RAW Smartphone Photography: A Look at The Difference RAW Editing Makes (Ft. OnePlus 3T)

RAW Smartphone Photography: A Look at The Difference RAW Editing Makes (Ft. OnePlus 3T)

Oddly enough, my first transformative experiences with photography initially transpired through the lens of an HTC Incredible 2, sometime around late 2011. As a nascent technology addict and with the Incredible 2 as my first true smartphone, I was keen to explore the full breadth of its utility and capabilities.

I rapidly adopted the habit of riding around my neighborhood on a longboard, phone in hand, and would take dozens or sometimes hundreds of pictures a day throughout the final months of fall. The Incredible 2 had what was at the time an impressive 8MP rear camera with laser autofocus, and I found it more than capable of producing beautiful images in the right lighting conditions. It even had the ability to perform reasonably well in low light situations, assuming one had a very steady hand. Below are some shots from that trusty little device:

Jump forward five or so years, and smartphones are considerably different, arguably for the better. Indeed, they are still in essence rectangular slabs of glass, plastic, and metal. However, the internals have improved drastically and offer consumers far more capable devices for essentially the same price. My current daily, a OnePlus 3T, is a breath of fresh air even while coming from the fairly recent LG G4. Regarding the camera, it is at least on par with the G4, assuming one is shooting with RAW output. In my experience, the G4 and G3, for that matter, provided wonderful smartphone cameras with solid JPEG processing and one of the best manual modes for a phone at the time, especially with the G3. The 3T does have rather weak out-of-camera JPEG performance, but this weakness is easily overcome by shooting in RAW and making use of its equally-useful manual mode. In fact, as I will attempt to demonstrate, the 3T is able to compete admirably with my (admittedly aging) mirrorless Sony NEX-5 in a variety of conditions.  

In order to aid the comparison, I visited Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, WA, as well as the famous Mount Rainier National Park. Point Defiance happens to be one of the largest metropolitan parks in the United States, second only to Central Park in New York City. It’s a gorgeous densely forested peninsula with views of the Puget Sound, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and several local islands located just offshore. In fact, the wet climate of the Pacific Northwest means that most of the forests of Washington State are rainforests, blanketed with emerald green mosses and hosting clear creeks and rivers courtesy of snowmelt and runoff from the Olympic Mountains. Beautiful scenery certainly doesn’t guarantee better pictures, but it can only serve to improve the final product in most situations.  

Why RAW?

When choosing to shoot in a RAW format, the singular crucial benefit that one can hope to gain is having access to what is essentially a lossless, uncompressed copy of the data your camera gathers while taking each photo. While it is generally likely that the result directly out of camera will be less sharp and possibly flatter than a JPEG alternative, one avoids the side effects of the aggressive compression that have made the aforementioned file type a heavyweight in the realm of online photo standards. Assuming that one knows their way around a RAW-compatible photo editor like Adobe Lightroom, Apple’s Aperture (R.I.P.), or Affinity Photo, switching to RAW format photography can offer a user the ability to extract far more detail largely in the form of extended dynamic range. This tends to mean that data in overblown shadows and highlights can be recovered, while at the same time allowing an editor to create imagery with more controlled and uniform levels of dynamic range. While attempting to edit lossy formats like JPEGs might result in extreme compression artifacts and excessive levels of noise, editing the same image taken in a RAW format can result in an end product that maintains high production value due to the added ability to account for imperfect camerawork, lighting conditions, and a combination of some amount of both.

Of course, the absolute best one can hope for is to nail the original shot in camera, thus requiring as little post-processing as possible. Even with RAW files, there will be no miracle recoveries of truly fumbled shots. If subtle modifications result in an image that you can be satisfied with, nothing more necessarily needs to be done. In the (likely) eventuality that lighting or the color profile is sometimes unpleasing even with many attempts at editing a photo, it is reasonable to begin considering filters, which can often excel at obscuring subpar shooting conditions or camerawork with things like exaggerated contrast and fade filters, as well as different color profiles. Aesthetically pleasing compositions need not always be tossed out due to other certain unavoidable flaws, thanks to filters and a more heavy-handed approach to editing. VSCOCam arguably offers the best present experience for anyone looking to add a filter, featuring a relatively subtle spread of options and an admirably fully featured editing suite with a multitude of basic options for mobile photographers. It even offers plugins for Adobe Lightroom if one so wishes to utilize its many filters outside of VSCO’s mobile ecosystem. Furthermore, iOS users were recently given the ability to edit RAW files through the VSCOCam app itself, allowing those with the desire to do so a functional way to take advantage of iOS 10’s RAW photography capabilities while still retaining the ability to quickly edit and upload a RAW file format without requiring access to a desktop-class photo editor. This feature will no doubt arrive on Android in the near future, so there has never been a more user-friendly and convenient time to make the transition to RAW.

