How to make your smartphone photos so much better
Smartphone cameras and software that automatically processes images have become so good at creating fantastic photos on the fly that most people don’t even carry a separate camera anymore (well, with the exception of some smartphone users). Gen Z going retro). There are plenty of apps out there that can apply a filter to an image to make it look even better, but if you really want to improve your mobile photography skills, consider the format the pros use: RAW.
Editing a RAW file takes more work, but it allows the photographer to have more control over the light and color of the image after it’s captured – and in some cases, enough pixels to crop so meaningful the photo and keep it sharp. Here is a guide to get started.
What is RAW?
“RAW” stands for raw data – and lots of data. Many phone cameras automatically capture and save images as JPEG or HEIC files, which reduce and delete some of the image data to reduce file size. However, when you choose to capture images as RAW files, you get uncompressed and unprocessed data from the camera 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 that capture and edit RAW files available in app stores. (More on those later.) But if you’re just dabbling for now, here’s how to use the options available on the latest iPhone and Android models, plus other free tools. .
iPhone RAW Settings
On an iPhone 12 Pro (or later Pro and Pro Max models) running at least the iOS 14.3 operating system, you can capture and store RAW files by going to the main Settings app and choosing Camera, then Formats. Tap the button next to Apple ProRAW, which is Apple’s variant of the RAW format. On the iPhone 14 Pro models, you can choose the resolution to store your RAW files: 12 megapixels or a whopping 48 megapixels.
Then open the iOS Camera app, line up the shot, and choose the RAW feature at the top right of the screen. Now all you have to do is press the shutter button to save the file to the camera roll.
A 48-megapixel file allows for photos with good detail even with heavy cropping, but the file size of each photo can be 75 megabytes or more. If you have an iPhone with a terabyte of space, larger files are less of a problem, but phones with less storage can quickly run out of space.
Only images taken with the main iPhone camera can be saved at 48 megapixel resolution. Those taken with the phone’s wide-angle or telephoto cameras (or photos captured in night mode or with a flash) are automatically saved at 12-megapixel resolution.
RAW options for Android
Finding RAW settings on an Android phone varies depending on the device and its 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 choose More settings, then Advanced. Next, press the button next to the RAW + JPEG control. The camera will capture the image in both JPEG and RAW formats, but it will save larger files to a separate RAW folder on the Google Photos app.
On Samsung’s Galaxy phones, the camera settings include a Pro mode and advanced image options to save images as RAW files. In the settings, go to “Format and advanced options” and press the button for RAW copies. For the latest Galaxy phone models, Samsung has also recently released its 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. For Android phones, Google Photos offers “limited” support for the format, but its 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 and YouTube instructional video for beginners.
At first glance, RAW files may appear flat, blurry, and large. But once you start processing them in a compatible photo editing program, you can take advantage of all that extra data.
In the editing application, you can use the onscreen slider and other controls to adjust an image’s white balance, which neutralizes color casts; change the exposure; pull parts of the image out of shadows; deepen colors and more.
Some photographers prefer to manage RAW files using tools from Adobe Lightroom, which have mobile versions for Android, iPhone, and iPad devices (free, with in-app purchases). Adobe’s site has a tutorial, as do many digital photography websites.
To edit your photos on a bigger screen, you can store the files on a cloud server or transfer the file from your mobile device to a desktop computer via Wi-Fi or AirDrop, then use the subscription desktop version of Adobe Lightroom or one of many desktop photo apps (including Apple Photos for Mac).
Once you’re ready for more advanced techniques using RAW files, you can purchase or subscribe to the myriad of specialist 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 iPhones and iPads for editing, you can also consider the 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 making art.
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