Is it worth using Apple ProRAW? We’re testing it on the iPhone 12 Pro Max

Back in October, Apple announced that 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max will support a new ProRAW image format that combines Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion with the uncompressed data from the image sensor. With the release of iOS 14.3 a few days ago, the ProRAW capture was unlocked on the iPhone 12 Pro pair, and I immediately set out to test it out.

The idea was to show how much of a difference it makes to take JPEGs on iPhone, post the samples, and call it a day. As the tests went on, it turned out to be less than a simple matter, so the following article was born.

Is it worth using Apple ProRAW?  We're testing it on the iPhone 12 Pro Max

A preface to the method and mindset used in this article. I take a lot of photos with my phone (which is currently the iPhone 12 Pro Max) and take them in regular old compressed JPEG (or HEIC in this case). I also edit them on the phone with a few different apps (but mostly Apple’s Photos) – I add a touch of micro-contrast, a touch of warmth, a slight vignette – similar minor tweaks. Most days I also use a suitable camera and only shoot RAW. However, I have found that capturing RAW on a phone doesn’t give any better results than the phone’s excellent computer photography.

In this article, I’ll test to see if that has changed. Will Apple ProRAW give you better photos instead of JPEGs? I’ll be editing the pictures on the phone myself using my own tools (one exception is mentioned below). Now let’s dive in without further preambles.

According to Apple, ProRAW gives you all the RAW image data as well as noise reduction and multiple exposure corrections. Essentially, this means you get the right exposure in the highlights and shadows, as well as lower noise reduction as a starting point. However, you won’t get any sharpening and color adjustments. That means you have to start with a less sharp, less punchy image and take a few steps to make the DNG look as appealing as the JPEG before you end up making net profits.

Is it worth using Apple ProRAW?  We're testing it on the iPhone 12 Pro Max

Here are some full pictures of a pristine JPEG from the phone and a pristine (converted) DNG from the phone side by side. Note the mildness of the DNG images compared to the JPEGs.

JPEG, unprocessed • DNG, unprocessed

The next pictures are JPEGs edited to your liking on the phone and the corresponding DNGs edited to your liking on the phone. The point here is to see if the ProRAWs offer a tangible benefit after editing. ProRAW gives you more precise control over sharpening, white balance, and highlights. The biggest difference you can see in ProRAW’s favor is in the extreme dynamic range test shot (shot straight into the sun) – the information and detail in the shadows is clearly superior.

However, Apple’s Smart HDR 3 and Deep Fusion increase the contrast and luminance of certain colors like orange, yellow, red, and green, resulting in brighter and more pleasant-looking trees and grass. There is no easy way to restore that luminance with the basic photo editing you have with Apple’s Photos app.

In the end, the JPEGs straight from the phone are better and even after the changes to the ProRAW DNGs, the little benefit is using them. Use JPEGs in normal, well-lit conditions.

JPEG edited to taste • DNG edited to taste

Next, I took the DNGs off the phone and brought them into Lightroom on a PC. I was able to get more detail from the shot (with a slightly lower noise penalty) and there is a noticeable difference in shadow information in the RAW files.

This isn’t new, however – you can always get a little more out of an image by editing the DNG. However, this takes considerably longer. The effort involved in using a complicated third-party software and the resulting image do not justify the effort. The phone works well enough in the second to take the picture and adjust it for you.

JPEG, edited • DNG, edited in Lightroom

I was expecting to get the most out of ProRAW in low light, but Apple’s regular JPEGs turned out to be as good as the DNG. The edited ProRAW images have the least amount of noise edge and a little more highlighting information, but it took a lot of fine-tuning to get them there.

JPEG low-light, processed • DNG low-light, processed

A big advantage of ProRAW is that it can be used in conjunction with the iPhone’s night mode. However, when I look at the images side by side, I don’t see any reasonable reason to edit the DNG file over the JPEG file. Can you?

JPEG night mode, edited • DNG night mode, edited

I wanted to find out if capturing and then editing ProRAW on iPhone 12 Pro Max would help me get better pictures than what I’ve always done – capture in JPEG format and then easily edit the picture on the phone. It was not like that. Computer photography has gotten so good that it does essentially all of the work for you, and I want to add right away.

There’s always a bit more that you can get by editing and using ProRAW instead of JPEG to get a whole lot of extra sensor data. However, this is useful for playing around with white balance or making artistic, whimsical edits that change the entire look of an image. That’s not what I do – I use my phone to capture the world as I see it with a touch of improvement.

If you’re shooting RAW on an iPhone using the Lightroom or Halide apps, turn on ProRAW right away and never look back. It’s better than these other apps just because of its sophisticated noise reduction.

Is it worth using Apple ProRAW?  We're testing it on the iPhone 12 Pro Max

It would be great if Apple enabled a JPEG + RAW capture mode like they do on real cameras. I’m sure the A14 chip has the headroom for that. You may want the ProRAW files to edit, but otherwise rely on the convenience of the fully edited JPEGs.

ProRAW works with night mode, but not portrait mode, and that would be extremely useful. RAW files offer the full potential for manipulating faces and skin tones.

There’s a place for ProRAW and it’s great that Apple unlocked it for their Pro iPhone 12. There are tons of people who want the freedom to edit an image “their own way” and for them ProRAW is just that – a pro version of a RAW. But I’ll stick with my smart computerized JPEGs, thank you very much.