. On the top right of the camera app, you'll see a new Raw button for quickly switching between ProRaw photos and JPEG (or HEIC) photos.

ProRaw works on all four iPhone 12 cameras and in Night Mode. It uses the widely supported Adobe Digital Negative, or DNG, file format and contains information for 12-bit color and support for 14 stops of dynamic range. Files are large, averaging about 25 megabytes. 

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The approach Apple took with ProRaw is similar to how Google saves raw files built from HDR Plus on Pixel phones. ProRaw files are built from multiple image frames and keep the data from the best parts of those photos. Deep Fusion analyzes those images pixel by pixel to create a deep photo file. The A14 Bionic does all of this analysis in real time without causing shutter lag.

MacOS and iOS both support and can convert ProRaw files, as well as apps like Dark Room and Pixelmator. You can edit ProRaw images in the Photos app. The photos will have a raw tag on them in the same way HDR videos do. Since the file is DNG, apps like Adobe Lightroom for iOS and VSCO will work, but will work better once they support ProRaw.

"We are partnering closely with Apple and are excited about the opportunities that ProRaw can afford our mutual customers," a representative for Adobe said. "We don't have any specifics that we can share at this time."

It's also worth mentioning that support for basic raw photos on the iPhone will still be available to third parties. In fact, developers can offer support for both raw and ProRaw photos in their apps.

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