RAW Capture And Megapixel Madness And Why Nobody Cares [MWC 2014]


The Galaxy S5 is trying to win a game the iPhone isn't even playing.
The Galaxy S5 is trying to win a game the iPhone isn't even playing.

One of several themes at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has been cellphone cameras (the others were waterproof phones, crappy smartwatches, and NFC). Samsung’s new flagship Galaxy S5 ups the pixel count from 13MP 16MP, and adds 4K video capture. Nokia’s handsets can now shoot RAW pictures (or rather, record RAW pictures, as all photos are RAW to begin with) and Sony was showing off new camera modules (the iPhone uses a Sony camera).

As I was walking around the show and shooting everything with my iPhone 5, I started to wonder: who cares?

First, megapixel madness. This happened once before in regular cameras before folks realized that what we really wanted was physically bigger sensors with better light-gathering ability, not just more dots. The “megapixel” race seems to have infected the smartphone industry now, probably because getting a bigger sensor into a slim phone is a challenge (as a general rule, the bigger the sensor, the further the lens needs to be from it).

But there are other differences between camera phone and compact cameras. First is storage. Cameras come with removable storage designed to be used as a temporary buffer before you upload to a computer with a huge hard drive. Android phones can use 128GB microSD cards, but I’d guess that the average iPhone has 32GB or less, and Android handsets are likely less thanks to their reliance on SD cards, that nobody really wants to buy. And your phone will fill up a lot faster with a 16MP camera shooting RAW than an 8MP camera shooting JPGs.

Phones are not just the camera but the computer we use to process and store the photos.

Next up is processing, and relates to RAW capture. If you could get hold of a RAW file from the iPhone, it would probably be ugly as hell when you turned it into a JPG. And remember, even RAW images from Nokias have to be processed before you can look at them.

The iPhone 5S puts the power of the A7 chip to work on this RAW data, and the conversions are tuned and tailored to the chip, the lens, and the tricks that Apple wants to add (the burst mode for example). That is to say, the reason that iPhone pictures look so good is that the RAW has been optimally processed automatically. If you ever switch between RAW and JPG mode on a “real” camera you’ll know how flat the plain converted RAWs look in Lightroom or Aperture before you get to work on them.

Would it be cool to be able to tweak a little more detail out of the shadows? Sure. Or to be able to fix the white-balance after the fact? Hell yes. But this ignores something else – that the JPGs that come out of the iPhone are surprisingly malleable. I have processed fairly poor pictures (low bad light) through the photos app and Snapseed, and then printed out 6×4’s, and they’re still better than the prints I used to get off my 35mm drugstore-processed films.

To sum up, a camera phone doesnt follow the same rules as a regular camera. It’s made to capture, process and share pictures. A camera is made to capture them, and now more. And by adding RAW into the mix, then you make the second two steps way harder. You actually have to process the images yourself, and all the while you’re still dealing with the physical limitations of a cameraphone – no optical zoom, tiny sensor, no viewfinder.

Which is exactly why I stuck an Eye-Fi card in my Fujifilm X100s and used it to snap pictures at the Mobile World Congress that I couldn’t take with my iPhone. And ironically, I set it to shoot JPGs, because the JPGs out of the X100S are better than the results I could manage even after apending an hour working on the picture in Lightroom (I’ve tried).

  • Sashimi

    I really don’t see your point with all the fuss you are making about RAW recording. Does the iPhone have good automatic software rastering of the RAW data ? No doubt yes. Enabling phones (such as Nokia has already done) to record to RAW files instead of processing them to jpeg with the limited embedded power an software capabilities is a GOOD thing. I’ve seen photographers making beautiful pictures with the Nokia phone, processing raws in lightroom. You don’t want to use the feature, you don’t have to. But some people are interested in this extra feature. So quit whining.

    (and yes of course there are still mechanical / optical / physical limitations, i’m not comparing the lens/sensor of a smartphone to a fullframe DSLR & ultrafast prime, but on the other hand, noise reduction, sharpening, white balancing and so on can be vastly improved using proper software applied straight on the raw files instead of playing around instagraming an 8bit/channel jpeg)

  • Richard White

    I do love the mental gymnastics you see from Apple apologists. Another phone does something the iPhone can’t, and it’s denounced as worthless. When Apple adds panorama, it’s amazing.

    Charlie, yes, you’re right, megapixels are a misnomer really. But you’ve missed something completely: the extra pixels aren’t the only thing being touted. HTC, for instance, was bragging about its “ultrapixels”. Nokia’s technology in the camera is called PureView, and it is far from just stuffing in megapixels, they do actually have the largest sensors to be found in a smartphone. The PureView cameras can take stunning photos in near pitch black. They have optical image stabilisation, which keeps videos steady. They take blur-free photos. Who cares? I do. I have the Note 2 now, but I reviewed the Lumia 920 and the camera was simply amazing – I would turn the lights off in my living room and take photos, and people would genuinely think the lights were on. (I didn’t use flash either). That you can also record moving photos (GIFs) was also really neat, but in particular I loved that it let you take away moving elements from photos – so you’re taking a photo of your girlfriend by a statue, and someone walks in front of the camera. With the Lumia, that’s no problem – you can just take them out again.

    The PureView cameras are so far ahead of the smartphone competition that reviews are increasingly comparing them to dedicated DSLRs.

    Take a look around your social media – the pictures haven’t been put through PhotoShop to enhance them and remove imperfections. People shoot and upload, and we’re still plagued with blurry, grainy photos that have no detail because the lighting was too bad on the street or in the club.

    Why is it whenever a competitor has a feature so much better than the iPhone, we get told that it’s unnecessary? I remember when copy/paste, MMS, multitasking and camera flash were unnecessary – until Apple included them.

  • John

    Wow, what a hater dude, don’t be so bias Charlie, Apple is not the only company creating innovative products. In many ways Apple is falling behind. Maybe it’s time to really see what else is happening in other then the struggles Apple is having in order to compete in an already mature tech field. Don’t get me wrong, I love Apple, but they are currently plateauing in comparison to others in my opinion.

  • Why do you think nobody cares? I do! And i’m sure many others. You may not be interested in learning or you cant seem to find your voice in the editing room but with camera phones getting better and better gear in them, why not add raw? This allows someone interested in photography a real opportunity to learn what photographers do for a living. Working with raw you can really craft your style or your voice, and push what your images can say or do. I think at that point many will actually be interested in putting in the required time in a real editing application like lightroom or Photoshop to do so. It will pay off once you learn the tools of the trade. I strongly believe the freedom to edit your photography to your hearts content is a must have! Why not be allowed to use your phones (hardware) potential? you payed for it! I personally do edit and shoot photo and video professionally. For the occasions i don’t carry my camera on me knowing i’m not severely limited by my phone, the camera i do happen to have on me at the time is highly welcomed. Please give me raw imaging! I will edit that baby later myself. I will be taking that raw pic to a real program on my pc not some phone app.

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