RAW Results on the OnePlus 3T and Sony NEX-5

Due in part to Sony’s use of a proprietary RAW format and OnePlus’ decision to use Adobe’s open source DNG format, the OnePlus demonstrates the flatness and subdued color of RAW shooting to a far greater extent. This can be perceived as both a blessing and a curse, as it leaves the user to the options of either attempting to massage the image into something recognizable from memory or choosing to take the clean slate approach and altering it in a way that is simply aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore, as someone extremely adapted to the process of editing JPEGs and other lossy formats, there is something immensely satisfying about starting with a RAW image that is highly washed out (something that the DNG format generally suffers from). It allows you to reduce black levels, shadows, and overall brightness while not having to suffer the opposite fate of attempting to salvage an underexposed lossy format image, a process which will in many cases inevitably result in untenable levels of noise and compression artifacts. There also is something to be said for the experience of beginning with a photo that arguably looks hideous and transforming that same photo into something absolutely stunning. While the differences before and after editing Sony’s ARW format are minor, DNGs offer a downright absurd contrast when comparing the end result to the out-of-camera image.

Regarding the physical cameras and sensors themselves, there are of course some innate differences that cannot be avoided. Due to the significantly larger sensor in the NEX-5, it also has larger individual pixels, allowing more light to be gathered. This generally results in far superior low-light performance by simply gathering more light, while also allowing for higher ISO usage with less of the resultant noise. The fixed aperture of the OnePlus 3T also prevents certain shots, and prevents the user from increasing the f-stop, which can offer a photographer the ability to keep more of an image in sharper focus.

In order to best compare the results of both cameras, I generally tried to keep the playing field even and avoided (when reasonable) using too much of my NEX-5’s 18-55mm lens, given that the 3T has no analog zoom capabilities. I generally treated it as a prime lens, with a little variability allowed for. The end results were exactly what I would expect from a camera I have been shooting with for the better part of half a decade, with decent detail preservation and a reasonable f.3.5 aperture. With a 14.1-megapixel sensor in the APS form factor, it pairs quite evenly against the 3T’s 16 megapixels. Regarding autofocus capabilities, the 3T admittedly jumps to the front with ease, as it utilizes phase detection autofocus which handily outclasses the NEX-5’s circa-2010 contrast-detection alternative. As such, I nearly universally use the manual focus ring control located on the lens itself. I also shot in manual mode with each camera in order to keep the 3T around the same ISO (to more objectively compare noise levels) and to tame the rather jumpy autofocus when taking macro shots with the 3T.

Sony NEX-5

While my stock 18-55mm Sony lens is beginning to show its age in less than crisp bokeh and sharpness, the camera performed wonderfully. The ARW format also allowed me to better recover overexposed, noisy, and slightly out of focus images, all of which I am accustomed to as a consequence of having to use the small and somewhat dark LCD display as a viewfinder. The final photo with water trails is an example of something that the 3T simply is not capable of in daytime, as the bright ambient light required something like an f.32 aperture to prevent the image from being exposed. It is also considerably easier to set a small camera on a log to take long exposures when you forget your tripod at home! In general, the decent light conditions meant that noise was almost a complete non-issue for the NEX-5 on the two days I shot. One of the biggest boons for any camera with analog zoom abilities is the far more flexible framing options one has, something which I ended up using in my shots of the Puget Sound. Better framing in camera means that less cropping is necessary to find a nice composition, and of course prevents the editor from having to sacrifice too much resolution and detail in the pursuit of that composition.

OnePlus 3T

After only a brief experience of shooting in a RAW format on the OnePlus 3T, I am incredibly impressed with its performance and the sheer quality of the photos it is capable of producing. All inherent weaknesses aside, it is clear that the 3T is more than capable of competing with a dedicated mirrorless camera like the Sony NEX-5. Not only is it capable of competing, but there were more than a few instances where the 3T’s portability, convenience, phase-detection autofocus, and large screen led me to actually prefer the photos it produced, as well as the experience of taking those photos. In 90% of the photos I shot, the 3T did admittedly have quite a bit more noise and of course was unable to pull off any daytime long exposures, but it consistently offered at least as much dynamic range as my NEX-5, and sometimes even more. The extreme desaturation and flatness of the DNG files the 3T produced was less than optimal, but that is partially only inconvenient because of my inexperience with editing RAW photography. With a little experience, it would undoubtedly be easy to consistently arrive at finished photos that offer more natural saturation and color profiles. If that had been my goal, I could have compared the end results and tweaked until that was the case, but my goal here was more to explore the differences and weaknesses of both the cameras and the different RAW formats.

