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How to: Edit DSLR RAW Photos With Your Smartphone

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In the past few years, smartphones have become a lot more powerful. Rather than being underpowered, barely capable phones, they’re now as specced out as entry level PCs. With all this extra juice, you can do a lot more.

As a photographer, the usecase that interests me most is computer-less RAW editing. Could I head out on a shoot for a few days with just my iPhone and camera, and be able to edit and post images to social media while on the road? And if I could, would the process be easy enough to use?

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An image I shot on my 5DIII and edited with my iPhone.

It turns out, I could, and the process is simple enough as well. This is the workflow I developed. It isn’t perfect and it’s a bit hacked together, but it works and the results speak for themselves.

Why would you buy a PC anymore?—Tim Cook, Apple CEO

To follow along, you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with wifi (or an SD card that adds it), and a modern smartphone with Snapseed (iOS, Android) installed.

Access the RAW Files on the Camera

The first thing you need to do is get the photos off the camera and on to your phone. You can use Apple’s Lightning to SD Cable or something similar for Android, but I wanted a wireless set up. I’m using a Canon 5DIII, which doesn’t have built in WiFi, so I picked up a Toshiba FlashAir SD card so I could connect it to my iPhone 6S. 

Like the EyeFi, the FlashAir is a Class 10 SD card with a built in WiFi chip. It sets up a local network for you to connect your phone to. Then, with the right app, you can transfer files to your phone. 

I like the FlashAir because, unlike some models of EyeFi, it can handle RAW files which is the whole point of this workflow. If your camera has built in WiFi, you should be able to use the manufacturer’s app to transfer the files to your smartphone.

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Importing files with the FlashAir app.

Whichever method you’re using, connect your smartphone to the camera’s WiFi network and open the right app. I found that I couldn’t preview RAW files (they’re too big and don’t have an easy thumbnail) so I had to do the review process on my camera. I’d note down the filename of the image I liked, then with the app, go into the SD card’s filesystem and select it.

Import the RAW Files

In theory, you should be able to just save RAW files directly to your iPhone’s Camera Roll but I had some difficulty getting that to work with the FlashAir. When you’re setting up this workflow, try just saving the images to see if they appear. If they do, wonderful; if not, you’re going to import them with Snapseed.

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Opening a CR2 file in Snapseed.

Click Open In and select Import with Snapseed; it has great RAW development tools that, on iPhone, support most major RAW formats. On Android, Snapseed only supports DNG for the time being so you’ll need to use an app like raw2dng first—I did say this workflow was a little hacked together!

Even if you are able to save RAW files directly to your phone, I’d recommend opening them in Snapseed to do the RAW editing.

Edit the RAW Files

Now that you’ve got the RAW file into Snapseed, the hard part is done. It’s just a matter of editing the file and sharing it. 

In Snapseed, select the Adjustment you want to apply by swiping up and down. Swipe left and right to change the value. 

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Editing a RAW image in Snapseed.

You can edit Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Contrast, Structure (that’s the same as clarity), Saturation, Temperature and Tint. You can also change the white balance to the usual defaults of Sunny, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, Flash and Auto, or use a Colour Picker to set a white point. It’s a full RAW development set up.

When you’re done, click the Checkmark to finish developing. Then you can continue editing in Snapseed with all the app’s regular tools or save it out to the Camera Roll and open it in any other editing app you like. I normally do a few more edits in Snapseed—especially any local edits—and then open the image in VSCO Cam to finish. Here’s a full tutorial on that workflow.

Share the Images

Now that you’ve got your nicely edited RAW file, it’s time to share it. You can upload it to something like Dropbox or import it to Lightroom Mobile to sync it to your computer back home. You can also post it straight to Facebook or Instagram—amazingly, I found the apps supported posting edited RAW files directly from my iPhone.

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An image I shot on my 5DIII and edited on my iPhone.

And that’s it, you’re done. You’ve successfully edited and shared a RAW file in the field without a camera.

Evaluating the Workflow

Let’s take a moment to cast a critical eye over this workflow; it works, but it’s not without issues.

  • You can only work on one image image at a time and you’re reviewing them on the back of your camera. This is far from ideal.
  • Local adjustments are difficult. You just don’t have the same control to dodge and burn, at least on a phone, as you do with a full computer. With an iPad Pro or a Surface Pro, you’d probably be okay.
  • Transferring and editing RAW files drains the battery of both your camera and your phone. It can seriously reduce the amount of shooting time you get.

With that said, there are also a lot of positives.

  • It’s a full RAW development workflow. For global adjustments, the results are as good as any computer workflow.
  • It’s quick and can be done anywhere. I’ve edited photos sitting on the ground on a mountain, in a bar after a shoot, on public transport, and lots of other random spots. You just whip out your smartphone and two or three minutes later, you’ve got an edited image.
  • Some smartphone apps are equal or better than desktop apps. VSCO Cam, and its presets, are wonderful. VSCO make Lightroom presets too but they cost about ten times as much. You can make some really beautiful photos with relatively little work using your smartphone.

On balance, this workflow is a supplement to your existing workflows. It’s perfect for social media sharing when you’re on a multi-day shoot away from your computer but it isn’t a replacement for a full post-production workflow. It’s nice when you’re out in the field to do some test edits and share files, but it isn’t at the point yet where you can throw away your laptop.

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