RAW: the holy grail of smartphone photography

Something you want very much but that is almost impossible to get is often called 'the holy grail'. For the community interested in mobile imaging, Nokia announced the holy grail last Tuesday with RAW support for the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 1020.

Nokia stated that RAW support was a response to customer feedback but this announcement came as a complete surprise to just about all of us. It is proof yet again of the quality commitment of Nokia for photography. By Peter Meijs.

Importance
RAW puts the whole potential of the sensor of the 1520 and 1020 cameras into the hands of the user. In every digital camera, a picture is captured by the camera’s image sensor. But the output is generally processed and compressed before being stored on your camera’s memory card.

Many mid-range and all high-end cameras can also store a picture without processing or compressing it, as a RAW file. RAW files are sometimes called “digital negatives”. You can open a RAW file in a convertor and set the proper white balance, tonal range, contrast, color saturation and sharpness exactly as you like it. You don’t have to rely anymore on the camera to process the file.

Nokia Lumia 1020 Yellow - 4Looking more into RAW
In digital photography the RAW file plays the role that photographic film plays in analog photography. RAW contains the full resolution data as read out from the sensor. That sensor is overlaid with a filter, consisting of a mosaic of a matrix of a red, green, blue and another green filter. To obtain an image from a RAW file, this mosaic of data must be converted into standard RGB form. This is often called “RAW development” and the resulting picture can be saved as JPEG or TIFF.

The pros and cons
RAW has many benefits. In a RAW file only the shutter speed, the aperture and the ISO are fixed data. All other image parameters are in your own hands when you develop a RAW file. So you can directly influence the white balance, contrast, sharpness, colour tones and colour space. You can bypass the camera settings that were used during the capture for sharpness and noise reduction.

You can imagine what that will do for the still ongoing discussion about the settings Nokia has chosen for the 5 MP pictures of the Lumia 1020. This does not mean necessarily that you’ll just get a better result, but at least you can make your own choices and personalize your pictures completely.

RAW files have a bigger dynamic range compared to JPEG, and, benefiting from that, you can set the highlights and shadows much better. Also, in RAW there is more “headroom” in the exposure, which means that within a certain range, you can underexpose and overexpose. Exposure compensation, sort of, after capturing. A last big advantage I want to mention is that RAW developing is completely non-destructive. The original RAW file stays unaltered.

The drawback of RAW is the bigger file size, on average about 4 times. For the Lumia 1020 people will immediately cry, “We need that SD card!” But in practice I think this will not be a big problem, because you choose selectively which shots you want to have as RAW. For the RAW converting you will transfer your RAW file to your computer so you free your camera’s memory again.

Another drawback is that there is no standard RAW format that is used throughout the industry. There are about as many proprietary RAW formats as there are camera manufacturers. Nokia took the best possible approach in taking the open DNG format for their RAW files.

nokia_lumia_1520_group-shot_1RAW and DNG
In September 2004 Adobe proposed DNG as an open standard for RAW files. Today we count about 100 RAW convertors (many are free) and most of them can handle all kinds of proprietary RAW formats – and also the DNG format.

In practice, the most important fact is that both enthusiast and professional photographers use Lightroom and Photoshop in their workflow. And exactly these two programs have very powerful RAW converters built in, which of course also process DNG files. Already in January of this year I proposed Adobe’s Camera Raw converter to “develop” the JPEGs of the Nokia 808 PV. See  here.

This RAW converter can do miracles for 808 pictures (when underexposed by 0.7 stop) and I expect that it also will work great with the RAW files from the Lumia 1520 and Lumia 1020. For the 1520 immediately and for the 1020 beginning next year after the expected “Black” update.

For marketing reasons many camera manufacturers stick to their proprietary RAW formats, but a few of the important manufacturers decided to take the DNG format as the RAW output of some of their cameras. These are: Leica, Hasselblad, Samsung, Ricoh, Pentax and Casio. And now Nokia joins the club!

Basic

I think it’s a wise decision. Of course we will have to wait to see how Nokia implements it. I am sure also Nokia must make a lot of difficult decisions and look at trade-offs. Regarding the file size for instance. I think this is why  dp.connect.com wrote: “By providing full support of uncompressed photography, Nokia will hopefully be able to realize the potential of RAW photo editing on a smartphone.” The wording shows some reservations, but personally I’m optimistic.

Adobe still provides massive support for the DNG format and I think we can benefit from that, taking into consideration that it’s open and free. There’s an SDK (Software Developers Kit) for DNG to help developers write extra apps. There’s the Adobe Lens Profile Creator, a free utility for the creation of lens profiles. With a profile you can correct optical aberrations of a particular lens. Think what that can do for the 1020 (and 1520) in terms of image quality from center to corners.

Adobe even provides a Lens Profile Downloader. It allows users to search, download, rate and comment on the online lens correction profiles that have already been created and shared by the users community. All this is possible with the DNG format chosen by Nokia. An important link for all this is  here.

It’s important to note that the basic development of the RAW/DNG file is also supported by Photoshop Elements, which is the affordable smaller sister of the “big” Photoshop. And Lightroom 5 is also not that expensive anymore, it costs about $125.

In-phone, on computer or online
When you want to share a picture right from your 1020 or 1520 you rely on the in-phone settings that Nokia has put into it. These settings are mostly OK for this purpose. However, when you want the utmost image quality and when you want to personalize certain things (sharpness, noise reduction, colours and so on), you can transfer the RAW/DNG file to your computer (PC or Mac) and use one of the many existing RAW convertors.

I wholeheartedly recommend using either Lightroom, Photoshop Elements or the “big” Photoshop. A way in-between, so to say, is the new possibility of “internet enabled RAW converting.” Google Plus provides support to develop RAW/DNG files online. Pics.io promises development of RAW files online right in your browser.

Up until now we do not have enough experience with internet enabled RAW converting. But one thing is for sure: mobile photographers are living in extremely exciting times. Should it be: Thumbs up for Nokia for participating and bringing yet more true innovation in mobile photography!

Peter Meijs, October 2013

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