Using Camera RAW Workflow

By Steve Anchell Back to



Think of RAW files as if they were the digital equivalent of a film negative. Think of JPEG files as if they were prints for distribution. You would not think of passing your negatives around to all your friends. On the other hand, like a print, the JPEG is the easiest format in which to distribute a digital image.

A RAW file requires the photographer to prepare the recorded image for viewing, because a RAW file contains everything recorded on the camera sensor. The better the camera and optics the better the RAW file. A JPEG contains what was recorded on the sensor plus everything the camera maker thinks is needed to make a good image better: color correction, sharpening, saturation and contrast. This is why a JPEG always looks better than an un-manipulated RAW file. However, if you want complete control of your image, from capture to presentation, use RAW capture and learn to process your own digital negatives.

Opening a File in Camera RAW

To open a RAW file you need to use a RAW convertor. The convertor most used today is Adobe Camera RAW convertor. The convertor comes bundled with the latest versions of Photoshop. It can be used with Adobe Bridge to select and convert one or more images simultaneously, though you do not need to go through Bridge to open a single image. Instead you can locate a RAW image file, either in Bridge or from within Photoshop, double-click on it and it will open in Camera RAW.

Camera RAW vs. Lightroom

If you use Photoshop Lightroom you are already using Camera RAW. The Develop Module in Lightroom is Camera RAW with a different layout and enhanced features. An advantage of using Lightroom is that you can use third-party plug-ins, such as onOne Software Perfect Layers, a program that brings the power of Layers into Lightroom, or Nik Software Silver Efex Pro 2, for total control over black and white conversion. These are not available in Adobe Camera RAW. For Lightroom users, do your RAW processing in Lightroom and jump to Photoshop only as needed for special effects. Whichever approach you take, Bridge to Camera RAW or directly in Lightroom, the information in this article will help you understand the powerful tools you have available to you.

Fig. 2

Finding Your Way Around Camera RAW

Open a RAW image in Camera RAW. At first there appears to be a bewildering number of tools and options inside Camera RAW (Fig. 1). The toolbar across the top of the Camera RAW screen contains fourteen tools (Fig. 2). Taken in order from left to right the tools are:

  1. Magnifying glass
  2. Hand Tool
  3. White Balance Tool
  4. Color Sampler Tool
  5. Targeted Adjustment Tool
  6. Crop Tool
  7. Straighten Tool
  8. Spot Removal
  9. Red Eye Removal
  10. Adjustment Brush
  11. Graduated Filter
  12. Preferences
  13. Rotate the image 90 degrees counterclockwise.
  14. Rotate the image 90 degrees clockwise.

On the far right of the toolbar is the Preview on/off switch followed by the full screen toggle.

The first four tools use the image editing panel on the right side, below the histogram. Tool #5 accesses either the Tone Curve or HSL/Grayscale dialog box. #8 to #12 each have their own dedicated dialog box. #6, #7, #13 and #14 do not require one.

Fig. 4
Fig. 3

Personal preferences may be set in two places. One is in Preferences on the toolbar (#12). In Figure 3 you can see my recommended settings. The second is at the bottom, center. Double click on the default setting, Adobe RGB (1998), and you can preset the color space, bit depth, size of the image, resolution, and sharpening. The settings can be changed at any time for subsequent images (Fig. 4). Notice I use no sharpening. I save this until I know the size and usage of the image. These are the set-tings I use for the Minolta 7D. The only thing I would change for another camera is the Crop Size.

Fig. 6
Fig. 5

Using the Editing Tools

There are two powerful new features in the most current releases of Camera RAW and Lightroom. They are Lens Correction and Camera Calibration. I recommend using them before making any other corrections.

If you see an (!) at the bottom right of your image that means the image was imported with an older version of RAW or Lightroom (Fig. 1). In Camera Calibration (Fig. 5) pull down the Process: menu and choose the current version, in this case 2010, and the (!) will disappear. Below that is the camera profile. The default is Adobe Standard. Go through each profile, and choose one that looks best to your eye−ignore what the camera company calls them, landscape, portrait, and so on. Doing this establishes a baseline for White Balance and color correction. You can create a custom profile using the sliders, below, and save it as a Custom Preset to be used on future images from that camera.

Next open Lens Correction (Fig. 6). Under the Profile tab check Enable Lens Profile Correction, and under lens profile choose the camera and the lens that is closest to the one you were using. Enabling profile correction will correct any lens aberrations or distortions that might be present, such as pincushion or barrel distortion of straight lines, especially near the edges. Once the lens has been selected, you can tweak the corrections under the Manual tab.

Fig. 7

Back to the Toolbar at top, the sixth tool from the left is the Cropping Tool. If you look closely (you may need a microscope) you will see a tiny down-pointing arrow. This indicates a menu drop-down options box. Click on the arrow to choose preset proportions, create your own custom proportion (for a specific paper or size print), constrain any amount of cropping to the original image proportions, and show a grid overlay for alignment. I’ll use Normal to pull in the left side slightly, and eliminate some of the foreground (Fig. 7).

