Don’t get me wrong. I really value the processing headroom of RAW files, whether they’ve been shot on a phone or a full frame camera, but I’m starting to think the iPhone might be a special case.
I use an iPhone 13, which offers JPEG shooting (‘greatest compatibiiity’) or HEIC (‘high efficiency’) but with the additional option of Apple ProRAW. The actual file format is HEIF, but for reasons of its own Apple uses a HEIC extension – but it’s basically the same thing. So going by the standards of regular digital cameras, the RAW option is clearly the best for post-processing later, while the HEIF format, with its 10-bit capture capability, sounds a good second best.
But on the iPhone, things are not what they seem.
1. iPhone HEIC files are 8-bit not 10-bit
So that’s a disappointment right off the bat. HEIF files are still more efficiently compressed than JPEGs, but on the iPhone they are not captured with the 10-bit depth the format is capable of. You can simply open an iPhone HEIC file in Preview on the desktop and hit command-I for the info panel to learn the truth.
Honestly, that’s a bit of a crushing disappointment, because I was putting a lot of faith in the 10-bit potential of HEIC files.
2. iPhone ProRAW files are part-processed linear DNGs
They are not regular RAW files that will be demosaiced by your own RAW processing software. They are demosaiced before being saved as RAWs in the same way that DxO PureRAW produces part-processed Linear DNGs to combine the flexibility of RAW with best-in-class processing.
This is good, because Apple’s RAW demosaicing is probably better than anyone’s, and I know from processing the DNGs from Lightroom’s iOS camera app that results can vary (Adobe Camera RAW – noisy, Capture One – all right).
HOWEVER, this does mean that ProRAW files are big, typically 25MB each. That’s not such a problem with a regular camera and memory cards, but bad news on iPhones with fixed storage.
3. Apple’s computational processing is probably better than any RAW software
This is where the decision gets quite difficult. The JPEG/HEIC files I get from my iPhone are that little bit crisper and better balanced than anything I can achieve with the same files in Capture One, which makes me wonder about the point of shooting RAW.
The iPhone’s HDR tech is now so good I know I’m not going to recover much additional shadow or highlight detail from the RAW files, and if I want to shoot a panorama, RAW is out.
Not only that, I can use a filter and reverse it later. As far as I can see, the iPhone’s filters (I love ‘Noir’) are applied after the image is captured, and you can non-destructively swap them out later.
RAW is not always best
The fact is if I shoot JPEG or HEIC files on my iPhone, I have to work pretty hard in a RAW converter to even match their rendering with a RAW file, let alone improve on it. And why shoot a 25MB ProRAW image that needs editing later when I can shoot a 2.5MB HEIC file that doesn’t.
There’s something else. Let’s not deny it, shooting RAW takes away some of the spontaneity and instant creative decision making of photography. That’s something none of us can afford to lose, if we’re honest.