How Apple Ups Its Photography Game Using The RAW and AI-Powered 'ProRAW'

At this time around, Apple likes to append the word 'Pro' on its products that are dedicated to 'professionals' alike.

The iPhone 11 series for example, Apple added 'Pro' as a way to show that three cameras is better than two, or one. On the iPhone 12 series, the 'Pro' also added LiDAR among others.

The MacBook Pro, the iPad Pro, also have that 'Pro'-added weight and sophistications onto them, if compared to MacBook Air and the basic models of iPads.

The Pro appendage is also to name Apple's 'professional' approach to the RAW format.

Naming it 'ProRAW', the feature that was introduced alongside iOS 14.3 for iPhone 12 Pro lineup, Apple claims that it "gives you greater creative control when editing photos."

As a hybrid image format, Apple also claims that it gives the best of both worlds: AI-powered computational photography on one hand, and the flexibility of a 12-bit RAW file on the other.

In other words, ProRAW gives users the customization of a RAW file, infused with the iPhone's computationally photo smarts capabilities.

With ProRAW, Apple can further differentiate its more expensive iPhones with the lesser and cheaper iPhones.

Apple ProRAW settings
Apple ProRAW settings on iPhone 12 Pro Max running iOS 14.3. (Credit: Apple)

For starters, a RAW file contains all the minimally processed data taken from a camera sensor(s).

The RAW files are named "raw' because the images' data within aren't yet processed, and therefore aren't suitable to be printed or edited through bitmap image editors. RAW files regarded as "negative" and need to be adjusted before they can be converted to the usual "positive" file formats, like JPEG or others, which are ready for storage, printing, or further manipulation.

It should be noted that on iPhones, the ProRAW images are actually using the 12-bit DNG files, and not the standard RAW files.

RAW files are known as "digital negatives". They are truly "raw" and the data contained within is almost unprocessed after coming directly from the camera sensor. In addition to basic exposure information, RAW files also store other camera-specific data such as focus point, picture controls, etc..

In Apple's case, ProRAW uses DNG format, which is Adobe's approach for a a RAW-like proprietary image standard (Adobe Digital Negative) that was created to store image data in a generic, highly-compatible format. But unlike RAW files that contain specific formats based on manufacturer and camera type, DNG doesn't have that.

This allows DNG files to be made smaller in size if compared to the traditional RAW. It also has the checksum information to prevent file corruption among others.

But DNG is considered a RAW image file, hence the ProRAW naming.

iPhone 12 Pro
With ProRAW, Apple tries to circumvent the limitation of small cameras. (Credit: Apple)

And on iPhones, ProRAW is Apple's way of enticing users to be shooting RAW images, as opposed to the usual HEIF format, the JPEG alternative that Apple adopted starting the iPhone 11.

Initially, iPhone 12 Pro devices are the only iPhones that have the needed proprietary software for converting RAW images into standard RBG images.

Comparing ProRAW's DNG and HEIF, the results are subtle, but only under regular light conditions.

This is because Apple's Smart HDR and Deep Fusion are helping with creating the details. The differences aren't subtle anymore when taking photos in lower lighting conditions, or when cropping the images in close.

By combining AI-powered computational photography on one hand, and the flexibility of a 12-bit RAW file on the other, ProRAW DNGs taken in Night Mode can capture noticeably more details than HEIF. This is because with ProRAW, Apple can stack multiple images using AI to enhance the detail and texture.

Starting the iPhone 12 Pros running iOS 14.3, users for the first time can capture RAW images in extremely low light using mobile devices. In low lit conditions, the differences between DNGs are HEIF are very noticeable, and there should be no contest between them.

For ProRAW-capable iPhones, there is no good reason for users to not use ProRAW.

With greater details, clarity and customization, ProRAW certainly ups Apple's photography game a notch.

Apple's ProRAW
ProRAW's multi-frame processing. (Credit: Apple)

The only huge downside of using ProRAW, is the file storage and processing.

Despite smaller than the regular RAW, ProRAW's DNGs that support 14 stops of dynamic range are much larger in size than their HEIF counterparts, especially when shooting in Night Mode.

"ProRAW files are 10 to 12 times larger than HEIF or JPEG files. If you store the files on your device, you might run out of space more quickly than you expect," said Apple.

While users can indeed share the unedited ProRAW photo, which has the .dng file extension, the file cannot be processed by the web and social media apps because DNG is practically the "negative" of digital imagery.

Users should first make the DNG "positive" before uploading it, or before doing further editing using third-party apps.

Using ProRAW, Apple tries to circumvent the limitations of its smaller camera sensors if compared to DSLR cameras. Traditionally, smaller cameras create a lot of noise and generate a narrow dynamic range. HEIF improves JPEG, and so do Smart HDR, Deep Fusion and Night Mode.

ProRAW improves it a step further.

It should also be noted that, again, 'Pro' in Apple's term, is more like the "professional" oriented feature. The same goes to ProRAW.

This is why to most people, shooting in RAW can sometimes create photos that are unsatisfying, because results can often look underwhelming if compared to a proper processed shot using HEIF or JPEG. But this is where RAW/DNG shines, as the format allows keen photographers to get some missing details with the help of the format's multi-frame processing.