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RAW images and Android - everything you need to know

You've probably seen (or heard) a bit of talk about RAW images and Android lately. Some of us are pretty excited about what this brings to our smartphones, and the very cool stuff we can do with RAW images transferred to our computers. And some of us are a little confused about what a RAW image is, and why all these Android camera nerds are excited about it.

Simply put, having a camera on your Android that takes RAW images means you have a better set of image data to use when editing the picture than you would with a standard jpeg image. While the small sensor and fixed focal length on a smartphone means it won't measure up to a "real" camera, you can now capture shots with your Android that simply weren't possible before. HDR can only do so much ...

Let's get our hands dirty and look at what a RAW image is, and what you can do with one once you've captured it.

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What exactly is a RAW image?

RAW on Android

If you grab an Android fresh out of the box and take a picture with the camera, you'll probably get a rather nice looking picture placed into your gallery. The image you get was built from the data the sensor collected from all the tiny points of different colored light (the pixels) and optimised for things like balanced whites, sharp edges, and noise reduction (among other things) and then given a last pass optimization so it looks great on your screen. When this is done, the extra image data is discarded. The final result is a jpeg image that has a much smaller file size, and is built using special software to look as good as an algorithm thinks it can look. If you have a modern Android, you're probably going to be pleased with the outcome most of the time.

When you have an Android that is capable of shooting in RAW + jpg, you get the same output as above, plus a file that contains a minimally processed version of all the image data collected by the sensor. The sensor collects data from areas that are very dark, or very light, or that appear to be the wrong color to our eyes and more, but usually discards a good portion of this after jpeg optimization. In a RAW image, this data is kept so that special software can manipulate it.

You probably don't need to use the RAW format for most of the pictures you take with your Android. On a phone like the LG G4, the jpeg output is well optimized and is likely as good as your result would be if you used all the image data and built your own jpeg from it with an image editor. Sometimes, though, you can use the RAW data to fix an image that the automatic algorithms can't seem to get right. And some of us just like to toy with things — RAW files are perfect for that.

What RAW file format does Android use, and why does it matter?

DNG files

Android (as of Lollipop 5.0) has a method where the camera can capture RAW images in the DNG format. DNG (Digital Negative) is an open lossless RAW image format written by Adobe in 2004. It's based on the TIFF format, and the files contain the image data, at least one .jpg preview, and metadata that allows programs to read and edit the file. This is why they are such big files — there is a lot of information in there.

For the folks writing Android software and building Android devices, having an open standards-based file format is pretty important. They can easily and freely distribute the software as well as update for newer versions as well as ensure backwards-compatibility. And there are less royalties to pay — every penny counts.

To users like you and me, this only matters when finding software that can view or edit the files. DNG is a widely adopted format, and you'll find it's well supported in many image editors on Windows, Mac and Linux (and even lesser-known Unix variants). Chances are you already have software on your computer that can view DNG files and make small edits. We'll look at dedicated programs to edit DNG files in the next section, but know that RAW for Android uses a well-supported and popular format for anyone who wants to dive in and do some serious editing.

We also have to remember than while RAW support is really cool and allows for some amazing edits to the photos we take with our Androids, it does nothing to increase the limitations of a small fixed focal length camera. We're not going to be able to capture as much data as a larger sensor camera, and your smartphone isn't going to replace a DSLR any time soon. Go into things with the right expectations so you're not disappointed.

How do I edit my RAW files?

Lightroom

For starters, you'll need to understand that a computer is necessary for the best results here. I'm sure someone, somewhere, is busy building a really good DNG editor for Android. But to make the most out of your RAW images you need a big screen and fairly complicated software. So plug your phone in (or use another method to transfer the .DNG files from your phone to your computer) and save a copy on your computer.

There are plenty of options for RAW file editing on the computer. Windows and Mac users can use Photoshop or Lightroom (as well as less-expensive or even free alternatives like GIMP or Photoshop Express) and most Linux distributions will have a package for DarkTable, ImageMagick or digiKam as well as GIMP. I do most of my RAW image editing in Lightroom, but the alternatives work well and there is no one best choice.

Once you have the file and the software to edit things, you can begin to adjust things. You should have complete control over exposure, white balance, sharpening and the like, and you can make non-destructive adjustments to the image data. It might take some practice to make the images look as good or better than the camera's jpeg output, but it can also be pretty darn fun.

