Mobile Phones Step Up to Capture RAW Images

You’ve seen the marketing. The iPhone 7 is Apple’s best camera ever, Google’s getting serious about photography with its Pixel, and Samsung is still on top of its game with the S7, but this only tells half the story.

Smartphones have become ­serious photography tools.

There are a few aspects to this photography revolution. First, naturally, is that the smartphones themselves have become legitimately great cameras. Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaign is testament to this — billboard-ready prints have been coming out of the iOS pocket rocket for the past year.

With iPhone 7 Plus, Apple has gone even further — two cameras are better than one, with the extra telephoto zoom lens. The recently released “portrait mode” is a revelation for happy-snappers. In this mode, the dual cameras on the phablet work together with some software smarts to isolate a subject from a background, emulating the “bokeh” depth of field effect that you would previously only find on a DSLR.

The effect works best on ­people (image recognition is the secret sauce here), subjects have to be very well lit and it can produce some hit-and-miss blurry results, but it’s an impressive tool that will quickly infect Instagram feeds. Portrait mode is great for the casual shooter, but while it remains inconsistent, pro photographers will probably leave it behind in favour of the next aspect of the mobile shooting revolution — raw image support.

Rugged, raw and beautiful

When our smartphone cameras take a photo, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes magic that is taking place to render an image for easy viewing and sharing. What we’re left with most of the time is a JPEG, a compressed version of the image that’s had some sharpening, contrast and colour effects applied. This is the image file you’re left with that’s relatively small and easy to capture and share.

This isn’t the only way to save a digital image, something pro photographers know very well. The alternative, raw images are the unprocessed data that the sensor records when we press the shutter. Typically, raw images look dull and flat and take up a whole lot more storage space, but this extra information is essential for taking your images to the next level. Users can bring out more detail in highlights and shadows, manually colour-balance every shot, and reduce compression artefacts.

In iOS 10, third-party applications have access to the data readout of the sensor, meaning they can capture raw images. I’ve been testing out a few of these new RAW-shooting apps and the results are pretty impressive. There’s a slew of apps that have adopted the RAW-imaging capabilities of the iPhone (currently limited to 6s and 7 models), but among the best are ProCam 4, Manual and Lightroom Mobile. With all three, users can adjust ISO and shutter speeds and capture raw or JPEG images.

Larger than life

I was blown away by the extra scope that the RAW images brought to life in editing. Everything was done on the phone — with images captured in Manual or ProCam, then brought across to Lightroom for grading and finishing.

I spent an afternoon capturing a sunset in the country, a difficult scene for the default camera application. As the sun set, I was left with a choice — either expose for the sky, and lose the detail in the trees and rolling hills; or expose for the landscape, and blow out the colours and texture burning across the horizon. I took both, but neither was particularly pleasant. Swapping over to Manual, the problem disappeared — shooting on auto mode but tapping on the sky for exposure and focus, I captured the scene in RAW and imported the picture into Lightroom. A few quick adjustments to my exposure, highlights and shadows later and I was left with a beautiful image that much more accurately captured the scene.

Simpler scenes benefit from this increased editing headroom, too — test shots in good lighting consistently produced better results. Android users shouldn’t feel left out of the party. Raw support is also present in Lightroom Mobile and a few other third-party apps. The real downside to the increased capacity of these phones is the time factor — you’re going to be spending a lot more time getting the image just right. In a hurry, use the default camera app — they’re truly great these days — but if you’re capturing a memory or just hunting for Instagram followers, try RAW. You will be surprised.

By: James Tindale

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