Jacob Krol/CNN
CNN —  

As the flagship 2020 iPhones, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max have the best cameras. Three lenses —- wide, ultra-wide and telephoto —- plus a LiDAR sensor make it quick and easy to point and shoot to get a nearly perfect shot. The iPhone 12 Pro Max stretches the optical zoom from 2x to 2.5x while also delivering physically larger sensors and improved stabilization compared to previous models.

Taking the iPhone’s imaging prowess a step further is ProRAW, which rolled out with iOS 14.3 in December. It’s a new way to shoot on the 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max. And it works with all the lenses.

ProRAW is Apple’s take on a RAW image —- a mode available on DSLRs and other cameras that contains a range of information. When you normally just point and shoot to capture an image on an iPhone, it picks the correct settings for that shot. A JPEG or HEIC format edits the image with processing to deliver a final image. With RAW you get full access to make adjustments and to really customize the shot. ProRAW keeps all the normal tropes of RAW but adds in Apple’s proprietary imaging techniques —- SmartHDR and DeepFusion. It’s a large image file that combines computational photography and the ability to adjust core aspects of that image in editing.

Once you have a ProRAW shot, you can edit it in a variety of apps, like Photos on your iPhone or Mac, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Snapseed, among others. We’ve been testing ProRAW for several weeks and we also brought in a leading photographer to talk about the experience. Katja Sherlock is the person behind @NYC Instagram account, which boasts over 800,000 followers and nearly 6,600 posts. And you guessed it, she shoots and edits with an iPhone 12 Pro Max.

How to shoot in ProRAW

Jacob Krol/CNN

It’s really easy to enable ProRAW on an iPhone 12 Pro or 12 Pro Max. You’ll navigate to Settings > Camera > Formats and under “Photo Capture” enable Apple ProRAW. From then on, you’ll see RAW in the right corner which you can enable or disable with a tap.

With ProRAW turned on, you won’t be able to capture Live Photos —- those still images that become 3 second videos when engaged. Aside from that and the output file, a larger 25MB image, it’s essentially the classic iPhone shooting experience. SmartHDR is still engaged and DeepFusion will work to capture as much detail as possible. The iPhone still focuses quickly and images are captured immediately after pressing the shutter button.

Another thing to note is how images captured in ProRAW will look after being shot.

“From a practical standpoint, I find that most of my daytime images shot with ProRAW look pretty good straight from the camera due to the computational processing and only need minor edits,” Sherlock explains. “When I’m shooting in low light or high contrast, the initial ProRAW image can look a little dark and muted but that is to be expected.”

Users are able to open the image in the editing app to tweak highlights or balance out the exposure level. We also concur that ProRAW images captured in darker conditions do look quite dark out of the lens. Increasing highlights in the image won’t necessarily result in grain, but rather a brighter image that maintains detail.

Sherlock summed it up quite well: “The key is to practice shooting in different lighting conditions, and once you understand the subtle differences you’ll be confident in ProRAW’s capabilities in capturing the detail.” A great way to learn is by doing, and that’s been our route for testing ProRAW along with any smartphone’s camera here at CNN Underscored.

Sizing up ProRAW

Let’s put the 25MB size into perspective. An average photo takes up between a megabyte to 2MB of space depending on how you save them. That’s a sizable difference and it will eat up storage faster. There are a few solutions, but Sherlock noted that a “content backup plan” is a wise move.

“I manage my content library on iCloud and external drives, and I have a back-up strategy that includes a media server,” says Sherlock.

For many, it could just be a matter of managing when you’re shooting in RAW versus just a traditional shot.

Syncing images with a computer is pretty simple and you can pick up an external drive for a relatively affordable price. Our picks for the best external drives are here. Opting for an iCloud storage plan is likely the easiest route since it will automatically backup your photo library.

An all-in-one solution

Jacob Krol/CNN

Shooting in ProRAW is pretty straightforward based on our testing. You can just capture images as you normally would, and while they may appear darker in the short term, editing them is where the fun begins. Images shot with bountiful lighting come out crisper and more natural.

“My daytime images shot in neighborhoods around New York and edited in ProRAW look more vibrant and true to life,” Sherlock notes “That’s one of the things that I noticed after working with ProRAW in the City for a few weeks.”

