It lets you capture photos in a file format that retains much more image data than the standard file format the iPhone uses by default. The big advantage is that you get to do a lot more fine-tuning during the editing process. Apple leaves this new feature disabled by default, but it's easy to turn it on and begin using it. But first, a primer on what exactly RAW means.
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What Is ProRAW?
You're probably familiar with JPEG, the file format most phones and even professional cameras use for photos. It's the most common format due to its ability to compress image data and reduce a picture's file size without dramatically affecting quality. There are similar advantages to HEIC, a newer format Apple uses that creates even tinier file sizes while still maintaining good image quality.
But when it comes to editing JPEG photos, on Instagram or your default photo-editing app, the amount of tweaking you can do is limited. You might not be able to fix that over-exposed sky, for example. That's because JPEGs/HEICs don't have as much image data to work with, since a great amount of that data gets discarded when the file is compressed. That's why most professional photographers shoot in RAW. The RAW format is lossless, meaning it contains unprocessed image data straight from the camera's sensor. That richer data set can make all the difference in fixing a blown-out sky, correcting white balance, or tuning the colors of plants and humans to look more natural. The tradeoff is the file size; a RAW image is several times the size of a JPEG or an HEIC.
Serious iPhone photographers have been able to shoot in RAW for some time via third-party apps like Halide. But what makes the new ProRAW feature special is that you don't need to use another camera app—ProRAW images can be captured in the iPhone's native camera app. More importantly, it utilizes all of Apple's advanced computational photography features built into the iPhone. So you're getting the benefits of features like noise reduction, Deep Fusion, and Smart HDR, which merges frames before and after you tap the shutter button for a better-exposed photo.
Where JPEGs/HEICs are processed images ready to be shared, and RAW photos are unprocessed images ready to be edited, ProRAW is in the middle. It has some image processing, so you have a better starting point than with a RAW image, and you still get the greater editing options for tweaking saturation, contrast, exposure, and other parameters.
How to Turn on ProRAW
This new feature is available only on the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. It doesn't work on the other iPhone 12 models—only the more capable (and more expensive) phones.
Capturing with ProRAW is very easy. First, you'll need to update iOS. The feature was added to iOS 14.3, so update your phone to get the latest version. Head to Settings > General > Software Update to install it. As usual, make sure your iPhone is backed up as a precaution (we have a guide here) before updating.
After it's installed, head to Settings > Camera > Formats and toggle on Apple ProRAW. Now if you open the camera app, you'll see a RAW icon at the top right with a strike through it. That means it's turned off, and your camera is set to capture HEIC/JPEG images. Tap the RAW icon to start shooting RAW photos, and tap it again to go back to shooting HEIC/JPEG.
If you want the camera to leave ProRAW turned on all the time, you'll need to have it preserve your settings. To do this, head to Settings > Camera > Preserve Settings and toggle on Apple ProRAW. I'd caution against using ProRAW all the time though. While a photo I snapped in in HEIC mode is 2.5 megabytes, that same shot in ProRAW mode is 29 MB. Shooting RAW all the time will chew through your iPhone's storage fast.
ProRAW photos use the DNG file format (a type of RAW), which means it's compatible with a wide variety of photo-editing apps, like Adobe Lightroom. But of course, the DNG format is also supported in Apple's Photos app. When you capture a ProRAW image, you'll see a "RAW" icon in the top left of the Photos app. Tap the edit button, and you'll see the proper ProRAW image to tweak to your heart's content.
Most social media platforms won't let you upload a DNG file, so you almost always will have to edit your image before sharing (the Photos app automatically converts the image to a JPEG afterward). ProRAW images can be captured with all the cameras on the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max, including the selfie cam.
When to Use ProRAW
It's important to know that ProRAW isn't necessarily going to make your photos better. It opens up the potential to get your photo closer to a particular look you're chasing, but it might not make all that much of a difference in certain lighting situations.
The best example I have that demonstrates why you may want to toggle on ProRAW is below. The middle is the unedited file without ProRAW turned on. It has a lot of noise and it's too dark in several areas. Now look at what happens when I try to edit it (the photo on the right). It looks … worse. Brightening the image made the streetlights uncontrollably bright, and the rest of the image starts to look unnatural, from the over-sharpening to the over-saturation.
Turn your attention to the ProRAW image (the left photo). I edited this in the Photos app (so it's now a JPEG), and it's like it came from a completely different camera; it looks real. The colors look natural, it's not packed with noise like the other two, and it's not masked in darkness.
I found the advantages of ProRAW to be more apparent in low-light and high-contrast scenarios, but give it a try and experiment. It's easy to switch back and forth between HEIC/JPEG, and you can easily see the difference when you start editing photos. It might even inspire you to play around with bigger, more professional cameras, whose image sensors can capture far more data and give you even greater flexibility in the editing room.