RAW images and why smartphone camera comparisons are just plain complicated

The Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6 just came out, which of course means the camera comparisons are hitting the web faster than you can check them out. So why not jump on this train and do my own camera comparison?

Here’s 2 photos I took today, and I want you to decide which ones you prefer.

In this case, we have 2 very nice shots. Both images are in sharp focus, and the background has a nice blur to it, which helps the flower really pop. The image on the left is definitely more saturated, and the contrast looks higher. This makes the image pop a little more, and is a better image in my eyes. You may prefer the righthand image through, and I wouldn’t blame you. It’s more subdued, and a more level image, but it’s just as sharp.

Here’s the other shot:

We have a very similar situation here, with one image with a much flatter look, and the other with a lot more contrast and saturation. I think the top image is a lot more realistic, but the bottom one sure looks more exciting. Again, they’re both good, but you probably prefer one over the other.

Okay, so which do you like better? Ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because they were all taken with the same phone. My iPhone 7 Plus took all of these shots.

The less contrasty, flatter images are the exact image that came out of Apple’s built-in Camera app, and the more colorful ones were taken with Adobe’s Lightroom app. The difference really comes from the fact that I took the RAW files from Lightroom and edited them to punch up the colors, contrast, and clarity a bit.

So essentially what we’re looking at here is a difference in post-processing. Apple’s camera app is taking the same data I got from the RAW image, and they do some manipulations to the image to make as pleasing an image as possible. Meanwhile, the RAW image I get from Lightroom lets me set everything how I like it.

Because I don’t think most people appreciate what a RAW image from a smartphone looks like, here’s what the Camera app and I (with Lightroom) started working with:

Now I don’t think any of use would say either of those images are really what you’d like to share on social media, so it’s a really good thing that Apple and I did some processing on them to make them look reasonable. I mean, look at these side by side (edited on left, RAW image on right):

The RAW images that come out of the camera sensor are not ready for prime time, and it’s the job of software to translate that image to something that looks like reality. To Apple’s credit, both of the images that I took straight from the Camera app look great. They are incredibly accurate representations of what these things looked like in real life. Apple’s decisions around image processing appear to be focused on recreating reality as closely as possible, and they do a really good job of it. I personally like my images to pop a little more, and to evoke a heightened reality. I want them to reflect what my brain remembers that flower, or that tree looking like. So I move a few dials back and forth until I get an image I’m happy with. Based on the number of people who use filters on their images on social media, I don’t think I’m alone.

Additionally, I edited a RAW file using Lightroom because RAW has more data, which essentially means I can make bigger changes to the file without things getting all wibbly wobbly. For some context, the RAW file Lightroom produces is 32.7MB, while the JPG image the Camera app exports is 4.1MB. That’s a lot more data to manipulate.

That said, the fact that the Camera app outputs a relatively neutral image that doesn’t make too many stylistic choices for you, means that you have more flexibility in making your own changes. This means that you can add contrast, remove saturation, or simply apply an Instagram filter and the result is likely going to look really good.

Ultimately, the question you need to answer is whether you want your smartphone maker to make these decisions for you. I personally like the freedom the iPhone camera gives me to take photos I know will look good, and realistic, but I can then take and stylize with ease. The Samsung Galaxy lines of phones have long gotten high marks from camera comparisons in large part because people like the over-saturation their camera app uses on images. As you can hopefully see now, it’s not really a matter of the Galaxy having a better lens than any other phone, they just made different choices in post-processing. This also explains why you sometimes see different phones with the same lens in them produce different looking images. The companies using those lenses made different post-processing choices.

The next time you watch a camera comparison, watch it knowing that anything having to do with color is mostly down to decisions manufacturers made in regards to post-processing rather than a difference in lens quality. Things like noise, poor focus, and blurry action shots (due to slower shutter speeds) are better comparisons between cameras. Honestly, it’s probably best to just pick the camera that has the fewest straight up bad photos. You can almost always make a good photo great with a tiny tweak here or there, but it’s much harder to take bad photos and make them good.