The Truth About Editing iPhone Landscape Photos

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The Truth About Editing iPhone Landscape Photos

There's no denying that the iPhone camera system is impressive, right? And I don't mean that it's impressive for a smartphone or anything like that. In my book, the iPhone 15 Pro Max, the device I currently own, has enough photography chops that allow me to get some especially strong photos. But, just as much as a chef would insist that the oven is just one of the tools they use to craft their gourmet dish, I feel the same concept stands for my photography. Why should I be any more or less impressed with a photo because it was taken with my iPhone as opposed to my Sony camera? The answer is: I shouldn't, and I'm not.

And yet I'd be lying if I said that what I do after I take a photo is the same regardless of whether I used my iPhone or Sony camera. While my approach to editing a landscape photo is mostly the same regardless of the device used, the workflow I use with an iPhone ProRaw photo requires more finesse and is less forgiving than a Sony RAW equivalent. Let's take a closer look at why that's the case.

Apple's Photonic Engine

When Apple announced the iPhone 14 Pro in 2022, it elevated mobile photography in a big way thanks to its Photonic Engine. Apple explains that the Photonic Engine improves overall image quality, especially with its ProRaw format, "by applying Deep Fusion earlier in the imaging process to deliver extraordinary detail, and preserve subtle textures, provide better color, and maintain more information in a photo."

Basically, the iPhone quickly takes a series of photos even as you press the shutter button, runs it through an editing pipeline that does several things to maximize color, sharpness, and tone, and then saves it to your camera roll. As Alok Deshpande, Apple's Senior Manager of Camera Software Engineering, explained, ProRaw "provides many of the benefits of our multi-frame image processing and computational photography, like Deep Fusion and Smart HDR, and combines them with the depth and flexibility of a raw format."

The resulting file is a DNG of sorts, but it's a "processed" DNG. If you enable the option in your camera preferences, this DNG file will also have an expanded resolution of 48 megapixels. This is the option I use most often because it does an excellent job of balancing what's required to get me to a strong starting point when I begin my edits.

However, my experience is that working with the ProRaw format has a trade-off in that I have to be more careful with how I use Lightroom's editing tools to refine the image. I'm not sure if it has to do with the fact that the Photonic Engine already made edits to the photo, but I've definitely noticed that I have to be "gentler" when editing in Lightroom, especially when adjusting tone and color.

Don't get me wrong. I still get many of the benefits of working with a DNG file. I can set a custom White Balance, apply the Apple ProRaw Adobe Profile as my initial starting point, and I have generally good control with editing. Still, I find that any time I make changes using Lightroom's editing tools, the results are more "intense" or heavy-handed, even though I don't feel like I'm making drastic adjustments.

So, what about RAW?

Did you know that you can use your iPhone to take both ProRaw AND RAW photos? It's true, although you'll need to use a 3rd party app (such as the outstanding Reeflex Pro Camera app) to do so. The benefit of shooting in RAW is that you'll get pure sensor data in your image because the output file is a 12-bit Bayer DNG. I apologize if I've made your eyes glaze over with those details. Basically, when you use a camera app that supports saving RAW files (as opposed to a ProRaw file), you're getting a DNG file that more closely resembles the RAW file from your camera compared to the "baked" file when using ProRaw.

The best way to illustrate the difference is to show you. Here are two identical compositions that I took with my iPhone 15 Pro Max using the Reeflex Pro Camera app. The first one is a Bayer RAW file. The second one is a ProRaw file.

Bayer RAW Image - No Editing Applied

Apple ProRaw Image - Editing Applied Using Photonic Engine

As you can see, the Bayer RAW file looks more muted, which is common with that file format. When you use RAW with your iPhone, you must first edit it using a raw processor app like Lightroom. Fortunately, you'll have plenty of data to work with as you correct tone, improve color, and fix issues such as noise.

I bring up noise in particular because unlike ProRaw, which applies noise reduction as part of the Photonic Engine processing, a Bayer RAW file will definitely need manual noise reduction applied. Fortunately, Lightroom will allow you to use its amazing AI-powered noise reduction with the iPhone's Bayer RAW files. Currently, you cannot use this denoise tool with ProRaw files, so keep that in mind.

I split the preview window to show you the original RAW file on the left half and the noise reduction applied on the right half.

Another important distinction between RAW and ProRaw is that you can only get a 12-megapixel image with the former, whereas you have the option to get a 48-megapixel image with the latter. While that may be appealing to many people (including myself), there are some AMAZING AI-powered upscaling apps that can increase a 12-megapixel image without sacrificing image quality.

ProRaw or RAW?

Despite the ability to edit actual sensor data, I still find myself veering towards ProRaw. I can't put my finger on it, but I find the starting point that ProRaw brings me to more appealing than a Bayer RAW file. I'm not 100% sold on that, though, and will be doing a lot more experimentation using both formats. Rest assured that I'll share my findings with all of you, too!

In the meantime, I recorded a new editing video where I explain how I use Lightroom to edit landscape photos taken with my iPhone (in ProRaw). It'll give you a lot of insight into my approach to these photos, and I hope you find it helpful!

It's Time to Learn How To Use Lightroom Everywhere!

If you enjoyed this topic and want to learn how to get the most out of Lightroom's cloud-based ecosystem on the desktop, smartphone, and tablet, then you should check out my Lightroom Everywhere course! It has over nine hours of easy-paced lessons that'll teach you how to make the most out of Lightroom Desktop and Mobile.

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