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Improve your iPhone photos with Halide and RAW (DNG)

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Throughout history, the iPhone has had exceptional camera systems. Combining the latest hardware with cutting-edge software, Apple’s always acted as the trendsetter in the mobile photography filed.

Even though the competition eventually caught up, and even slightly surpassed the iPhone with a few high-end models, the iPhone photos still have that characteristic feel that pleases many eyes.

But regardless of where they rank in the industry, the iPhone cameras are still smartphone cameras. This means, the iPhone snaps still can’t compete with those from professional, multi-thousand-dollar DSLR setups. However, the gap is getting smaller with each new generation, and we’re already at a point where photos from the iPhone 11 Pro or the Huawei P40 can trade a few blows with the professional cameras. They still can’t win the race, and probably never will, but the results are satisfying for an average user.

iPhone’s default camera (especially on the latest models) can capture decent shots out of the box. Just take your phone, shoot a few snaps, and even without any editing, you’ll end up with usable images. You can do that thanks to Apple’s advanced photo-processing algorithms and powerful chipsets (especially A13 Bionic).

On the other hand, as good as the stock camera app is, it’s still somewhat limited compared to premium third-party options. For example, you can’t take RAW photos with the stock camera, which is essential for creating high-quality photos just by using your iPhone. It almost feels like you’re not doing your phone justice by using just a portion of its snapping capabilities.

But not anymore, as I’ll lead you through the whole process of taking and editing high-quality photos on your iPhone. It requires a few extra steps and some basic editing skills, but the end result will make it worth every grey hair you grow in the process.

Use Halide to shoot RAW

There are numerous third-party apps in the App Store capable of shooting in RAW. However, I feel Halide is the best option because of its wide range of advanced features that still come in a simple-to-use package. It allows you to control every important aspect of your image (white balance, bokeh, exposure, ISO, etc.) without feeling overwhelmed by a complex interface. And of course, it exports RAW.

When you open Halide, it welcomes you with a standard camera-app interface. There’s an auto/manual focus button, ISO, AWB, Histogram, etc. I won’t talk about each of these features individually, as the article would’ve been too broad. If you want to make the most out of it, it’s a good idea to run through Halide’s in-app tutorials that explain how each feature of the app work. You can find the tutorials under Settings > How-To and Support.

The most important thing for our guide is to make sure shooting RAW is enabled. It should be by default, but just to make sure, head over to Settings > Advanced Settings, and enable Save RAW + Processed Image.

Once you make sure everything’s in place, just point your phone at something, and shoot a few photos. The camera will shoot both JPEG and RAW, and you can preview both versions in Halide’s photo library. The buttons in the upper-right corner will tell you which version is on the screen. You’ll immediately notice that the RAW version looks worse at first glance, usually underexposed or blown out. But that how it should be, we’ll get to it later.

To save the RAW version to your internal memory, tap the Share button, and choose RAW.

Okay, so you have your RAW photo now, and it looks terrible. What now? Let’s first explain what RAW actually is and what to do with it once you take a snap.

What is RAW and why you should be using it?

When you press the shutter button on a camera, in this case your iPhone, the process goes something like this: the lens captures every single bit of information inside the frame, your phone then uses a string of algorithms to process the image, and exports it as JPEG. You’re probably familiar with the JPEG extension, as it’s a universally used image format that works across most devices.

But as I said, a JPEG image is a heavily processed image. Your phone (camera) processes the original sample to deliver the best possible result, and most importantly, optimize its size so it doesn’t take up too much storage space. You’re, more or less, ending up with a finished product.

Because of that, a JPEG image loses most of its original flexibility. To achieve the best possible optimization, algorithms usually get rid of the “unnecessary” details, which then limits your possibilities in editing.

But you can skip the processing part altogether, and export the image in its original state. Those uncompressed photos come in the RAW format. A RAW image preserves all the precious detail and data the lens originally captured, which gives you much more freedom in post. You should also keep in mind that a RAW image is multiple times larger than a JPEG. So I recommend only keeping them briefly. Once you edit a RAW image, your app will export it as a much lighter JPEG, so there’s no need of piling them up in your storage.

You’ll notice that a RAW version of your photo doesn’t look nearly “as good” as JPEG. It looks unpolished, under(over)exposed, and generally doesn’t have a nice feeling to it. But what it does have is all the information your camera originally captured. All the information your device didn’t get rid of while processing the photo. And that’s precisely what we need.

We can say a RAW photo looks exactly like what it really is. An incomplete output that’s waiting for you to apply the finishing touches.

Why are RAW photos on the iPhone shown as DNG?

Okay, now you know what RAW is all about, and you’ve taken and exported a few photos to your phone. But when you find them in the Photos app, you’ll notice the photos use the.DNG extension. RAW is nowhere to be found.

That’s because RAW is not an actual file format. It’s a generally used term for uncompressed image files, so it doesn’t stand for anything. Different camera manufacturers use their own file formats. For example, Canon uses .CR2, Nikon uses .NEF for its RAW files, etc. All these file formats fall under the RAW hood.

Apple uses the DNG file extension for the iPhone, which is essentially just “another version” of RAW. It was created by Adobe as a proprietary image standard, so it can be used in a generic manner, unlike the above-mentioned manufacturer-specific RAW formats. Obviously, DNG works in all Adobe applications, which is important for the last step of our guide.

Finish in Lightroom

And now the most exciting (read: nerve-racking) part of our journey. You’ve taken your RAW photo and you know its backstory. Now it’s time to turn this ugly, under-exposed duckling into a beautiful, bright swan.

I use Lightroom to edit all my photos because it’s the most advanced, most complete photo editing app you can have on your smartphone. You don’t even need the premium version, as most edits can be done in the base app. If for some reason, you don’t like Lightroom, there are good alternatives like Snapseed that will give you similar results. It’s really up to you which app you’ll choose.

But, here’s the catch. I can’t tell you exactly what to do. Photography, and especially photo-editing isn’t an exact science. There’s no magic formula or a set of instructions that will make your photos look good, because no photo is the same, and what applies for one, doesn’t have to work for another.

To take full advantage of your photos, you’ll have to learn a thing or two about editing in general. After that, you’ll need to get to know Lightroom (or any other app) better, in order to apply that knowledge.

Now, if you know absolutely nothing about photography in the first place, don’t get discouraged. While mastering every aspect of this craft takes countless hours (years) of hard work, you can crack the basics relatively fast. Of course, you won’t become the next Robert Capa, but you’ll get relatively satisfying results after just a few days of playing around with sliders in Lightroom. At least your photos will be better than your friends’ photos, who probably just know how to take a selfie and apply a filter before uploading to Instagram.

Just remember that if you find yourself to be passionate about photography, keep working and learning, and I’m sure your style will get finer with each new photo you take.

I’ll take myself for example. Before writing this post, I knew absolutely nothing about photo-editing. So, I watched a few videos and read a few articles while preparing this article, and I can say that I’m satisfied with the shots I captured. And we’re talking just a few days of practice.

Picture of Ivan Jenic

Ivan Jenic

Editor-in-chief at Mobile Internist. @ivan_jenic I founded Mobile Internist to help people understand technology better. And maybe solve some annoying problems. That's about it, cheers!
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