Since I have some files on hand and most of the relevant software installed, I decided to systematically look at iPhone HEIC and DNG support some of the major photo viewers/triage tools and RAW developers as of March 2022. This is an updated list from November 2020 where the situation was fairly dire. There’s much wider support for HEIC/HEIF today.
I’ve included some sample processing in the RAW developers section.
FastRawViewer 1.7 and later
Shows iPhone DNG, png and jpg. Support HEIC. It was very thoughtful of the FRV developers to include HEIC/HEIF in a 1.x release and not hold it for v2.x (which came relatively soon after).
Displays iPhone jpg, png, HEIC and DNG perfectly. Should do as ApolloOne includes two decoders, one libraw and the other Apple’s own system tools. You have full access to a histogram and to detailed EXIF and IPTC information as well as star ratings.
ApolloOne would be a good inexpensive choice for image triage before processing.
PhotoMechanic Plus 6
Opens iPhone DNG, HEIC, jpg. Very fast doing so. Very useful tool for rating and managing iPhone images! Surprise, surprise. On the other hand, Photo Mechanic would be total overkill for iPhone image management. If you are using PhotoMechanic already though for pro work, you can keep using the tool you know best.
Apple Finder High Sierra and later
Will show HEIC and iPhone DNG photos with large thumbnails from 10.13.2. Quicklook works as well. No way to rate. Simple tools like Lyn or Lilyview which use Apple’s own display libraries do work. Support improves in 10.14 Mojave.
PhotoLab 4 and PhotoLab 5 Photo Browser
Sees iPhone DNG but will not open them after the iPhone X. Does not support show or even show HEIC/HEIF images. Opens iPhone jpeg only.
There is a workaround to be able to develop iPhone DNG images up to the iPhone 11 Pro with PhotoLab via MetaImage.
Despite the lack of official support, the results from iPhone DNG from PhotoLab 5 are head and shoulders above any of the other applications in my experience.
Opens iPhone DNG for processing. Ignores HEIC/HEIF as RAW only through Iridient Developer 3.2.2. Last HEIC/HEIF specific bugs fixed in version 3.3.6.
Iridient Developer’s extreme highlight recovery proved to be very useful on some tough images. Not a bad tool, as Iridient Developer offers nearly direct access to the actual RAW data with its scientific style tools. The results alas could not match DxO PhotoLab partly because of the absence of local adjustments and advanced colour profiles.
Will not see or import iPhone HEIC or even JPEG files. It’s a RAW editor only. Will import iPhone DNG.
Adequate results. Did better on recovering highlights than Lightroom. No native profile so there’s some work to be done setting up a viable workflow. The work to turn these RAW images into something viable makes me look longingly at my D850, my Z6, my Z50 and even my son’s D3300.
CaptureOne 21 (14.0.0) and later
CaptureOne did eventually add HEIC/HEIF support. Windows users have to install some extensions from Microsoft (HEVC Video Extensions and HEIF Image Extensions). Evidently CaptureOne is not paying for HEIC/HEIF support and is leveraging the OS. It begs the question why PhotoLab 5 did not add at least OS level support for HEIC/HEIF, making the royalty fees redundant.
There is no HEIC export, but that’s not really an issue. JPEG and TIFF are fine export formats. If I really want to archive in HEIC, I can export in 16-bit TIFF and then use a dedicated tool to create archive quality HEIC files.
Adobe Lightroom Classic
Sees, imports and processes everything.
Results of DNG processing: taking a well-exposed file and applying a simple S-curve, attempting to dial back the highlights was very poor. Much worse than what I get out of the iPhone using Apple’s own processing.
Not tested this round as I don’t want to open it up and have it start chewing through my images and/or hiding them but Photos app will work with all of these 3. Within its limitations, Photos might do a better job than the third party apps.
I can see why Photolab is trying to avoid mobile DNG files: they are just not very good. When DxO showed serious interest in supporting mobile phones, there had been some movement in 2014 to more interesting phone sensors with phones like the 1 inch Panasonic DMC-CM1 and Nokia Lumia 1020 coming to market. Heck DxO put out its own DxO One at the time. Finally Huawei is now building some larger sensor phones again as well.
iPhone internally processed versions of the same photos I tried processing in CaptureOne manage to take backlighting and turn it into something magical. If I were taking iPhone DNG processing seriously, I’d certainly like to have Prime available to try and control the noise everywhere.
