By the time you read this, the “ProRAW” format will have been out and about for at least a few months. If you aren’t aware or follow it, ProRAW is a new format (not Apple proprietary!) that basically aims to take the RAW / .DNG files photographers know and love and combine the post processing benefits with that of all the algorithms and “computational photography” that we see on modern smartphones and mash them together. Is it better? Is it “the end of photography”?
So before we go further, I’ll focus on and reiterate that very question: Is Apple’s ProRAW “the end of Photography”?
Perhaps as an aside (or a requirement to just talk about this), we should discuss what ProRAW actually is. I was prepared to dive into this but honestly, Ben Sandofsky from the fantastic iOS camera app Halide already did it. But in short: as noted above, it’s mostly a RAW / .DNF file with computational photography and algorithms layered on top. So right out of the gate you have a very nice looking image for immediate use + the added benefit of far more versatility in post processing. In all seriousness, give Ben’s article a read. It’s super informative and definitely goes into the weeds.
This is quickly becoming a divisive question. Based on some short searches on social media and online in general, it seems like a lot of people are taking a very black or white approach to this – that either ProRAW is the best thing to happen or the worst thing to happen. I’ll admit, I am leaning towards “the best thing yet”. But honestly the real answer doesn’t really fit into either one of those two choices. Instead, it’s basically just evolution. Natural, it happens all the time, evolution.
Before I got into “pro” level photography in terms of gear, I spent a few years going the mobile route. And while that is a completely different topic in and of itself, lets just say I became accustomed to all the niceties of modern software and AI. Smartphones themselves, as advanced as the hardware is relative to their size and function, still beholden to the laws of physics. The raw data you get out of a smartphone sensor will not be of the same quality and caliber as say a full frame camera. There is a ton of software and AI that goes on behind the scenes of your average smartphone to take something rather mediocre and make it quite awesome.
In comparison, we have professional cameras. There are a lot of differences into what makes a professional grade camera professional, why it costs more for less (technologically / software speaking), and why you would choose one over the other. Professional cameras are meant to be a tool or an extension of the artist. Add to that, the typical professional camera has much less things it is supposed to be good at compared to a smartphone. The photographer controlling it has the ability to use all of the data that comes out of the camera and create something in their own style to the best of our current technology as far as imaging technology goes. As compared to smartphones, there is really very little proportionally speaking going on on the software and AI side.
Even before the recent addition of ProRAW to the market, the amount of computational photography in last year’s smartphones is light years ahead of the downright abysmal stuff going on in most professional cameras currently. I mean, in 2020, and we’re still having the discussion of how terrible Sony’s basic camera UI system is, or sub-par in-camera features for image stacking are, much less the insane things Apple (and others) are doing on their phones. Now some photographers will say it is completely irrelevant. The artist should make all of the decisions that computational photography is doing for the amateur market. And to some degree, they’re right. That is the point. That is what makes a professional photographer different than your great aunt who takes nice pictures on her fancy phone. But just because you yourself may not use a given feature, plenty of people would. And just because they make use of a particular software feature to aid the camera hardware, it doesn’t mean they’re less of a pro. I know I would love some of the computational benefits of stacking, HDR etc baked into my full frame Sony.
To those that feel this is the cheapening of photography or the polluting of the pool if you will, I ultimately feel kind of bad for you. It isn’t that and it doesn’t have to be that (in your head). Can you keep going on as you have been with the tools (physical and digital) that you’re used to and requiring the same effort? Most definitely. Will it make it harder to be found or excel in the world of photography if it’s easier to produce absolutely amazing photos? If you’re just starting out, sure. It’s going to get more crowded out there. But that ship has already sailed, honestly. For awhile now, it hasn’t been solely about what you create. Long gone are the days in which you could just take good pictures or be really good at post processing and make it. It takes a lot of focus and a lot of effort over time — consistency over time — along with being really good at the art itself. YouTube, editorial / blogs like this right here, and more are all potentially required to excel. Is that better or worse than decades past? I guess that is largely subjective. One thing I think we can all agree on though is that it’s at the very least different. And different isn’t bad.
At the end of the day, even with software and AI advancements, there still has to be a talent there. Having an “eye for photography” is still going to be required. Even with the smarts of composition tools now (such as that found in the recently released Luminar AI), to make a viable living out of photography you’re going to have to know what you’re doing and how to use all of the growing and changing tools around you. And I believe this is exactly the essence of being a true artist – not just the ability to create but the ability to adapt.