The real change comes with what you do after you take the image. Sherlock describes ProRAW as “…like cooking a fully baked pie and then having the ability to go in after the fact and adjust the ingredients to your taste…that includes having a larger dynamic range (14 stops) and the ability to change exposure, white balance, and tones after the fact without degrading the overall image quality.” With your typical camera, making those adjustments often results in graininess and overall damage to the image.

And that’s just normal RAW. Apple bundles its photography smarts in with DeepFusion, which improves detail levels by tapping into the Neural Engine inside the iPhone. And like how ProRAW improves editing with lighter images, DeepFusion improves the editing for darker images. Better yet, you don’t need to buy a license for Photoshop or Lightroom to edit these. You can make these adjustments from your pocket.

As we noted in our reviews, the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max deliver a zippy and almost instantaneous experience —- and this extends into photo editing. Sherlock notes that the 12 Pro Max and ProRAW are game changers.

“To be able to edit RAW on a phone is something that I could only do with a laptop and a pro camera in the past,” she says “Anytime a groundbreaking innovation like this becomes accessible I get really excited.”

This really increases the device’s value. You can start making adjustments to the ProRAW files directly in the Photos app on your phone. We’ve also used Snapseed and Afterlight. With a darker image, we’d start by adjusting the exposure levels or even opting to raise the contrast. Exporting or saving those images happens in a matter of seconds.

Jacob Krol/CNN

And if you were to bring these images into a Pro-grade desktop application like Photoshop or Lightroom, it would open up with an adjustment panel. This is the same interface you’d see for a standard RAW image, and gives you instant access to editing. We’ll share a gallery below with some examples of the same shot captured in HEIC and in ProRAW with some edits.

But better yet, Sherlock’s been shooting and sharing ProRAW images on the @NYC account since December. And yes, she captured the recent row of snowstorms that the city experienced.

“I was taking a shot of Gapstow Bridge in Central Park after a snowstorm. The sun had just set and it was getting dark. So it’s a difficult, challenging environment where the light is changing fast. The image sprang to life after some simple adjustments in Apple’s Photos app,” says Sherlock.

“I began by recovering the shadow detail in the darker areas and increased the contrast and blackpoint to create a more striking image. Dialing up the vibrance and saturation gives the final image a little bit more zest and pop. My last step in the process was to add a little bit of sharpness.”

You’ll begin to see a pattern or route that you can follow to handle these edits. If the photo is darker, you can opt to adjust highlights or the exposure of the shot. If the end shot is overtly bright, you can dim those down. And with any of these apps, you can make a change and then revert it which is handy for when you’re first shooting in this way.

Normally after you take a shot, you might make some minimal adjustments but generally stop if the image quality begins to degrade or if details get hairy. ProRAW gives you the power to make those edits by packaging all of the nitty-gritty (dare we say nerdy) details into the image. You can make the adjustments as you see fit or even with a trial and error route —- it won’t hurt the image though, which is a big plus. And since it’s digital, you can always undo the changes and start over.

It’s also the biggest step in iPhone photography yet from the software side. Building on the computational and AI strengths that are built-in, Apple is giving creatives the chance to really make an image their own. And it’s found in a device that you may already have. Sherlock described it as if she has a “mobile production studio in my pocket. For me being able to plan, shoot, edit and publish my content on such a powerful device at a moment’s notice is so satisfying.”

Let’s recap

Currently, ProRAW is only available on the iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max —- we don’t expect it to arrive on the 12 Mini or 12 as a software update. Just make sure you’re running the latest version of iOS to take advantage of it. And as we noted above, our test photos will be found below and we’re also embedding a few other ProRAW edited shots from Sherlock courtesy of @NYC. She also frequently opts to post these shots as stories given that the editing can be done directly on the iPhone itself.

We’ll leave you with a helpful tip from Sherlock as well: “I would recommend at the very least that you use ProRAW in low light situations, especially at night or indoors, and in high contrast scenes with bright sunshine and dark shadows.”

She frequently uses Photos, Snapseed, Lightroom and VSCO while on the go. We’d add Afterlight and PS Express to that list. And after a few days with ProRAW you might find yourself switching back to the standard shooting experience —- after all, it still delivers a great shot. But we have a feeling you’ll be exercising your creative muscles a bit more and keep ProRAW in the rotation.