Smartphone cameras and software that automatically processes images have gotten so good at creating great photos on the fly that most people don’t even carry a separate camera anymore (with the exception of some Gen Z’s that go old). There are many apps that can apply filters to make a photo look even better, but if you really want to upgrade your mobile photography skills, consider the format the pros use: RAW.
Editing a RAW file is more work, but it allows the photographer to have more control over the light and color in the image after it’s taken, and in some cases have enough pixels to crop the photo significantly and make it look sharp. Here is a guide to get started.
What is RAW?
“RAW” stands for raw data and lots. Many phone cameras automatically capture images and save them as JPEG or HEIC files; these files compress and discard some of the image data to reduce the file size. However, when you choose to shoot images as RAW files, you get uncompressed and unprocessed data from the camera’s sensor. Without compression, RAW images contain more detail and color to work with. But the files can be huge.
There are many specialized camera tools available in app stores that capture and edit RAW files. (We’ll talk about those later.) But if you’re just messing around for now, here’s how to use the options available on the latest iPhone and Android models, as well as other free tools.
iPhone’s RAW settings
On an iPhone 12 Pro (or later Pro and Pro Max models) running at least iOS 14.3, you can capture and store RAW files by going to the main Settings app and selecting Camera, then Formats. Tap the button next to Apple ProRAW, Apple’s variation on RAW format. On iPhone 14 Pro models, you can choose the resolution to store your RAW files: 12 megapixels or 48 megapixels.
Next, open the iOS Camera app, align the shot and select RAW at the top right of the screen. Now all you have to do is tap the shutter button to save the file to the camera roll.
A 48-megapixel file will provide well-detailed photos, even with significant cropping, but the file size of each photo can be 75 megabytes or larger. Larger file sizes are less of an issue if you have an iPhone with terabytes of space, but phones with less storage can run out of space quickly.
Only images taken with the iPhone’s main camera can be recorded at 48 megapixels. Those taken with the phone’s wide-angle or telephoto cameras (or photos taken in night mode or with a flash) are automatically recorded at 12 megapixels.
RAW options for Android
Finding RAW settings on an Android phone varies by device and manufacturer, so check your phone’s support site for specific instructions.
If you have one of Google’s Pixel phones running Android 13, go to the Camera app and tap the Down arrow in the top left corner, then select More Settings, then Advanced. Next, tap the button next to the RAW + JPEG control. The camera captures the image in both JPEG and RAW formats, but saves larger files in a separate RAW folder in the Google Photos app.
On Samsung’s Galaxy phones, the Camera settings include a Pro mode and advanced image options for saving images as RAW files. In settings, go to “Format and advanced options” and tap the button for RAW copies. For its latest Galaxy phones, Samsung has also recently released the free Expert RAW camera app available in the Galaxy Store.
Edit your RAW files
If you have an iPhone, you can use Apple’s Photo app to edit RAW files. Google Photos offers “limited” support for the format for Android phones, but older photo editing app Snapseed has a tool for editing RAW files. The Snapseed app, which is free and works on both Android and iOS, has a support site with an online tutorial for beginners and a tutorial video on YouTube.
At first glance, RAW files can look flat, blurry and cumbersome. But you can take advantage of all that extra data when you start processing them in a compatible photo editing program.
In the editing application, you can use the onscreen slider and other controls to adjust the white balance, which neutralizes the color tones of an image; change the pose; remove parts of the picture from the shadows; deepen colors and more.
Some photographers prefer to process RAW files using the tools in Adobe Lightroom, which has mobile versions (free, with in-app purchases) for Android, iPhone, and iPad devices. Adobe’s site has a tutorial, as do many websites specializing in digital photography.
To edit your photos on a larger screen, you can store the files on a cloud server or transfer the file from your mobile device to a desktop computer using Wi-Fi or AirDrop, and then use the subscription desktop version of Adobe Lightroom or many desktop photo apps (including Apple’s Photos for Mac).
When you’re ready for more advanced techniques using RAW files, you can purchase or subscribe to numerous dedicated photography apps in your app store, including VSCO (for Android and iOS) and ON1 Photo RAW (also for Android and iOS). For those who use iPhone and iPad for editing, you can also consider Halide Mark II, Darkroom and RAW Power apps.
When you’re done editing your RAW image, you can save it in JPEG or other common formats for sharing, printing, or painting.