ProRaw: I tested Apple's new iOS 14.3 trick and my iPhone 12 photos look amazing
With the addition of ProRaw in iOS 14.3, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max truly earn their "pro" designation.
Patrick HollandManaging Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
Patrick's play The Cowboy is included in the Best American Short Plays 2011-12 anthology. He co-wrote and starred in the short film Baden Krunk that won the Best Wisconsin Short Film award at the Milwaukee Short Film Festival.
With the release of iOS 14.3, the
iPhone 12 Pro
and 12 Pro Max get Apple's new raw photo format called ProRaw. The new file lets you have the customization of a raw file built atop the iPhone's computational photo smarts. For the past few weeks, I've been testing out the new feature and I'm impressed at how ProRaw transformed my phone photography. ProRaw is as significant a camera addition as the faster aperture lens Apple added to the main cameras on the
family and the new sensor-based stabilization found on the
iPhone 12 Pro Max
ProRaw works on all four iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max cameras. 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. The approach Apple took with ProRaw is similar to how Google saves raw files built from HDR Plus on Pixel phones. ProRaw files are created from multiple image frames and contain 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.
There are several notable differences between taking a raw photo on an iPhone and a ProRaw photo. The first is that you can only take raw photos using a third-party app like Halide or Moment. ProRaw photos can be taken using the default Camera app. Next, ProRaw files are large. For example, I took a photo of the same subject using each file format on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. The HEIC file was 5.2 megabytes, the JPEG was 6.8MB, the raw photo (taken with the Moment app) was 16.5MB and the ProRaw photo was a whopping 34.7MB.
ProRaw's larger file size contains much more image data compared to a standard raw file. A ProRaw file is built on a foundation of computational photography from Smart HDR, Deep Fusion and Night Mode, which can result in a picture with significantly less image noise, better dynamic range and sharper detail and textures.
Below are two JPEG files I made, one from a ProRaw photo and another from a raw file taken with the Moment app. On both, I adjusted only the white balance, highlights and shadows. If you look at the photo made from the raw version, you can see lots of color image noise on the bricks of the building and most conspicuously in the dark night sky. The photo made from the ProRaw version hardly has any image noise because of the Night Mode processing the iPhone 12 Pro Max did when I took the photo.
Below is another comparison of JPEG files. Again, one is from a ProRaw file and the other from a raw file taken with the Moment app. I adjusted the exposure, white balance, highlights and shadows on both. The biggest difference between the two is the dynamic range and image noise. Take a look at the sky in the ProRaw version. There was enough info in the file to bring the highlights back from white into a blue sky. There is much less image noise in the shadows compared to the raw version and there's increased sharpness in details like the bricks in the top left and rocks on the bottom left.
Not every ProRaw photo I took was vastly different than the regular raw version. But overall, having access to all that computational data was nice. And this is just the beginning of ProRaw. In future updates to ProRaw, third-party apps will be able to use even more of the data from Smart HDR. Adobe Lightroom, for example, will be able to access the layer map data from Smart HDR so you can isolate different aspects of your photo (like faces, people or skies) when you edit.
I also like how Apple implemented ProRaw into the native Camera app. By default, ProRaw is turned off. And that's smart because not everyone who owns a 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max is going to want to use it. But if you want 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. Then, open the default Camera app and in the top right corner, you'll see a new Raw button for quickly switching between ProRaw photos and JPEG (or HEIC) photos.
Watch this: iPhone 12 Pro Max review: Filled to the brim
The majority of photos I take on the iPhone 12 Pro Max are still JPEGs. But for those photos that are more deliberate or where I need every drop of image info to edit it, ProRaw is just a simple tap of the Raw button away.
During my testing I used the native Photos app to edit ProRaw photos as well as third-party apps like Halide, Moment, VSCO and Lightroom for iOS. Basically any app that can edit a DNG raw file can edit a ProRaw DNG file. I'm excited to see third-party apps support ProRaw more fully in the future.
"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."
ProRaw isn't going to be for everyone, hence why it's not on the iPhone 12 and
. But it does mark the first time Apple has distinguished its camera software on its Pro iPhone models with a feature that is truly targeted at professionals. And I'd argue that even if you aren't a pro, but someone who enjoys editing your photos before you post them to Instagram or Snapchat, that ProRaw is definitely worth a try.
Below are more photos I edited from ProRaw files taken with the iPhone 12 Pro Max.