Android camera hardware has gotten very good in the last few years, but the quality of the images you get are largely dependent on the processing technology that a device maker has chosen to implement. When most phones have very similar image sensors, this software can make a huge difference. Slowly but surely, the power to produce better images is being granted to the users with support for RAW image capture.
If your phone can capture in RAW, you don’t have to worry about substandard processing algorithms in the phone. You can take matters into your own hands. Here’s how to make RAW photo capture work for you on Android.
What is RAW and which phones support it?
Most Android phones are only set up to spit out processed images that have been compressed into JPEGs. This is usually fine, but you’re relying on the ability of the stock software to do the scene justice. A lot of data is thrown away in the process, and a RAW file gives you access to all of that. A JPEG from a high-resolution camera sensor might be 4-5MB on Android, but a RAW file could easily be upwards of 30MB.
These files come with file extensions like .dng and .nef (Android uses .dng). They contain virtually all the data from the sensor, so they’re not ready to be tweaked with a standard image editing program or posted on your favorite social network. You need to work with each file and make changes to the colors, white balance, exposure, and more. It can be a significant amount of work, but you’re not doing this because it’s easy.
On Android, RAW image capture can be done in a few ways. Both LG and HTC have opted to add the ability for users to snap both JPEG and RAW with the stock camera app on the G4 and One M9. You don’t need to do anything other than pop into the settings to make this work. When you press the shutter, the phone outputs a DNG to the internal storage (or microSD card in the case of the G4) along with the JPEG. Samsung is supposed to be adding RAW support to its stock camera app in Android 5.1 for the Galaxy S6, which should be out in a month or so.
The other category of devices capable of shooting RAW do so with the aid of an Android 5.0 feature, the Camera2 API. This API for Lollipop and higher encompases several different advanced camera features like manual focus, exposure control, and yes, RAW output. The problem is that OEMs need to include the proper driver support in their ROMs for full Camera2 functionality. Thus far, only Google has done so. That means RAW capture is possible on the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 running Android 5.0 or higher. You will need a third-party camera app with support for the new API, though.
Going forward, you can always check for full Camera2 API support using this testing app. Several phones have partial support for features like manual focus, but the one you’re looking for is at the bottom — RAW Support
Capturing RAW files on Android
The way you capture a RAW file will vary from one device to the next. Right now, HTC has the RAW options tucked away in mode selector of the stock camera app. It’s called Raw Camera, and it will automatically give you a JPEG and DNG file. On the LG G4, you need to go to manual mode to enable RAW capture. It also lets you tweak the shutter speed, exposure, and other settings.
For the Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 (as well as any future phones that come out with full Camera2 support), you’ll need a camera app that plugs into the API. I’ve used Manual Camera ($2.99) successfully on the Nexus 6 for some time. It comes with support for dual JPEG and DNG output. It’s also quite fast and the UI isn’t overly confusing.
Camera FV-5 ($3.95) was updated a while back with Camera2, but I haven’t used this one as much. The UI is a bit more cluttered, but it can be very powerful once you get used to it. It offers advanced exposure bracketing, histograms, and yes, RAW capture. It can also spit out PNGs if you prefer those to JPEG.
Lastly, you might want to check out A Better Camera ($3.99). This camera app is more user-friendly than FV-5, but it still has various manual settings in addition to a full auto mode. The HDR captures are good, and its gesture system for focus and exposure are very handy. You can activate the optional RAW capture in A Better Camera in the settings.
Processing your Android RAW files
So now you’ve got all these RAW files, but what to do with them? You won’t even be able to see the RAW files in mode gallery apps because they’re not fully processed images. You need a special app to even take a peek at them, but be aware they won’t look quite right. Because these files contain much more information than a compressed JPEG, you only get an approximated render.
If you just want to see the RAW files to make sure you got the shots you want, try an app like RAW Decoder (free) or Portfolio RAW Photo Manager (not free). To turn these images into JPEGs you need to process them with an additional piece of software. This can be done on the device, but remember RAW files are big and require substantial processing power. It will gobble up your battery life quickly if you choose to do it on the device. If you want to get the best results, you should send the files to a computer and use software like Adobe Lightroom (paid) or GIMP (with free plugins) to process the files.
If you want to do it on the device, you have several options. For Lightroom 5 (via Creative Cloud) users on the desktop, you are also entitled to run Lightroom Mobile, which just gained the ability to edit RAW files saved to the device. This app has a very mobile-friendly layout, though it doesn’t have as many options as the desktop version.
Adobe also has Adobe Photoshop Express in the Play Store with RAW support, but this one is free. You still need an Adobe ID, but it includes basic editing features. It lacks some of the options you’d get with Lightroom, but it can take your DNGs and turn them into JPEGs.
One last option for on-device editing is Photo Mate R2. This app is spendy at $9.49, but it offers a full suite of Lightroom-like editing tools on your phone or tablet. The interface is dense and somewhat confusing at first, but it’s very powerful. It’s a good middle ground between the full desktop programs and simpler mobile apps.
If all you want is a quick snapshot, RAW files on Android will probably be more work than you’re looking for. If, however, you want to eke the most performance possible out of these increasingly excellent smartphone cameras, RAW is the way to go.