Apple ProRAW Redefines the Meaning of Raw Files

Historically, a “raw” file from a camera has typically been considered the purest form of image a camera can produce, a straight dump of sensor data that leaves a lot of leeway for editing — a digital negative, if you will.

The reality, though, is that even a raw file from a digital camera has contained some elements of a manufacturer’s interpretation through color science and the nature of coding light into pixels. But while that hand has been light in the past, Apple’s new “ProRaw” format on the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max blow that concept out of the water. The heavily processed “raw” files from the phone include all of Apple’s computational science baked right into the file, leading to the question of what a raw file really is.

But for some, such as YouTuber and photographer Lee Zavitz, it might not even matter. The dynamic range and image quality gains shown in his video bring it up to the levels of a “professional mirrorless camera,” as he describes it. That is high praise for a camera that makes phone calls and has a sensor the size of most point-and-shoot cameras of yesteryear.

I kept watching the video, waiting for the catch. He compared standard iPhone raw files from third-party apps (such as Pro Camera by Moment) to the ProRAW format from the Apple camera app built into the phone. Both versions will appear as standard DNG files, but the Apple version will have Apple’s computational imaging parameters baked in. There doesn’t appear to be a way to control the extent of how they are baked in, and it makes sense. Computational imaging is probably hard-wired into the pipeline for the default camera app.

Example after example shows the ProRAW format trouncing the standard raw files when it comes to things such as dynamic range, noise, overall image quality. Shadows lifted in a ProRAW file showed zero (really, zero) noise, while the regular raw files showed plenty of the kind you’d expect from a camera with a really, really small sensor.

However, while throughout the video, things seemed rosy, the catch was revealed at the end — a zoom in of some of the ProRaw photos showed a lot of waxy, painterly patterns in areas of the photos. It’s something I’ve noticed that was always in the default JPG processing for Apple’s files since I’ve had my iPhone 6s, and it was disappointing to see that appearing in the ProRAW files, suggesting that they are not as magical as they seem. I would often prefer the slightly grainier raw files of that old iPhone I had just because they looked less like they had Vaseline smeared over the lens. It’s why I sing the praises of the Pixel series’ photo-processing.

So, can Apple’s ProRaw files really be considered raw files if there’s already so much processing built into the format? Does this change the definition of what should be considered a raw file? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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"So, can Apple’s ProRaw files really be considered raw files if there’s already so much processing built into the format?"


Spoon fed photography from apple...

What matters, of course, is the result, particularly for casual photography, which is what the iPhone is used for by 99% of its users.

The post title is misleading and should have been qualified; redefines meaning of raw files within iphones. I expected comparisons to RAW files from DSLR/ILC cameras.

They always are! haha

Does Photoshop/Lightroom already have "access" to all the computational settings in the raw files?
I thought the software had to be updated for that purpose. 🤔

Technically it doesn't, but updates ensure no surprises find their way in. I don't think people realize how the camera profile can really change the look of a photo. The standard adobe camera raw applies a look that I don't like as much as my camera standard profiles which look closer to the real SOOC jpg's you might see.

You are right. The standard Adobe camera raw is the worst. I use mostly the Nikon profiles in CP1 and Photoshop. Just testing the "ProStandard" files in CP1.

$1400 camera

All camera manufacturers process their RAW files. It's why we have things like CR2, NEF and ARW files from Canon, Nikon and Sony rather than everyone using TIFF or Adobe's DNG. The manufacturers want photos from their cameras to start from a base that gives them the classic "look" of that particular manufacturer. Even though it's impossible to tell, just by looking at the post-processed picture, what camera the RAW file came from.

Gotta be a teeny sensor. How are the prints?

This is the million-dollar question. I've never been able to get better than an 8x10 out of my old iPhone and even that's a stretch, you could really tell. I could also tell apart the Nikon 1" sensors from APS-C, so it does matter!

With iPhone photos one has a fighting chance for good prints at ISO 32 (sunlight). It's uphill from there.