July 22nd, 2021
I spent a day in Philadelphia, Pennyslvania recently with a friend and I used that opportunity to limit myself by using the camera on my iPhone 12 Pro Max exclusively. I would use my Fujifilm X-T3 for days like this, but (1) the thought of traveling light was appealing and (2) this gave me a good opportunity to finally try the Apple ProRAW image format. The reviews have largely been positive, but I have never tried it out for myself. While in Philadelphia, we visited the Eastern State Penitentiary, which turned out to be an ideal proving grounds for Apple's new image format.
The iOS App Store has plenty of a great camera apps to choose from but it's hard to argue with Apple's stock Camera app. I considered choosing an app that offers similar flexibility in exposure adjustment as a regular camera, but I find that level of flexibility on a smartphone to be awkward in practice. The touch controls are almost too precise, and I feel like I'm all thumbs when trying to dial in settings. Combine that with interfaces that tend to be more complicated than they need to be and you soon lose the spontaneity of using a smartphone to take photographs. This is where Apple's Camera app excels. It's simple to use, easy enough to change basic settings and, best of all, accessible from the lock screen.
Apple ProRAW is not enabled by default, so it will first require going to Settings > Camera > Formats and set the toggle switch to turn on Apple ProRAW. Going back to the iOS Camera app will reveal a RAW icon in the upper-right corner that can then be toggled on or off. Simple.
Eastern State Penitentiary was largely a scene of high dynamic range, which were ideal conditions for testing Apple ProRAW. When taking photographs, there was no noticeable lag with Apple ProRAW enabled versus JPG or HEIC. Thanks to the iPhone 12's A14 Bionic processor, single or burst exposures were all handled equally well. While the iPhone's camera is generally good at maintaining the correct exposure in a variety of situations, I did find that it tends to overexpose. It's not by a lot, but I regularly used the exposure compensation mode to dial back the exposure. I also disabled Night Mode. While Night Mode is an impressive computational photography feature, images were often overly processed with an unrealistic exposure given the conditions. I primarily used the tap-to-AE/AF lock feature along with the exposure compensation adjustment to help bias the exposure to what was more realistic in the prison that day.
We toured the prison for an hour and the iOS Camera app worked mostly flawlessly. On a couple of occasions, the RAW icon would disable when having not disabled it previously. This caused me to not get RAW images for images that I wish I had, but I quickly made it a habit to confirm that RAW was enabled before taking a photograph.
I considered editing the images on my iPhone on the ride back home, but I decided to wait and edit them using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) on my Mac. While the edit tools on the iPhone are robust, it is not quite the same as a full desktop suite with localized editing controls and picture profile adjustments.
Just a quick word on exporting Apple ProRAW files. To the unfamiliar, Apple ProRAW files can be exported from your Camera Roll via the Share menu using AirDrop. The caveat is that AirDrop is available for Apple products only, which means that it's slightly more work to export photos if you are a Windows user. To export your photos to Windows, your two options are either (1) via a file transfer in iTunes or (2) using iCloud Photos if photo sync is enabled on your iPhone. In either scenario, files will be saved as DNG files that you can then open in your preferred photo editor.
The first thing I learned about Apple ProRAW in Adobe Camera Raw that I would not have learned if I had used my iPhone to edit the photographs are Apple's picture profiles. There are two: Apple ProRaw and Apple ProRaw Monochrome. I compared these two profiles with the Adobe Color and Adobe Monochrome profiles that I often use, and the Apple ProRAW profiles rendered slightly greater contrast, the histograms favoring the shadows and blacks. This skew in the profiles seemed consistent across all images that I took. Apple's image processing has never been neutral, so it made sense that their profiles would reflect that. In the end, I decided to use the Adobe Color profile as my starting point since the histogram had a more reasonable tonal distribution.
As one would expect, Apple ProRAW stores a lot of information, and the file size shows. A DNG file was, on average, at least 7 times larger than its sibling JPG. However, the trade-off in size is worth the flexibility in editing. In Adobe Camera Raw, Apple ProRAW images allowed a reasonable amount of latitude recovering highlights and shadows. Specular highlights are a challenge but, to be fair, it is on most cameras. That's the thing with Apple ProRAW: manage your expectations. You won't get as smooth of roll-off in specular highlights or recover great detail when lifting shadows as you might with images coming from a larger sensor, but you do get some room for adjustment that you wouldn't have otherwise.
The 12-megapixel files maintained a good level of detail. With the Apple ProRAW profiles, the exported DNG's will have a preset level of sharpening applied (50 in the Detail panel in ACR), so images will already appear crisp. I reset this panel prior to making any edits and the images held together well when I applied sharpening at the end. Like any image, let your eyes be the judge and avoid halos due to over-sharpening. I haven't printed any of the images I took that day, but I wouldn't be surprised if the images printed well.
Out of habit, I began to compare Apple ProRAW to my Fuji RAW files. It's a popular thought experiment to compare how close smartphone cameras are to bridging the gap with other cameras, full frame or otherwise. While it may be a useful reference to indicate how far smartphone cameras have come, I decided to abandon that train of thought in favor for judging Apple ProRAW on its own merits. Simply put, the Apple ProRAW images look good. It takes an already good camera feature set and extends those capabilities to allow for more creative flexibility. If you own an iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max, there is no reason why you shouldn't be using Apple ProRAW.