Now You Can Shoot ProRes on Your Phone—Should You?

Your iPhone can now shoot ProRes, which is awesome. But should you bother?

Adding ProRes to the iPhone was absolutely one of the standout aspects of the iPhone 13 Pro press release last month.

While the feature wasn't available at launch, pretty quickly the SDK was released and third-party apps like FiLMiC Pro were supporting the capture format. As of today, ProRes is now available natively as an option to all users in the camera app on your iPhone if you have an iPhone 13 Pro or 13 Pro Max. If you aren't seeing it, you might need to go to your settings and turn it on.

So, should you start shooting in ProRes?

Let's look at the test shelf image above a little bit and talk about it. 

On one side, ProRes, on the other, H.265 (the standard "high" capture format for the iPhone, if you turn on HEVC capture).

They look shockingly similar. Even if you zoom in on the images, they still look shockingly similar.

This is zooming in on Resolve before screenshotting, not just zooming in on the photo.

Have you guessed yet which side is which?   

They both have nice colors, they both look pretty clear, the pattern of the plaid isn't kicking up nasty artifacts. They are both highly usable images. Dynamic range looks pretty much the same.

So, how about this one?

This is a shot we underexposed in FiLMiC Pro and then lifted back up with Resolve to try and get an image out of it.

Here we finally see a difference; with footage that isn't "perfect" (too dark, wrong color, etc.) the answer is obvious. The left half of the image looks way, way better, and is of course the ProRes side. The right half, the H.265, looks heavily macroblocky and smeary.

The left half we can do a lot with in post with a bit of time and some light noise correction, and even if there is noise left in the image it'll be friscalating grain, which looks sometimes pleasant as opposed to the miserable smear of H.265 junk on the right.

So, yeah, ProRes absolutely gives superior image quality.

The real question becomes, then—well, of course ProRes gives you more image quality, but when, if ever, will you need it? 

The iPhone does an amazing job of making sure your images are properly exposed for you. Working with a tool like FiLMiC, you have even more control for pushing back when you disagree with the camera's suggestion on exposure. You don't have a ton of excuses for when your iPhone footage comes out with bad color balance and bad exposure. Apple has spent likely billions on making the images "look good" straight out of the camera.

And shooting ProRes is not without drawbacks.  The files are much, much bigger than H.265. The same 22-second shot was only 63MB in FiLMiC 8bit, but was 2.1GB in ProRes HQ.

That's a big issue. Unlike a motion picture camera, iPhone doesn't have interchangeable internal storage. Yes, you can buy an iPhone 1TB, but that will offer you at most 900GB of storage, which will be roughly 200 minutes or so of storage. Enough for a shoot day, sure, but tightly.

Now we get to what is absolutely the biggest hurdle—downloading your files.

The issue is that the iPhone lightning connector wasn't designed for files this large. It's a connector that rolled out during a time when your iPhone was really all about charging and streaming music. But when you start to try to move ProRes files around with it, you start to see the limitations.

The preferred suggested method, in fact, is just using AirDrop, which is a wireless file transfer tool for when your devices are physically close to each other, and honestly this works somewhat well. The speeds are slower than you might like, but reasonable.

In our tests it was about 2x runtime, so a 22-second clip took 44-48 seconds to download. If you are using a dedicated phone/camera, it'll be easy to leave it downloading for a while. It'll be more awkward when you are using your personal phone and you want to take it with you to run an errand and need to stop a download, but that's a trade-off we'll all have to make. Because when you are using AirDrop, you can't have your phone do anything else.

The tricky thing is that by default your AirDrop goes to your computer's download folder, so you need to have room on that computer to handle the file, which isn't ideal. 

You might have 900GB free on your main computer, but most usually don't. There are workarounds to move where this downloads to, but hopefully Apple will soon allow setting a destination to AirDrop to so you can set it to an external drive.

You can also upload directly over your WiFi or 5G internet to tools like the online transfer tool MASV, and this also works somewhat well, though at the end of that process you'll need to download it to some form of local storage. Honestly, we think it'll be reasonably fast that someone like Frame.io will release a good app for managing your iPhone ProRes dailies onto their cloud and delivering it right to the timelines of your editor without too much of a hurdle.

But it goes back to the question, when to use it?

For now, I think the smartest move (unless you are on a big production with a dedicated iPhone purchased for the shoot and dedicated download stations and whatnot) is to use ProRes for situations where you are worried the image is going to struggle. If you have a big night exterior scene and are thinking of adding an iPhone into the mix, definitely shoot that ProRes. Night work in general.

But a properly lit interview setup with a ton of light that is easy for the iPhone to nail, you might consider sticking with HEVC, especially if you are hoping to shoot hours and hours of interviews in a tight timeframe and won't be able to wait for overnight downloads.

This is undoubtedly a technical achievement. What they pulled off is absolutely mind-blowing, that they can capture ProRes in a phone at all, and it is a real testament to the integration of software, hardware, and design that makes Apple, well, Apple. But depending on your workflow, you might not need to use it for absolutely every single thing you shoot. At least until they roll out an iPhone with USB-C, or add ProRes to the iPad.     

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