The iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max are the first iPhones to support ProRAW, Apple’s take on the RAW image format. In professional photography, RAW files are a must for getting the most out of your images—but what does it mean for the iPhone?
What Is ProRAW?
ProRAW is Apple’s implementation of the RAW image format, available on the iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and likely on future iPhones. The RAW format is commonly found on mid-to-high-end cameras, allowing photographers to capture as much information in a scene as possible. Whereas lossy formats like JPEG and HEIF will discard “unnecessary” information when you squeeze the shutter, RAW formats hold on to most of it.
These files are essentially raw data, hence the name. This data is rendered by an image editing application like Photoshop or Apple’s own Photos app. By altering certain parameters, you can change how the photo is rendered after it’s taken. RAW files are perfect for making edits like changing the exposure, where an abundance of raw data preserves more detail in shadows and highlights.
It might help to think of RAW photos like the negatives of the film era. The format is not used for sharing photos, but rather, for editing them before they are exported to more efficient formats like JPEG. This is why the RAW files are commonly used by professionals and photography enthusiasts who spend more time poring over their edits in apps like Photoshop and Lightroom.
Apple’s ProRAW uses the ubiquitous digital negative file format .DNG, which means that you can (theoretically) open a ProRAW image in any editor that supports .DNG files. This is different from camera manufacturers like Sony that still use proprietary formats, which can make editing images difficult in older software. Apple recommends using editors that explicitly support ProRAW, so if you see unexpected results, you might want to try a different app.
You can use ProRAW with all lenses on your iPhone 12 Pro or Pro Max. The format is also compatible with features like SmartHDR, Deep Fusion, and Night mode.
Don’t get it confused with the similarly named ProRes RAW, which is a lossless video codec used on high-end cameras. ProRAW is used purely for still images and isn’t compatible with video.
Potential Drawbacks of Shooting in ProRAW
The biggest drawback to shooting RAW on any camera—iPhone 12 or otherwise—is the size of the files you produce. While lossy formats like JPEG discard as much data as possible to shrink the file size, RAW files take up much more space. Apple states that ProRAW files are “10 to 12 times larger” than HEIF or JPEG files.
A ProRAW file averages around 25 megabytes, which comes out to be 40 photos per gigabyte of phone storage. If you have a smaller capacity iPhone Pro, you’ll likely need to manage your files to avoid running out of space. Even if you go for the 512GB option, you probably don’t want to keep many ProRAW files hanging around on your iPhone indefinitely.
If you’re using iCloud Photos, you might need to increase your storage plan from 50GB to 200GB or 2TB to make room for your lossless images. You may also want to move these elsewhere for archival purposes while keeping HEIF or JPEGs in your library for sharing. This will take a bit of manual management on your side.
When you choose to shoot in ProRAW, you shoot solely in ProRAW. This is different from many cameras that support shooting in both JPEG and RAW. This makes it easy for you to quickly share a JPEG when required while holding on to the RAW files for more flexibility in your editing suite later. With the iPhone, you’ll have to make JPEGs from your ProRAW files once you’ve edited them.
When you capture an image in ProRAW, you’re foregoing much of the processing that Apple applies to standard HEIF/JPEG snaps. This isn’t an issue for photographers who want control over the edit, but it does mean that a ProRAW shot will often look worse than even a JPEG directly out of the camera (with no editing applied). Tests performed by GSMArena demonstrate this.
It’s also worth noting that Live Photos are not captured alongside ProRAW and that you can’t shoot ProRAW photos using Portrait mode.
Ultimately, your intent should dictate the format: Is this photo for sharing on Facebook or Instagram? Pick HEIF/JPEG. Are you planning to spend time editing your photo later, or do you need the best possible quality for printing or more “professional” purposes? ProRAW might give you the edge.
So Why Choose ProRAW?
There are a few instances in which you might want to choose ProRAW to open up new possibilities in terms of photography. For starters, you might not have a mirrorless or digital SLR camera that supports RAW shooting, so the iPhone 12 Pro can ease you into the world of lossless image editing.
But let’s look at a more specific example. You’re at the beach with your family and you want to take a photo to share with everyone at a later date. You might want to get the photo printed and framed later, so you hit the RAW button in the viewfinder.
By shooting ProRAW, you’ll limit the amount of visible compression in the image. There will be more shades of blue in the sky than if the image had been compressed to the point of introducing banding. You’ll also capture a lot more information in terms of shadow and highlight detail.
This allows you to pull back the highlights and make the sun (and its reflections) a little less blinding while preserving color information. If any subjects in the photo are a bit dark, you can extract more detail from the shadows without the image quality taking a severe hit. You should be able to make more edits without the image falling apart, as it would with a heavily compressed JPEG.
You may need to do more work on the image in post to get it up to standard, since the iPhone processes non-RAW images with sharpening, noise reduction, and more depending on the conditions. Ultimately, though, you’ll have more control over the finished image, and a more pleasing image at the end of it than if you’d relied on HEIF or JPEG.
And since enabling RAW in the Camera app is only a tap away, you could always just fire off a few non-RAW photos anyway for comparison.
How to Enable ProRAW on Your iPhone
To use ProRAW, you’ll first need to enable the ProRAW feature in your iPhone’s Settings. Head to Settings > Camera > Formats and enable Apple ProRAW.
Remember, as of the end of 2020, this is an iPhone 12 Pro feature that requires iOS 14.3 or later. If you have an iPhone 12 Pro model and you don’t see the option, try updating your iPhone’s software. Future iPhones released in 2021 or later will likely support ProRAW as well—but the feature might only be available on Pro models for a few years.
With ProRAW turned on under Settings, launch the Camera app either from your home screen, via Control Center, or by asking Siri. In all supported modes, you’ll see a “RAW” button near the Live Photos toggle. When inactive, it will have a line through it. Tap on it to activate it and shoot in RAW.
With RAW shooting enabled, you can now take photos as you normally would. Remember to toggle RAW off again to preserve space.
Can’t Use ProRAW? These Apps Also Shoot RAW
As of the end of 2020, ProRAW is only available on the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max. It won’t come to older iPhones, but it may arrive on future iPhones.
If your iPhone doesn’t support ProRAW, you can still shoot in RAW using a compatible iPhone app. There are many camera apps for the iPhone that can do this, from freebies like VSCO and Adobe Lightroom to paid apps like Manual ($3.99), and freemium apps like Halide.
Unfortunately, you won’t get the same quality of RAW file from these apps that you would from an iPhone 12 Pro using the stock Camera app. CNET tested this out and found that ProRAW helps eliminate noise and improve color reproduction compared with similar apps. You also lose access to features like Night Mode and SmartHDR.
ProRAW Is Nice to Have, but Not Essential
ProRAW isn’t a game-changer for most people. It will be hard for Apple to convince the average iPhone user to upgrade to the Pro tier based on ProRAW alone. It’s hard to recommend the upgrade even to photography enthusiasts who likely already own cameras with larger sensors that take better photos already. With that in mind, it’s a nice feature to have access to if you already own a device that can do it.
Here’s hoping that ProRAW trickles down to non-Pro users as Apple’s systems-on-chip become more powerful and efficient going forward. Let’s not forget that features like multiple cameras, Portrait mode, and even Face ID were once reserved for the most expensive iPhones, and now, they’re on virtually every model.
For a refresh on iPhone photography formats, learn more about the difference between JPEG and HEIC.