Tips for Editing RAW Photography — Get the Most out of Your Smartphone’s Camera

Tips for Editing RAW Photography — Get the Most out of Your Smartphone’s Camera


After exploring the RAW capabilities of my OnePlus 3T and Sony NEX-5 cameras, an array of readers responded with questions and comments on RAW photography and their experiences. Many expressed the desire to better learn how to edit photography and particularly how to deal with RAW file formats on both mobile devices and desktop operating systems, and I was thrilled to see such a willingness to engage in something new like RAW photography. I was also deeply happy to have several readers relate to me that I had inspired them to explore photography in general once again or even for the first time –it can come as a surprise to many that the device in their pockets is often their best choice for exploring. In light of these discoveries, my hope is that some assistance for those struggling to begin will continue to encourage those interested in photography, RAW or not, to persevere.

Remembering back to my first forays into photography and editing, I was lucky enough to ease into the prospect bit by bit, beginning with something as simple as the built-in editor in my HTC Incredible 2’s gallery app. If I am remembering correctly, I stumbled upon Adobe Lightroom as an app for my iPad 3, which became my go-to editing device until I built my first desktop PC. Over the course of a month or so, I essentially explored each slider and option until I was relatively familiar with the program. I can easily recommend this to anyone with a lot of patience and curiosity, as you will inevitably find your own preferences along the way while also learning to use a powerful editing suite independently.

Nevertheless, having someone to guide you through the very first steps of editing and break down the menacing façade that Lightroom and other editors can present the user is of course extremely useful. I will attempt to be that guide!

First Steps

As several curious and intrepid readers soon discovered, shooting in RAW is not necessarily the most intuitive experience, especially once one goes to find or edit the RAW format files they have produced. As RAW files, especially DNGs, are innately not images straight out of camera, nearly all gallery apps simply will not register that they exist, both on mobile and desktop operating systems. This is not a criticism of gallery apps, but rather an unavoidable reality of RAW formats. As such, you will want to either install one of a handful of free RAW file managers, or bite the bullet and pay for something like Photo Mate R3 (~$8). Adobe Lightroom for mobile devices is likely your absolute best option, being free and well-designed.

For those of you looking for something a bit different, Photo Mate R3 is a fully-fledged mobile editor with almost all of the granular controls that Lightroom and other desktop editors offer. It also provides a gallery function with an array of sorting options, allowing the viewer to, say, selectively view only RAW format images and preview their thumbnails. The only major downside I noted is a lack of granular noise reduction controls of the sort that Lightroom offers. RAW files express all the noise the camera generates (a lot) and can appear rather off-putting if one does not first consider that lossy formats like JPEGs include some often heavy-handed noise reduction that occurs as the RAW data is converted and compressed. RAW lets you decide how much noise reduction is needed, potentially preventing the overly-soft images that smartphone cameras are often infamous for.

If you have access to a computer, there are numerous free options for editing RAW photography like GIMP and Rawtherapee. Rawtherapee offers a genuinely impressive program that is solely dedicated to editing RAW format images and is easy to recommend. There is also Google’s free Nik editing suite, which offers a dedicated program for noise reduction to assist those on a budget who can’t stand noise but would prefer to keep their editing workflow as mobile as possible.

A brief glance at Rawtherapee 5.0’s interface (Rawtherapee).

For those of you willing to fork over the cash, however, my one true photo editing love has always been Adobe Lightroom. It may be an irrational attachment to the program I am simply most familiar with, but I find that it offers a wonderful, intuitive interface and an almost invaluable organizational aspect that allows you to comfortably back up a database of around 40+ GB of edited photos while still retaining exact change histories and the original files. While next to nothing compared to professional photographers or very serious amateurs, I’ve taken and edited thousands of photos in the 5 years I’ve been active, and have a history of almost every single one in my Lightroom library.

A small snippet of my primary Lightroom catalog. My edited photos can be found at my Flickr and VSCO accounts.

While verifying that my understanding of Adobe Lightroom mobile was accurate, I discovered that free users can in fact edit RAW formats without a CC subscription! While the free version loses a number of features, it is still well-featured and includes several noise reduction filters, albeit without the ability to control it (aside from picking low, medium, and high reduction options). Like Photo Mate R3, the Lightroom app offers a useful gallery feature that lets you preview RAW thumbnails and filter out non-RAW images. This app is definitely my recommendation for those looking for a slick, user-friendly solution. While experienced users may find some improved utility in Photo Mate R3’s broader range of options, Lightroom will be more than enough for most mobile editors. This article provides a great overview of the app and its RAW editing features.

