Best Apps To View RAW Images On Android
Last week, I wrote about the best apps to unleash the raw photographic power of your Lollipop smartphone. All four of those cameras generate lossless DNG images with pounds of potential for apps like Photoshop to unlock, but what if you’re looking to edit or view those pics on the go? QuickPic, Google Photos, and the other mainstays treat raw images like they don’t exist. This rundown seeks to fill the void and give you full control over your precious pictures.
Free or Paid? Despite the wealth of apps available, the only ones that tackle raw head-on are a handful of heavy-hitting suites with high price tags, and several freemium gallery and editor apps. But don’t be fooled – the premium offerings like PhotoMate R2 are hell-bent on replacing your entire desktop workflow, and I have no doubt that they’re up to the task. My reservation with the paid suites is not quality, but cost. On the one hand, a desktop license for the Adobe Creative Suite is more expensive than any Android app, but on the other, editors like the GIMP and Raw Therapee are industry standard tools that can be had for free. Therefore, the question becomes one of paying $10 for the speed and mobility of your phone, or nothing to use the laptop you already know and love. The thing is that editing lossless files isn’t speedy or mobile regardless of platform. These are grainy images with no inherent color profiles, and will always look worse than pre-processed jpegs until they pass through an editing bay. Why pay to sit on your phone for an hour when you can do the same thing for free with the precision of a mouse and keyboard?
This brings us to viewers and lite editors. No amount of post-processing will fix blinking family members or poorly framed shots, so it’s essential that we see what we have captured. Raw formats like DNG are TIFF-based, and don’t play well with most galleries. Why not stick to the jpeg preview generated by most cameras? First and foremost, those previews sometimes lie.
Raw Capture Delay, And Lying Jpegs
As pointed out by XDA Senior Member Ashcunak, raw images don’t always match their jpeg “duplicates.” It’s true that your camera makes choices about color, saturation, and white balance while compressing to the smaller format, but that doesn’t explain how a blinking Christmas light can look “on” in one format, and “off” in the other. The answer is that some camera apps take two shots! This wouldn’t be so bad if we had a way to view both images in our camera roll to see if they need a re-do, but as we’ve already discussed, most galleries filter them out. This makes them “invisible” until we get home, and is the subject of today’s discussion. We’ll get to a few apps for viewing raw formats on your phone in a moment, but right now let’s figure out which cameras delay the second shot, and by how much. After all, we can get by with sticking to jpeg previews if the composition remains the same from file to file.
To test for this shot delay, I put L Camera, Manual Camera, and Camera FV-5 through their paces photographing this stopwatch at high and low resolutions, and at shutter speeds on opposite ends of the spectrum. Sequential jpeg and dng shots clearly capture different timestamps (thus quantifying the delay), and varying the resolution and shutter helps determine how much the phone’s read/write process contributes to the issue. What I discovered is that both L Camera and Manual Camera have no delay whatsoever, indicating that only one image is taken (the DNG), and this image is later processed into a jpeg. In contrast, Camera FV-5 takes two distinct shots: one as a jpeg of the desired pixel resolution, then a full-size DNG a few fractions of a second later. This app is apparently the offender mentioned by Ashcunak.
The delay you experience with Camera FV-5 will vary depending on things like hardware and the presence of encryption (I’m looking at you, Nexus 6). Here are my results:
- Motorola Nexus 6, unencrypted stock Android 5.0.1
- Camera FV-5 v2.41
- Shutter 1/1000, ISO 3200
- 50 shots with 0.1 MP jpegs, and the next at the full 13 MP. The DNG version for both sets is full-sized, which makes sense because cutting the pixel count goes against the lossless nature of a raw sensor dump.
Delay Between JPG and DNG
- 0.1 MP JPG: 0.034s, with an average deviation from mean of 0.0018s.
- 13 MP JPG: 0.032s, with an average deviation from mean of 0.0056s.
In other words, the blinking Christmas lights have three one-hundredths of a second to turn off and ruin your shot. This gap is tiny, but it does happen. Longer shutter times appear to space the shots farther apart, but I can’t be sure; lengthening the exposure necessarily blurs the stopwatch times together, and the viewfinder itself can’t be timed because its flashes and whirrs are meant as UX cues and not real indicators that the shutter has closed.
With Camera FV-5 spacing out shots, and standard image viewers not showing the DNG versions, how are we supposed to catch our blinking family members during portraits before the whole group disperses? Oh, and did I mention that you don’t even have the jpeg fallback with A Better Camera, the fourth app from our rundown? It outputs JPG or DNG, so you’re flying blind while shooting in raw.
- L Camera and Manual Camera generate accurate jpegs. No need for special viewers, but check out these editors for touch-ups on the go.
- Camera FV-5 and A Better Camera either don’t show their images in standard galleries, or the jpeg previews they do show aren’t accurate. Read on for galleries that fix the issue.
Free Gallery Apps For RAW
RAW Decoder Free
Download: Google Play (free)
Last updated November 30, 2013, and showing its age.
