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How does RAW support improve the HTC One M9’s camera?

By Adam Z. Lein May 7, 2015, 2:16 am

During our initial review of the HTC One M9‘s new camera, we came away kind of disappointed. It didn’t do so well when compared to the Samsung Galaxy S6 either. Sure, it has a 20 megapixel sensor with an f/2.2, 27.8mm lens protected by sapphire cover material, and that offers a lot more detail than HTC’s previous 4 megapixel cameras, but the images looked so over-processed. The heavy noise reduction killed the details while over sharpening put white halos around the edges and slight exposure differences seemed kind of random. Well, recently HTC provided an update to the camera software which generates Adobe Digital Negative (DNG) format files. DNG files are basically a standardized way of wrapping up raw digital camera data. To learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of the RAW formats, be sure to check out “Why would you want RAW photo support in a smartphone.” Meanwhile, let’s take a look at some of the differences between the JPGs made by the HTC One M9 and its new DNG image format.

AnimatedCompareRAWJPG_HTC1m9_IMAG0096

In the animated GIF above, you’ll see a photo from the HTC One M9 flipping between its processed JPG version and unprocessed untouched RAW DNG version. You’ll quickly notice that there’s a lot of modifications being made before saving the JPG. The DNG shows a huge amount of light falloff or vignetting around the edges where it’s unable to push as much light as it can in the center. The JPG file adjusts for that by brightening the corners significantly, and subsequently you can see a major increase in color noise in the corners. You can see much more detail in the background with the RAW file as well.  If you’re serious about getting the most out of your RAW DNG photographs, I highly recommend building your own lens distortion, falloff and chromatic aberration models that you can use to automatically correct those type of lens defects that are prevalent in smartphone cameras.

HTCOneM9_Camera_0002_Outdoor flag

In the above 100% crop of a photo of the U.S.A. flag, you’ll see the JPG version on the left and the RAW DNG version on the right. In the JPG, you can see some extra light and dark areas surrounding the edges of the stripes. That’s the sharpening filter.  The RAW file looks more realistic and also seems to have a bit more detail. Notice how you can make out the wrinkles in the blue area of the flag while the JPG kind of flattens it with noise reduction filtering.

HTCOneM9_Camera_0003_Outdoor flowers

Above is another bright, outdoor light sample at 100% cropping, but this time we’re looking at the macro capabilities. Again, you can see the noticeable sharpening and noise reduction filters being applied in the JPG which, in my opinion, kind of ruin the image quality. On the right is the RAW version, where noise is certainly more visible in the lower right corner, but also notice the increased detail in the fibers of the edge of the leaf in the top part of the cropping.

HTCOneM9_Camera_0001_Low light no flash

In a dark room is where all cameras really struggle to capture light. The comparison above was shot at ISO 1600 with the f2.2 aperture and 1/10th of a second. The JPG generated on the left is an awful mess. There are splotches of blue and green and pink all over the image.  On the right is a much better image that uses the RAW DNG file along with a few tweaks of the exposure settings made in Adobe Camera RAW after the shot was taken. I was able to get more detail, a brighter exposure, and better color by adjusting the RAW file, though there’s still plenty of noise. I probably could have applied some other RAW capable noise filters to improve that as well.

HTCOneM9_Camera_0000_Low light with flash

Low light flash photos are important too. The above 100% crops were shot at ISO 100 with 1/40th of a second and again we’ve got more detail in the RAW file on the right. It’s especially noticeable in the black ring around the microphone.

DNG Samples processed in Adobe Camera RAW

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JPG Samples processed in HTC One m9

IMAG0090

url: public://2015/05/IMAG00951.jpg alt: IMAG0095 url: public://2015/05/IMAG00961.jpg alt: IMAG0096 url: public://2015/05/IMAG00981.jpg alt: IMAG0098 url: public://2015/05/IMAG00991.jpg alt: IMAG0099

Conclusion

It’s pretty clear that you can get much better image quality out of the HTC One M9 by using the RAW mode, but in order to really take advantage of that, you’re going to have to copy those DNG files to a PC and tweak them in Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom software (Capture One and AfterShot Pro don’t do too well with DNGs). There aren’t really any great smartphone-based RAW DNG image editors available. Thankfully, if you just want to post a quick picture on Facebook or Instagram, the HTC One M9 saves both the processed JPG and RAW photo at the same time. So you can always get the RAW file later for that increased image quality.

Photography by Hayato Huseman.

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