Lightroom might be the best camera app on iOS

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Lightroom easily bests the other RAW apps
Did you know that Lightroom had a camera? It does, and it's amazing.
Photo: Matt Birchler

If you want to shoot great RAW photos on your iPhone, you should use Adobe Lightroom. That’s right. According to tests, Adobe’s excellent photo editing app also has an amazing camera built-in. And best of all, it’s free, provided you don’t mind signing up for an Adobe ID.

The built-in camera app loses detail in the bright window.
The built-in Camera app loses detail in the bright window.
Photo: Matt Birchler

Blogger and tech fan Matt Birchler compared RAW capture in Lightroom, popular RAW camera apps Halide and Obscura 2, and the iPhone’s built-in Camera app (which doesn’t shoot RAW, at least not in a user-accessible way).

The test photo was a tricky one. Birchler snapped a shot out his window during the day, giving a whole lot of contrast between the dim indoor lighting and the bright sunlight outside. This is a classic scenario where RAW excels.

Birchler found that, without any tweaking (but using Lightroom’s HDR mode), Lightroom gave by far the best results. Look at the images on his site, Birchtree.me, and you’ll see the difference. Lightroom gives much more pleasing detail in both the highlight and the shadow parts of the image. The image from the stock Camera app also uses the iPhone’s HDR mode.

Why RAW?

Lightroom's HDR mode captures a lot more detail, without looking weird.
Lightroom’s HDR mode captures a lot more detail without looking weird.
Photo: Matt Birchler

This is before any editing. And if you’re shooting RAW, you’re planning to edit. RAW capture is essentially a dump of the information from the camera’s sensor. When the camera (or in this case, the iPhone’s brain) builds a picture from this mass of data, it makes some choices about how to interpret that data. It makes a guess at the color of the light, for example, and sets the white balance accordingly. Or it may sacrifice some detail in the highlights and bring out detail in the shadows. It then renders these decisions as a nice, perky JPEG.

If you shoot RAW, on the other hand, you can make all these decisions — and many more — yourself, after the fact. This offers a lot of control, but the RAW file that the camera saves looks pretty dull. That’s because RAW data isn’t an image that can be viewed, so the camera must produce a JPEG preview anyway, and it does minimal processing on it.

So, shoot RAW in tricky light, and when you want to edit your photos. In all other cases, let the camera make a JPEG. The iPhone does a really good job of this.

Why is Lightroom’s camera so good?

Which brings us back to Lightroom. Why are its photos so good? It almost certainly comes down to Adobe’s decades of experience in editing images. First Photoshop, and then Lightroom. This means that even Lightroom’s JPEG previews look excellent.

And that’s before we get to the editing tools. To use the entire Lightroom app, and to store and sync your images between devices using Adobe’s Creative Cloud, you have to pay $5 per month. But the app is free to download, and is excellent. It offers presets (like Instagram filters) to get you started. But you can also do full image adjustment in the free version, with a curves tool, exposure, effects like clarity and grain, and more. It really is impressive. And, unlike early versions of Lightroom on iOS, it’s really easy to use.

In fact, Lightroom CC for iOS is so nice that I’ve switched to it as my default photo editing app. And I might even consider subscribing, at least for a month, just to try the sync and all the extra features (perspective correction, selective adjustments, healing brush and more). I’m also going to test Lightroom’s JPEG capture and compare it to the iPhone’s default Camera app.