Your smartphone's camera does a lot of work to make your photos look the way they do. Onboard software takes the data from the image sensor and processes it to create the photo you see when you preview it right after shooting it. RAW photos are, much like their namesake, totally raw and devoid of any processing.
Shooting in RAW gives you the ultimate freedom to handle the processing side of the equation yourself. Editing these images provides the flexibility to get more out of them than you might otherwise get from the software itself. Here's how to do that.
What makes a file RAW
When a phone saves a photo as a JPEG, it does all the processing and compresses it at the same time. A RAW file is both unprocessed and uncompressed, so what you have is the raw data that the image sensor recorded. This is why file sizes are several times larger than they would be as JPEGs, and why they look so dull and desaturated when you first see them. Because these files also save in formats like DNG (Digital Negative), you will need compatible apps to open them for editing.
How to shoot in RAW
By default, phones won't save any photos in RAW. It's an elective option you have to turn on. Your phone also has to support the Android operating system called Camera2 API. In phones that do, you will find it in quick settings at the top of the camera interface, whereas others will require you to turn it on in the camera settings (look for the gear icon). Depending on the phone, RAW may only be available in pro or manual mode, not in the auto photo mode (though the Google Pixel line is an exception). Because other special modes, like portrait and night, have their own processing they don't capture anything in RAW. If your phone's own camera app doesn't include RAW, you may have to go with a third-party app that does.
With RAW capture on, the phone will save both a JPEG and RAW version of each image. This gives you the chance to save or share the JPEG while having the choice to work on the larger image later. Bear in mind that RAW images are big, so they will take up storage space over time. Once you've moved them over to your editing app of choice, you can offload them by backing them up or deleting them from your phone to save space.
How editing brings them to life
The extra data is the key here. For example, if you were to take the same image in JPEG and RAW, and then start editing them the exact same way, you will notice that highlights and shadows wash out on the JPEG much faster than they would in the RAW shot. The same is true of lighting and color. Changing white balance would be too dramatic on the JPEG, whereas subtle changes are easier to pull off in RAW. This is a big deal because if white is off in a JPEG, fixing it will affect every other color in the frame.
One of the beauties of RAW photography is the level of compensation it affords you, particularly if the image appears over or underexposed. A phone's software will do its best to fix it when it happens with a JPEG, except the results will always sacrifice some part of the image to get there. When editing a RAW file, you don't have to make as many compromises because of the more intricate detail retained in the visual data.
Mobile and desktop apps offer a number of tools to manipulate and process the image to your liking. For example, in Adobe Lightroom, you will have sliders for a wide range of visual aspects that go well beyond just exposure and contrast. You can adjust things like white and black levels, clarity, texture, highlights, shadows, color temperature, noise reduction, and much more.
Then there are what are called "presets," pre-saved slider combinations that you can apply in one shot. You can create your own or purchase and download others from various sources online. Use other apps, like Snapseed and VSCO, and you can do the same thing there.
Power in your hands
You probably won't need to shoot in RAW all the time. Your standard snap or photo that you just want to share quickly won't be ideal for going this route. Since shooting this way is a two-step process requiring you to put in work to edit your images, you may prefer to hold off on only doing it for photos where composition matters more to you.
In other words, if you want to get the best shot, RAW gives you one of the best ways to get there. While HDR and night modes can help a great deal to automate otherwise tricky shooting situations, real flexibility lies with the raw data in your own hands. Learn how to shoot in RAW, and your photo-editing will hit a new plateau.
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Ted Kritsonis loves taking photos when the opportunity arises, be it on a camera or smartphone. Beyond sports and world history, you can find him tinkering with gadgets or enjoying a cigar. Often times, that will be with a pair of headphones or earbuds playing tunes. When he's not testing something, he's working on the next episode of his podcast, Tednologic.