Photography on smartphones has come an incredibly long way in the last few years, it doesn’t take too much effort to cast the mind back to a time when pixelated VGA images were the norm and the idea of a phone with a camera sensor with even a single megapixel was a distant thought.
Nowadays, imagery on smartphones is big business as Facebook’s billion dollar (or thereabouts) acquisition of Instagram last year is but one testament to. When you pick up a new smartphone, you expect to be able to start taking decent quality pictures with it straight away and, connection provided, share them almost instantaneously. Camera functionality is now so ingrained in smartphone operating systems that there is often a shortcut to get to the camera app from the lock screen, and any security issues this once caused have now been ironed out in many versions.
It was professional photographer Chase Jarvis that said the now trademarked and oft-repeated quote “the best camera is the one that’s with you”, which has become something of a mantra for those invested in smartphone photography. This is true in so far as, sure, if all I have with me is my phone, then what else am I going to use? However, with the rise in both interest and knowledge of the standard user, coupled with the power and ease of use of many editing applications, there is a growing community of people that want to be able to do more. So along with belated improvements to mainstream smartphone cameras such as improved sensor size and physical zoom, one thing being asked for is RAW format shooting. If you don’t know what RAW files are then read on.
RAW vs. JPEG
The following is a brief explanation, for more technical details, follow to Luminous Landscape, DPS or Wikipedia. RAW is not a standard particular file type, more a family of types that different cameras models use when taking pictures. A RAW file is essentially the pure digital data that is stored after the analogue electrical information created from light hitting the camera sensor is converted. Depending on the type of camera (12 / 14 bit recording), each pixel of the image will have 4096 or 16384 unique brightness levels. This RAW file is not actually an ‘image’ as we are familiar with the term and cannot be viewed without software capable of rendering it. JPEG files are the result many of us are familiar with when taking standard pictures. Again without going into too much detail, the camera or smartphone application will take the RAW details, process the information with complex algorithms, apply the filtering / white balance / contrast etc. either pre-programmed into the app or set by the user and produce a final 8 bit image. This image has 256 brightness levels per pixel. JPEG is also a lossy format meaning that during production, they are compressed to save size and some of the original data is discarded.
For many users this is a non-issue, the JPEG production in modern camera applications is extremely good and the differences between images on different models small enough to be disregarded. Creation of JPEG files generally leads to a sharpened image, higher in contrast. The killer point is also that the final JPEG is instantly ready to be uploaded to the web, sent in an MMS or just displayed in your photo gallery application to be viewed. None of this is the case with the RAW file, which needs to be processed by a suitable application before we can even see the result. RAW files are also much bigger, by an order of many megabytes, due to the fact they have not been processed or compressed in any way. So why bother shooting in RAW?
The main reason is for post production / editing. Those extra brightness levels mentioned earlier are absolutely key when fine tuning your images. Your computer and processing program (such as, but by no means limited to Photoshop) is also going to have far more processing power to deal with the initial conversion from RAW to a viewable image than the camera application. End results are always subjective, however addressing issues such as white balance and exposure often have much better results when working on the RAW file as opposed to a JPEG created from it. Sharpening algorithms in different camera models can also vary wildly, creating obvious differences in the JPEG images produced from one manufacturer to another. By processing the RAW files yourself, it is easier to keep a consistent and personal style with your images regardless of camera used to take them. Finally, once the image has been processed and / or edited, the file can be saved and exported in a 16 bit format such as TIFF to retain the quality for future edits and also then compressed down to a JPEG for storage and sharing.
Personally I don’t think the ability to save RAW files is in any way a necessity from a smartphone camera application. I think the majority of users would not have enough understanding to make use of RAW files and the possibility of accidentally changing the setting could create a lot of confusion – imagine taking pictures but not being able to find them or share them straight away, I reckon more than a few people would think that their phone was broken!
That said though, it would be nice to be given the choice of shooting in RAW + JPEG, so that the phone processed JPEG files are immediately available to view and share and the RAW data is there for those who want to process it in more detail later. The issue of storage space is another one to raise. Internal storage and memory cards are getting larger every generation, however with certain devices being unable to accept expandable storage, it could be very easy to accidentally fill up a phone if a RAW file was being saved in conjunction with every JPEG.
In the end to truly allow RAW files on mainstream smartphones, I think it would take an extremely well designed camera application that allowed you to manage the files and inform you which JPEG was related to which RAW file. This would allow you to organise at a much deeper level than is available today without third party file managers. The door would then be open for app developers to create some more powerful tools for processing and editing on our smartphones. With quad core processors, advanced graphics and high definition screens the norm for the newest generation of devices, the hardware is definitely capable, the only thing missing is a new generation of larger smartphone camera sensors.