After cropping, click on the first tab in the right hand column, Basic. Here you can set the white balance or correct the exposure. I prefer to correct exposure first because correcting the exposure after the white balance could change the overall appearance of the white.

In this image there is a lot of white. Here is a trick I use, and it does not have to be used only on white, the highest value that you do not want to be blown-out will usually work. First, enable Highlight Clipping by clicking on the small arrow in the upper right corner of the Histogram. To ensure that it is on run the slider all the way to the right and the highlights should be masked in red. If they are not, check the Histogram. If it shows clipping on the right side then click the arrow again.

Fig. 8

Bring the slider back to the left until most or all of the red mask has disappeared. For this image that would be somewhere between +1.35 and +1.50 (Fig. 8). Use +1.50, which will put us just over the clipping edge, allowing us to use another exposure correction tool, Recovery.

If you look closely at Figure 8 you will see that +1.5 leaves a small amount of red in the far mountain on the left, the top step and the television dish. As these areas have no detail we can ignore them altogether. This allows the storefront to remain white.

Next set the White Balance. There are several methods for doing this, each one works equally well, it is just a matter of which is best to use for a given image. Leave the Highlight Clipping Mask on because you may find that if you move the White Balance too much to the right you will clip the delicate highlights.

Fig. 9

Method One: use the White Balance Eye Dropper Tool on the top tool bar. Start by converting the image to black and white. Go to tab #4 to the right of the Basic tab, HSL/Grayscale, and select Convert to Grayscale (Fig. 9).

Next, click on the White Balance Eye Dropper Tool and search for an area that is lighter than middle gray; avoid any area that is middle gray or darker. I chose a white area of the storefront that had an RGB value of 230.

Then uncheck Convert to Grayscale to bring back the color. The result on this image was a corrected color temperature of 5350K and a tint of +4 (the image as shot was 6250K and +19).

Fig. 10

Method Two: pull down the Custom White Balance box (Fig. 10). The default is As Shot, which is, as the name implies, how the image came out of the camera. Find the one that looks most pleasing to you. For this image, Flash gave the closest result to using the White Balance Eye Dropper Tool, 5300K, 0 Tint.

Method Three: play with the Temperature and Tint sliders. See what the image looks like when you move the Temperature slider to the right (warmer), or to the left (cooler). To see noticeable changes in color temperature you will need to move at least +/100, depending where you begin on the Kelvin scale. Then see what happens if you move the Tint slider to the right (add magenta), or to the left (add green). Changes of +/10 will create noticeable differences in tint.

The results of this method will be entirely subjective, but you will learn more about mixing color than you will with either of the first two methods.

Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation

The process of sharpening an image, film as well as digital, is an optical effect created by increasing edge contrast. Clarity only increases the appearance of sharpening in the midtones. This serves to increase the appearance of sharpness only in those areas.

Adding Clarity to the midtones will often improve the visual punch of an image. How much to introduce depends largely on the camera used. The higher the resolving power of the camera and lens (not mega-pixels, but resolving power) the less Clarity required. You will find images from the same camera and lens combination will consistently look best with approximately the same amount added. For example, with the Minolta 7D and an 18 to 55mm zoom something between +45 and +65 is good. With the Nikon D700 something between +25 and +35 seems to work better.

Fig. 11

Before adding Clarity, use one of the magnifying tools (Zoom Tool or presets at bottom left) to bring the image to 100%. Find an area of midtone that has defined edges. In this image the Hardware sign is a good choice. Move the slider to the right to increase Clarity, +56 looks good here (Fig. 11).

The last corrections on this image are Vibrance and Saturation, two color corrections with similar effects. Saturation refers to the purity of the hue, or color. One hundred percent red means pure red. The Saturation slider increases the saturation of every color in the image on an equal basis.

Fig. 12

Vibrance affects primarily the dull colors. Any color already above a certain level of saturation, as determined by Adobe, is not affected. Vibrance is also designed to ignore fleshtones as much as possible. Unlike Clarity, Vibrance is not required in every image, though it can really help some images. There is no rule for Vibrance, it is entirely sujective. I found for this image that +49 Vibrance improved the blue in the sky without affecting the neutral color of the white storefront (Fig. 12).

The best part of working with Camera RAW (and Lightroom) corrections are they are totally non-destructive. At any time in the future, you can open the image in either program and replace all of the defaults, or alter any one, including cropping, without any loss in quality. Because of this you can feel free to experiment without concern for destroying your original.

About the Author

Steve Anchell
Steve Anchell is an internationally published photographer, teacher and writer. His books The Darkroom Cookbook, The Variable Contrast Printing Manual and The Film Developing Cookbook are international photography bestsellers.