Tiny waterfall

What all this allows you to do is shoot your pictures to get good focus and framing, then adjust the exposure and do any sharpening or noise reduction by hand afterwards. You can take some spectacular photos this way if you want to take the time to play with things. The image you see above was shot in manual mode with the shutter open for .5 seconds to make the water look the way it does. I then transferred the RAW file into Lightroom and made the exposure a bit "darker" (a slow shutter makes everything too bright) to get the finished picture. Something like this can't be done with automatic modes or jpeg images.

If you don't feel like taking the time to play with things, always remember that your camera probably takes great photos with everything on automatic, too. Not every picture needs to be shot in RAW and edited, and not everyone wants to go through all this to get a good picture.

Does my Android take RAW photos?

RAW camera on Android

Maybe. A pre-requisite is Lollipop, but not every Lollipop phone uses the camera2 API that allows RAW images to be taken, and not every camera app uses them on phones that do support it.

  • The LG G4 takes RAW photos with the stock camera app
  • The Nexus 6 takes RAW photos with a third party camera app
  • The Samsung Galaxy S6 is expected to get RAW camera support with a coming update
  • The HTC One M9 takes RAW photos with the stock camera app

Other phones may also support RAW capture, and updates may bring support to phones like the Note 4 or the Moto X which do not currently support the whole of the camera2 API. The best bet if you have questions about RAW support is to check the forums. They know everything in there. Use them.

If you're looking for an app to take RAW photos, there are plenty. The popular ones are Manual Camera (opens in new tab), Camera FV-5 (opens in new tab) and L Camera. I've used all three on the Nexus 6 with good results, but again hit those forums for more recommendations.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

