Last week, I decided to head to the Santa Cruz Mountains with a friend. The idea was to leave San Francisco, go down I-280, turn into Portola Valley, and then meander our way to Santa Cruz before grabbing a coffee and driving back down Highway 1. We would stop wherever, whenever a photo beckoned and a composition lured us. I was traveling light — just my Leica SL and the newly released iPhone 12 Pro Max, which I have on loan from Apple.
I wanted to use the adventure to focus purely on the iPhone 12 Pro Max as a camera and exploit the capabilities of Apple’s new photo format, ProRAW. I mean, everyone is talking about it. Everyone seems to love it. I just wanted to know what all the fuss is about.
Ben Sandofsky of Halide Camera has written an in-depth overview of the Apple ProRAW, which is worth the time and effort. He points out that, “Technically, there’s no such thing as a ProRAW file. ProRAW images are regular DNG files that take advantage of some little known features in the specification, and introduce a few new ones.”
From Apple’s website:
- Apple ProRAW is a standard RAW format that is enhanced by iPhone image processing. With iOS 14.3 or later, the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max can capture images in ProRAW format using any of its cameras, including using the Smart HDR, Deep Fusion, or Night mode features.
- ProRAW allows you more capability to enhance exposure, color, and white balance in your photo.
- You can edit ProRAW photos in the Photos app and other third-party photo apps. (I prefer using Darkroom and Lightroom CC.)
- To enable your iPhone to take photos with ProRAW, go to Settings > Camera > Formats, then turn on Apple ProRAW under Photo Capture. To take a ProRAW photo, tap RAW in the Camera app, then take your shot.
- ProRAW files are 10 to 12 times larger than JPEG files. The12-bit ProRAW is 25MB vs. a 12-bit native RAW that is only around 12MB.
- If you store the files on your device, you might run out of space more quickly than expected. The iCloud fills up fast too.
- There is a JPEG file that comes with ProRAW, and when you send a photo as a text message, you are sharing that JPEG file.
- You can also share the original unedited ProRAW photo, which has the .dng file extension.
- Halide’s Sandofsky points out that while a “traditional RAW capture takes as little as 50 milliseconds. ProRAW takes between two and three seconds to finish processing.”
Austin Mann, a photographer who puts the iPhones through their paces, says you should use Apple ProRaw when shooting in extreme conditions — low light, high dynamic light (such as mid-day when highlights and shadows are at their extremes,) and when you want to blow up the photos. In other words, if the light doesn’t look right, just go for ProRAW.
With the 14 stops of dynamic range, and improvements in computational photographic capabilities, it is clear that you could use the iPhone Pro Max as a primary camera and not miss mid-range cameras even a bit. Many of us fail to appreciate the digital-to-digital lifecycle of the images today: They are made digitally and consumed digitally, most likely on a smartphone — and only very rarely on anything larger than a laptop.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter what size sensor is used to capture an image. What matters is how much computing power can be applied to the imaging data to enhance its ability to normalize the discrepancies and improve quality. Smartphones are improving their machine learning capabilities and their graphical processing abilities at such a rapid clip that a combination of software and hardware will make camera phone images experience a steep quality curve.
On my trip around the Santa Cruz range, I encountered a range of lighting conditions — rain, fog, harsh sunshine, flat light, and sublime cloudy skies. I wondered if the iPhone 12 Pro Max could handle the ever-shifting landscape. Since I am a deliberate shooter and don’t take too many images, I took about 30 photos with the iPhone, most of them while wandering among the towering redwoods that are common to California.
I didn’t realize it at that time, but since I wasn’t focusing on the ISO or shutter speed, my concentration was on composition. I was looking at the world in front of me, trying to see it in black & white. I was looking for textures, the dimensionality of light, and contrast. I was looking for details that would make the photos feel complete.
After coming home, I sat down and looked at the images on my iPad Pro’s big screen: the ProRAW files looked richer than usual RAW files I typically capture with Halide. They felt a bit more saturated, the white balance felt more accurate, and in general, the color image popped from the screen.
However, for me, the right image is one that loses color to show its true colors. I imported them to Lightroom CC and applied my custom B&W preset to the selection of images. After a few adjustments to highlights and exposure, I opened the files in Photoshop to extract details in some places and use curves to give some depth to the images. (I am sharing a small subset of these photos.)
When reviewing these images on a big iMac Pro screen, I was gob-smacked by the details that were visible to the naked eye. I was able to get my shades of black and whiter whites from the files. The gradual gradation of grays is part of my editing process, and I didn’t need to do anything much to achieve that. You can feel the fog dancing among the trees. You can feel the sunshine trying to fight its way through the damp.
My favorite image in this set is that of leafless birch trees standing in a field of burnt grass. When I saw them, I felt as if they were thumbing their nose to the dark, brooding atmosphere around them. The iPhone caught that feeling, and ProRAW rendered it beautifully. You can see the details of the grass, the storm clouds, the ridge in the distant back, and the shiny whites of the birch trees standing in repose.
As a photographer, I couldn’t be more pleased with how well I could use ProRAW files to create the desired interpretation of what I saw. I can’t wait to see what more I can do with this new format in the near future.
12.22.2020, San Francisco.