General Tips and Suggestions for Editing Photography

While providing granular tutorials for each of the applications mentioned above is a bit beyond the scope of this article, what I can do is explain some of the more common options you will have at your disposal, regardless of which one you choose to adopt. I will be using the desktop version of Adobe Lightroom (5.4) to demonstrate these features. After the process of finding your RAW files (usually .DNGs for mobile devices) and importing them into your app of choice, you will be presented with several options. Generally speaking, these options will be intended to modify the tone (exposure/lighting), white balance, and color in your photos.

Some of the most useful and intuitive methods of editing in Lightroom are relatively unique to it and even then only in the desktop app. My favorite ways to modify a photo’s tone are through the histogram (the graph at the top of the screenshot below), which allows you to click on one of five sections (blacks, shadows, exposure, whites, highlights) and drag them left or right to reduce or increase the prevalence of that specific light type. The tone curve, found below the Basic section, can also be dragged about in a similar fashion, but is generally only needed for slightly modifying a nearly-complete image or recovering detail in an image that was drastically over- or underexposed. This can all generally also be done with the sliders you can see on the right, but this takes somewhat longer and is also not nearly as fun! A great exploration of the utility of histograms and how to read them can be found here.

Two images and their related histograms.

Traveling down the options in the menu pictured below, we begin with ‘WB’ or white balance. This is used to improve accuracy of the color representation in photos, accomplished by modifying the temperature and tint in order to direct the picture towards your preferred outcome, which may include fixing imperfect white balancing in camera. In desktop and mobile Lightroom, you have the option of selecting the eye dropper, which effectively auto-corrects white balance once you direct it to a point on your photo that you know should be a neutral grey or white.

Tone settings come next, beginning with options for exposure and contrast. Exposure modifies the global brightness unselectively. Contrast further darkens darker areas of the image and brightens lighter areas. After these more heavy-handed options, there are more precise controls that can also be controlled through the histogram on top, as I previously explained. The highlights slider will modify only the brightest sections of the image, allowing you to tame overexposed images (you may have seen or heard the term “blown highlights”). Shadows, on the opposite hand, can help recover lost detail in dark areas of images. Lastly, Whites and Blacks intuitively allow pixels leaning towards white or black to be made brighter or darker. Attentive readers may notice a theme so far of combinations of controls that offer large changes (whites, blacks) with controls that offer more detailed modifications to smaller parts of the image (highlights, shadows).

Continuing this trend, Clarity is effectively a method of only adding contrast to mid-tones (mid meaning middle of the histogram). In doing so, the Clarity slider can give the benefit of added contrast while preventing the noise or grain (and often an uglier image) that can come overuse of the global Contrast slider. This option is generally unique to Lightroom, but it can be partially replicated by experimenting with white and black levels (increased contrast would mean darker blacks and brighter whites). This method won’t add edge detail like Clarity, but it will more subtly add contrast.

Saturation and Vibrance are the last basic settings one may frequently want to use. Saturation is the color equivalent of Exposure, allowing the user to globally deepen or lighten all colors in an image. Vibrance helps to avoid the downfall of global saturation changes by only adjusting the least (+) or most (-) saturated colors.

Finally, there are several more complex and granular settings that can be found in Lightroom and other desktop editing suites. Something I often find myself using is detailed saturation, hue, and luminance control (on the right), giving me the ability to, say, recover oversaturated blues or greens, or better express the yellows and oranges in a sunset photo with subpar white balance. The Detail section (on the left) is where noise reduction and sharpening settings can be found, very useful options to have when editing RAW files. Lightroom helpfully provides a small window with a highly magnified view, which makes it considerably easier to avoid introducing ugly artifacts or obscuring detail when modifying sharpness and adding noise reduction.


Practice, Practice, and More Practice!

As a tried-and-true trope of many a guide, my best suggestion for those just beginning to stretch their photography-editing legs is to not give up and keep trying. Mistakes will be made and modifications will be overdone, but in time you will begin to develop a more instinctive understanding of editing and likely come into a style and workflow of your own. Mine has taken many years to develop and I clearly remember struggling at first, as well as taking a look at photos I’d edited years ago only to be aghast at the aesthetic decisions of past-me. I’m still learning more than 5 years in, and I even managed to learn a couple new things about editing photos in the process of writing this. In all its breadth, photography is essentially an activity with constant opportunity for learning, and rather than being daunting, it simply makes it that much more exciting and rewarding.

Amidst the humbling response my previous article received, multiple readers shared some of their own impressive smartphone photography and blew me away. If you have taken any photos with your phone that you are proud and would like to share, feel free to post them in the comments below this article, as well as on its corresponding Facebook posts or tweets. An upcoming article in this series will include a collection of user-submitted photography, so don’t miss out!

Also ahead will be a brief tutorial on how to use the manual mode available on many modern smartphone cameras in order to best take advantage of their capabilities. 

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