35 Comments
  • Please sign my petition to get Camera 2 API support on Note 4 :)
    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/implement-camera-api-2-in-note-4-firm...
  • While I am not a huge fans of petitions like this, it is ridiculous that we do not have that support on our phone. Does the S6 even support it?
  • Jerry, the RAW vs JPEG in the article was mostly about post-processing. While most people don't really care, the RAW vs JPEG is just as much about the processing itself. RAW is everything the sensors see. Most processors are CMOS which means that the camera post processes the light based on an algorythm. That's what generates the JPEG which takes one pixel and averages its appearance to nearby pixels to make the file smaller. You loose data, especially in fine detail and edges. The CCD sensors don't process at the sensor (not hardware). They process by software and only by choice. At least that's how digital cameras and security cameras do it. If a phone has a CMOS camera sensor and RAW is needed, the API has to tell the hardware post processing to stop. The major advantage to RAW is not just the post processing you described but also the information that remains for the fine detail and edges. The pixels are what they are, not averaged with nearby pixels.
  • He wrote that in the first paragraph of the first page. He worded it differently and wasn't quite as specific but that's essentially what he wrote.
    "The image you get was built from the data the sensor collected from all the tiny points of different colored light (the pixels) and optimized for things like balanced whites, sharp edges, and noise reduction (among other things) and then given a last pass optimization so it looks great on your screen. When this is done, the extra image data is discarded."
  • RAW isn't meant to look great on your screen. JPG is. In fact they all look pretty boring just SOC.
  • The OnePlus takes RAW photos as well
  • Sweet irrelevant post bro.
  • Irrelevant to you or irrelevant because Jerry just happened to miss a device in the list of devices that support RAW formatting? Marilyn Mosby is awesome!!!
  • It's irrelevant because Jerry listed devices by respectable OEM's that don't play games when it comes to supply of their devices. Except for Nexus(always selling out too fast when first released: N4, N5, N7), and HTC(always coming up with last minute iterations, or better iterations, not available in your country). But other than those exceptions. Seems like Jerry did just fine sticking to this examples, assuming you don't mind that the G4 is not even available yet.
  • Its took me longer to get a Nexus 4 and 5 then it did for my first OnePlus. The bottom line is the OnePlus supports taking pictures inn RAW format. Jerry left it of the list. I don't care what you feel about the company, the facts are the facts. Marilyn Mosby is awesome!!!
  • I left lots of phones off that list. That's why I said other phones may support it as well.
  • I know Jerry but even almost a year later there's so much hate for the OnePlus I had to get that dig in and sit back and wait for the venom. I'm never disappointed.
  • You need a hobby
  • I have several...how about you?
  • are the raiders really using that helmet? I'm on the easy coast, so maybe they wore it once last year and I missed it. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I wish...someone did updated helmet renders on Reddit or Bleacher Report Marilyn Mosby is awesome!!!
  • Oneplus rules, RAW pics are the best Posted via Android Central App
  • don't forget the Nexus 5 also have raw support. I've bought the manual camera and it works perfectly.
  • "For starters, you'll need to understand that a computer is necessary for the best results here. I'm sure someone, somewhere, is busy building a really good DNG editor for Android" --->
    Looks like the author has not checked out the ADOBE LIGHTROOM app. They offer dng editing support.
  • Looks someone missed the part where I said "really good"
  • You beat me by mere seconds. On a side note - Phil mentioned on the podcast that Lightroom for Android automatically uploads the DNG files to Adobe Creative Cloud? An article on that would be fantastic....
  • He said "really good" - have you tried using those sliders on a phone screen? There's hope for the future, but there's support and there's really good support.
  • Dear Sony and T-Mobile, still waiting for Lollipop on my Xperia Z3. After this long of a wait these options should be included as a courtesy for our patience. I don't care about much of the other things Lollipop brings besides improvements to the camera experience. Sigh. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Both Sony and TMo were reading this article and have noted your disappointment.
  • Let me help, @johnlegere pls.
  • Wrong article to cry about your phone in. Forums maybe?
  • I think that one important point was skipped over here-- if you're not planning on editing your photos, and I mean serious editing, not slapping a filter on them, shooting in RAW will just use up disk space more quickly. If you're just uploading to Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, stick with JPEG. But if you're finding yourself putting your camera into manual mode, and playing with settings to get a better image, RAW may be for you. I typically use the stock camera for the generic, throw-away images, then use a different app that allows more control for the serious ones-- I wouldn't shoot RAW in the stock app, but I would shoot RAW in the other app. That way I don't need to worry about disk space or changing settings, I just need to pick the right app at the start and I'm set.
  • Lovely article, Thank you for the valuable info.. I didnt know all of that
  • Was the G4. Shutter speeds go from 1/6000 to 30 seconds
  • Nice article Jerry... Hopefully you will find the time to get a little more into showing what all can be done with light room as opposed to the free programs. The newer cameras just keep adding more to our phones and we have to learn how to get the most out of them... and this is a great place to stay informed.. Posted via the Android Central App from my HTC m8
  • I been doing some self research into the topic of phone cameras for as long as they have been around, and the first thing I would like to say is RAW is a great idea. How many of us, have taken a great photo, only to find it's crap on the PC, and the photo is, only good for social media. I would like to take that one in a millon shot, and be able to edit it, and turn it into a real photo you can cherish.
    The fact is most great phone camera sensors come from Sony or Samsung. Now both these two manufacture's aren't in a hurry to offer RAW on their products, for one simple reason. They both make Compact Camera's and by allowing RAW to start filtering into camera phones, would take sales away from their Compact range. Android introduced Camera2 features in their Lollipop OS, but its the manufacturer who allows it into their products. That's why the likes of LG with their G4, Motorola with their Nexus 6 and many more other smaller companies don't have a problem allowing these Lollipop features like Camera 2 appear on their products, because they don't have control of the Compact Camera market, and have nothing to fear in lost sales.
    And even though rumours are circulating that Camera2 features might appear on the Samsung S6 or one of Sony's phone camera's, I would say you would be paying a high price for a top of the line model, with this feature, from Sony or Samsung unlike what you find with a brand that's not into Compact Cameras.
  • Thank u for the info Posted via Android Central App
  • How many bit/channel does this RAW capture from sensor and writes to file?
    When I'm using my DSLR (Canon t2i) I set it to RAW+JPG so I can immediately use the JPG but if I want to later improve some tones there are 14bit/channel to use and it's a big difference when brightening some shadows to the normal 8bit/channel in JPEG
  • Sad my old nexus 4 doesn't seem to support it! Posted via the Android Central App
  • >"and optimised for things like balanced whites, sharp edges" Jerry, seriously? You used "s" instead of "z"? I don't see you saying "colour" instead of "color".... :)