Going forward, I will approach my OnePlus 3T with far more confidence than I would normally allow myself to have with a smartphone camera, and it will doubtlessly become a central facet of my future photography, rather than an ancillary, second-class tool as I have treated my smartphone cameras in the past. It goes without saying that this comparison between the 6-year-old NEX-5 and my cutting-edge 3T should not be extended beyond that concept, in the sense that a brand new compact camera would very likely trounce an equally new smartphone. I will of course happily explore exactly that question in the future, as my trusty NEX-5 is in severe need of an upgrade, and improvements in mobile photography will likely continue to be one of my personal favorite things to explore and experience.

The Draw of RAW Smartphone Photography

Given just how well my 3T performed, there are several conclusions that can be drawn on this subject. One of the most important things to consider is that in essence, I found that a modern $450 smartphone is entirely capable of performing at the same level as a dedicated mirrorless camera that cost upwards of $500 new at the time it was released, assuming that the user shoots in a RAW format on the smartphone. Given the inherent utility of a smartphone when compared to a dedicated camera, it almost goes without saying that someone interested in photography with around $500 to spend would be best off simply buying the OnePlus 3T. Not only would they be able to have one of the best smartphones available in their pocket, but also a camera capable of editing on the spot the pictures they take, while also having considerably better battery life than a dedicated camera. As an example, after shooting about 100 photos on each device over the course of an hour, my 3T ended up at around 80% and my NEX-5 around 50%. With the 3T’s Dash Charging, I could replace that lost battery in about 5 minutes, whereas the NEX-5 requires an awkward wall-mounted charger that you place the battery in, and would take at least an hour to charge halfway.

I must reiterate that the 3T’s ability to compete so effectively derives almost entirely from the fact that it is able to shoot in a RAW format. Smartphones have some of the most notoriously aggressive in-camera image processing in order to further compress the images they produce, while also featuring often heavy-handed noise reduction and sharpening that cannot be normally disabled. RAW photography essentially hands all of those decisions over to the user, giving them the ability to tailor the final product with a level of finesse in a such a forgiving manner that it is almost hard to believe the photos you are editing came out of a smartphone.

Of course, there are undoubtedly barriers to entry into the realm of RAW shooting, especially on a mobile device. For amateur photographers that mainly or entirely rely on their phones, it is even more difficult. Nevertheless, the hurdles are easily surpassable. The main problems for mobile users are ease of editing and storage. As RAW photos are essentially uncompressed copies of the data a camera receives, they inherently end up being at least several times larger than the JPEG files cameras would otherwise output. For the DNG format the 3T’s RAW mode uses, each photo is essentially 30MB, meaning that a typical session of an hour or two can result in upwards of 2-3GB of photos being produced. Thankfully, the OnePlus 3T offers 64GB of storage at a minimum, with 128GB available for only $40 extra. However, for many of the other phones that offer RAW modes, 32GB is often a common denominator for the base levels. A microSD card would be optimal for anyone with a phone that has little internal storage but is still interested in trying out RAW photography. Most importantly, of course, is having the ability to edit RAW photos in the first place, as nearly all photos out of camera will look less than optimal and be in a format that cannot be shared in any of the usual locations. At the moment, iOS users have the best out of box experience available, as they are able to shoot in RAW and edit those photos in VSCOCam. Android will no doubt eventually have that feature trickle down, but at the moment lacks the ability to do so. In the case of Android users who need or want to edit on their phone, you will be best off subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography service. For $10 a month, you will get access to both the mobile and desktop versions of Lightroom and Photoshop, which are both fully-fledged and highly capable editing suites. This is the option I have gone for, although I still prefer to edit my photography on my desktop PC. Nevertheless, the OnePlus 3T is still a very strong option for mobile editors, given its 6GB of RAM and optional sRGB color profile.

With the mobile version of Lightroom and its RAW mode enabled, I can in good conscience recommend the 3T for photography entirely in lieu of a dedicated camera, especially for those who may have been considering buying a camera or generally getting more involved in photography. Not only will you end up with something that is more useful and portable than a dedicated camera, but by shooting and editing RAW you will already be a step ahead of many fellow photographers. Even if the end result is something as simple as improved photos for use in social media, diving headfirst into photography is almost guaranteed to be highly rewarding and creatively satisfying.

Lastly, for those who lack experience or general understanding when it comes to editing photos or even the process of taking photos, keep an eye out at XDA for one or two future articles in which I will provide introductions to editing software like Adobe Lightroom and explore my personal workflow, as well as general tips and suggestions for taking and editing RAW photos!

Have you taken a smartphone picture you are proud of? Share the results in the comments below!

For readers wanting a full-size version of any of the photos above, I have uploaded separate albums for the OnePlus 3T and Sony NEX-5 over on my Flickr, and a link to my VSCOCam profile can be found here. Proper attribution would be appreciated if you plan on uploading them elsewhere, but feel free to use them however you please for personal use!

All photos taken by Eric Ralph, 2011-2017.

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