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Android is now a great platform for photography. The quality of cameras on the best Android phones has improved immeasurably in the last couple of years, as has the software for processing, sharing, and backing up your images. And since Lollipop, Android has had a secret weapon for the keenest photographers — the ability to shoot in RAW.
But what exactly is RAW, how can it benefit you, and how do you get started? Let’s take a look.
What Is RAW?
To understand what a RAW photo is, it’s best to look at how a digital photo is taken. Normally, images are saved in the JPEG format.
The software takes the data captured by the camera’s image sensor, processes it by adjusting exposure, contrast, sharpness, and so on, then compresses it, and finally saves it as a JPEG file. This can be opened in any image viewer.
When shooting RAW, the software takes the data captured by the image sensor, and that’s it.
On Android, this data is saved in a file with the .DNG extension, which is Adobe’s RAW format; other digital cameras often use their own proprietary RAW formats. To open the file, you need specialist software that is compatible with the specific RAW format you’re using.
Processing RAW Files
When you open it, you’ll probably find the RAW image looks a little “flat”. A JPEG is a finished image. It’s processed to be brighter, sharper, and have punchier colors. It can be shared or printed without needing any additional tweaks or filters. A RAW image is not finished — it’s the raw, unprocessed data from the camera’s sensor, and you need to tweak it yourself.
Because RAW images need processing, they won’t normally show up in your photos app of choice, nor will they be backed up to any cloud photos service you use. You also won’t be able to share them directly on Instagram or Flickr.
To get around this, Android camera apps often shoot in RAW+JPEG mode. This saves the RAW file along with a standard — and far more useable — JPEG.
Why Shoot RAW?
This doesn’t sound very convenient. So what are the benefits to shooting RAW?
The main advantage is that RAW files are uncompressed. A typical JPEG taken by a smartphone might be around five megabytes, but an equivalent RAW file could be more like 15. So much information recorded by the camera sensor is discarded from the JPEG, but is retained in the RAW.
As a result the RAW files are much more flexible when being processed — you can uncover fine details in areas of shadow, or recover overexposed areas in the highlights, with no loss of image quality. It can be used for creative purposes and can also produce better results in less than optimal shooting conditions.
RAW images are also better for more technical adjustments, like correcting the white balance, and no matter how many changes you make, the image does not degrade.
RAW needs a lot more work, but it’s a valuable tool if you’re serious about photography, or serious about getting the best from your phone’s camera.
How to Shoot RAW On Android
To shoot in RAW, your phone (or tablet) needs to support an optional part of the Android operating system called the Camera2 API. This must be implemented by the device’s manufacturer and cannot be added via an app. In other words, if your phone doesn’t support it, then RAW shooting is off the menu (unless you want to flash a custom ROM).
Camera2 was introduced with Android 5.0 Lollipop. Most mid- to high-end phones launched since then are likely to support it; it is much more likely to be absent in budget handsets.
As well as needing the Camera2 API, you also need a camera app that can make use of it. It may seem like a no-brainer that if a manufacturer adds a feature, it’ll also give you the software to use it, but no.
At the time of this writing, even the official Google Camera app cannot do RAW shooting (although there are rumors that this will be introduced in the next major update). High-end smartphones are starting to offer it right out of the box, including the LG G5 and Galaxy S7, but if yours doesn’t, you will need a third-party app.
Android Apps For RAW Photography
As we’ve already mentioned, you need specialist software to shoot and process RAW images. If your phone’s built-in camera app doesn’t support it, or if you want to test some more powerful alternatives, there are a number of apps in the Play Store that support RAW.
Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile — the smartphone version of the company’s popular desktop photography app — is the best place to start, as it’s able to both shoot and process RAW images.
The camera is a basic point-and-shoot affair. It’s fine for replacing your phone’s built-in camera app, but less so if you’re looking for more creative control. Where Lightroom really shines is in the processing side.
It goes way beyond the expected options, like brightness and contrast tweaks, giving you the ability to adjust the tone curve, or use the split toning feature to produce the kind of results you’d only expect on a desktop PC.
And if you already subscribe to the desktop version of the software, it’ll sync perfectly with that too.
Manual Camera is arguably Android’s best looking camera app, and one of its most usable. It uses an analog-style dial to control ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and focusing, enabling you to adjust the exposure settings while composing your shot.
With built-in effects, assorted composition grids, and RAW+Jpeg support, this is a great option for serious photographers.
Another beautiful camera app, ProShot has even more features than Manual Camera but comes at the cost of a steeper learning curve.
Full manual controls are here, though, with support for bracketing (taking multiple consecutive shots at slightly different exposures), a handy live histogram, and even an infinite shutter mode you can use to create your own light paintings. ProShot offers RAW+Jpeg and RAW only options.
Download: ProShot ($3.99) on the Google Play Store
AZ Camera camera has a similar feature set to Manual Camera and ProShot, but is free. You get manual controls, including focus, shutter speed, and ISO, and you can also choose to shoot in RAW-only mode as well as RAW+Jpeg, should you wish to.
Extra functionality, with exposure bracketing and a live histogram among other things, can be unlocked through an in-app purchase.
With no integrated camera app, Google’s Snapseed is purely for editing, and it is capable of producing incredible results. This free desktop-class app works with the DNG files produced by the camera apps listed above.
It offers a full range of editing tools, including being able to adjust very small and specific areas of an image. Or if you prefer, there’s a full set of filters you can apply to give your shots a film-like quality with a single tap.
Download: Snapseed (Free) on the Google Play Store
An Invaluable Tool
Being able to shoot in RAW helps you to get the absolute best out of the new range of high-quality cameras on Android phones. You don’t need to do it all the time — for quick snapshots you’re going to post to Facebook, you can continue to use your normal camera app.
But for those occasions when you want to get the best shot, or if you’re shooting in low light or other difficult conditions, it is an invaluable tool. Read our RAW vs. JPEG comparison to learn when to use which format.
Image credit: Galaxy S7 via Razvan Baltaretu