The grown up commercial tools (Luminar and On1 don’t count due to poor noise reduction and cartoon like processing[^LuminarOn1: On1 Photo RAW 2022 does support iPhones through iPhone 11 Pro as well as HEIC/HEIF) which will handle iPhone DNG files. Luminar seems to support HEIC/HEIF from Luminar 4 on Mac, including Luminar AI and Luminar NEO but not on Windows at least until Luminar NEO Update 3. No support at all for iPhone DNG past iPhone X, same raw deal as on PhotoLab. Never trust Skylum/Macphun, they are always renaming/retiring apps and almost offer never offer substantial updates before shamelessly asking a photographer to go to the cash register again for a renamed app. Performance has always been dodgy.]) are Iridient Developer, Adobe Lightroom Classic, and CaptureOne (or now PhotoLab 4/5 with the MetaImage workaround).
Apple Photos – simple native solution?
Apple Photos doesn’t really count either as a pro application but I should test it, as it’s the native tool. Not sure if Apple Photos will really work on the RAW and not a machine-translated HEIC. As Apple Photos disappears one’s images into a proprietary database, I wouldn’t want to use it for anything.[^ApplePhotos: Good news. If you don’t store your photos in the Photos library, Photos will not upload them to iCloud. Fairly simple solution to allow modest use of Photos.]
Unfortunately the quality of results is not great. With some effort I managed to get interesting results but with very heavy posterisation. The most useful tool for handling backlit photos with a sun in was Levels combined with Light > Highlights. With how sensitive the Curves tool is, it feels more like handling jpeg files, not RAW.
If you are working with the depth of field effects, those can be saved into the HEIC files 1 and manipulated in Apple Photos.
What is critical however is that the file is shot using the HEIF format because that’s the only way we can save the depth map needed to create the shallow DOF simulation.
So if you want to play with depth of field, then Apple Photos is for now the only game in town. As an iPhone 11 Pro Max user, I haven’t covered ProRAW photos. Here’s a look at ProRAW improvements 7.
Image review/triage/management with ApolloOne with raw processing in Iridient Developer. HEIC images should be converted before review to jpeg where they can be directly opened up in PhotoLab. Perspective and noise could be treated in PhotoLab from exports from Iridient Developer (HQ NR only of course). An expert Affinity Photo or Photoshop editor might prefer to do perspective and noise reduction there.
Recommendation 2022: My recommendation for fine art iPhone DNG shooters would be to stick to the iPhone 11 and earlier and use the not very cooperative DxO PhotoLab 5 to process the iPhone DNG.
Use FastRawViewer or ApolloOne for triage. Only move the photos you want to process into PhotoLab 5. As there is sometimes DNG corruption in PhotoLab 5, I recommend moving only copies over to PhotoLab 5. Whenever you are done processing an image, make sure to do an immediate export before moving on so that you don’t lose your processing in the case of DNG corruption.
All this would be made much easier if DxO would provide full iPhone DNG support, of course.
DxO is harming their marketing and making existing customers very unhappy by arbitrarily and unfairly cutting photographers off from using their mobile phones
I believe it goes back to the debacle of the DxO One which destroyed the old DxO and embittered DxO owners to mobile phones and especially Apple. Now out of the game, DxO owners don’t want anyone to offer good mobile DNG processing, especially DxO. What I would say to this (I’m a DxO One owner) is that it’s not Apple’s fault that
- the DxO One was too heavy to hang safely off the end of an iPhone, especially with a case on
- the DxO One had its own very heavy battery and didn’t use the built in iPhone battery
- the DxO One used its own storage instead of storing its images and videos within the iPhone. Well, this one is partly Apple’s fault – iOS has never played all that well with others, particularly the file system.
All of these are serious inconveniences when using the DxO One. Had the original DxO One been lightweight (high quality plastic) and leveraged the iPhone battery) and less expensive as a consequence (no fine metal finishing, no expensive battery) it might have been a success in the day. It would be hard now to compete with computational photography but computational photography arrived a couple of years later.
But all those are bygones. For heaven’s sake, DxO give your paying photographers access to our mobile phone/iPhone DNG images!
I’d love to hear about successful recipes for obtaining the best possible images from iPhone DNG from other photographers, preferably with some challenging examples.
Alec has been helping businesses succeed online since 2000. Alec is an SEM expert with a background in advertising, as a former Head of Television for Grey Moscow and Senior Television Producer for Bates, Saatchi and Saatchi Russia.
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