This viewer will get the job done, but it’s as bare bones as they come (and not in a good way). You start in the root directory, and tap your way down to the camera folder (usually /storage/sdcard0/DCIM/Camera). Once there, a two-wide alphabetical list of icons and filenames with no drag-able scroll-bar stretches down for meters on end. Only jpegs have thumbnails.
Once you find the image you’re looking for, the experience does improve. No watermarks mar the shots, the pictures are full-resolution out of the gate, and panning/zooming is supported (if a little glitchy). Consistent with the app’s title, the lone button adorning the UI is named “Decode Raw,” and does as it says on the tin.
- Decode to JPG or TIFF at full or half resolution.
- For TIFF, additionally choose 8 or 16 bit.
Simple, yet effective. It’s also the only free raw gallery that both gives multiple export options and lets you use them. The lack of watermarks is a plus. I had no trouble turning jpegs and DNGs into TIFFs and jpegs at varying resolutions, but your mileage may vary; some reviewers on Google Play report that the marquee feature is buggy. Perhaps my luck has something to do with the 3GB of RAM on my device, and the popup warning about memory related crashes that the app throws upon decode. Either way, RAW Decoder Free is a handy tool to keep around at no cost.
If you’re using A Better Camera, exporting to jpeg is a useful way to have previews pop up in your regular gallery. Alternatively, export, edit in your app of choice, and upload to Facebook. If you’re doing this, though, you might consider an editor like Photoshop Express instead, or if you’re really serious about viewing and editing raw from your phone, upgrade to a much more expensive offering like RAW Decoder’s big brother – Photo Mate R2 (both discussed at the end).
Download: Google Play (free)
RAWDroid is a powerful $5 gallery aimed at letting pro photographers export their DSLR shots to a tablet for quickly showing off their work to clients. The Demo version does much the same, but in a free package with watermarks. Unlike RAW Decoder, this is a true gallery interface with thumbnails for jpegs and DNGs alike (if jpegs are switched on in settings). Unfortunately, tools to sort and filter images aren’t present, and jpegs are pushed as a block to the bottom of every folder. This makes viewing raw/jpeg pairs side-by-side difficult.
The image viewer itself is pleasantly robust. Features such as swiping left and right to advance through your camera roll, an RGB histogram, metadata preview, and pan & zoom support make quick work of checking for composition issues. The demo does limit the resolution of raw previews, and adds a watermark over the screen, but these are minor concessions that don’t alter function.
Filetype conversion is present if needed, though not as robust as in RAW Decoder. In my tests, converting images to jpegs reduced the pixel count from 13 MP to 3.3 MP. Notable as this is, remember that 3.3 MP is still good enough for sharing on Facebook/Instagram, and no un-edited raw file (or jpeg conversion) will look as good as an HDR+ shot from Google Camera. You’ll want to keep reading for lightweight editor suggestions to remove blemishes, grain, and noise before uploading.
Conclusion: More of a polished gallery app than RAW Decoder, but a lack of sorting and filtering tools hold this one back.
Portfolio RAW Photo Manager
Download: Google Play (free)
Sort, filter, bookmark, color-code, and view your jpegs and DNGs together (as libraries, folders, or albums). This app hits many of the feature check-boxes you expect from an image gallery, and is the best free way to browse your DNGs. Although it won’t win any awards for style, and it isn’t Material, the design is well planned.
Going well beyond RAWDroid, the image viewer is packed with useful info: metadata, composite histogram, star rating, bookmark color, rotation controls, filmstrip, etc. The filmstrip and histogram can be toggled by separate on-screen buttons, and the whole UI (save the top bar) disappears on single-tap. This might seem cluttered at first, you’ll soon grow to love the feature set and customization. Besides, tools are what you need to critically review thumbnails.
As with RAWDroid, small digital watermarks blanket raw images (though not jpegs), and the more advanced features like filetype conversion and high-resolution previews are paid only.
On the desktop/laptop side of things, stalwarts like Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom dominate our perception of what it is to be a photo editor, but many free options exist for editing raw images. Among the more popular are:
- RAW Therapee – Comprehensive and free package to eliminate artifacts, add color profiles, and generally edit your files into fighting shape.
- The GIMP – GNU Image Manipulation Program. Free and Open Source software for advanced photo editing. This package isn’t as user friendly as Photoshop, but the feature sets are very similar.
Google’s Play Store, on the other hand, is firmly split into two camps: fast and fun filters and tweaks, and high-priced desktop replacement software. To get you started, here are the best known apps in each category (that can handle lossless filetypes).
- Adobe Photoshop Express (freemium) – Perfect for quick edits, but an Adobe Creative Cloud account is needed for serious editing. Does not come with a gallery of its own. Even though this carries the Adobe name, don’t expect to find all of the bells and whistles here; the focus is on things like blemish control and filters, not replicating the desktop experience.
- Photo Mate R2 ($9.49) – Full service editor and viewer that is the big-brother of the Raw Decoder demo, above. Rate, organize, label, tag, and edit all the usual attributes to produce truly spectacular images.
Now that all of the bases are covered, what do you think? Am I missing the mark by discounting the paid apps in favor of free desktop version? Did I miss one of your favorite editors or viewers? Start a discussion going in the comments!