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Lesson 12: Adobe Camera Raw Processing - A Crash Course!

Adobe Camera Raw is one of my favourite subjects because it is such a powerful application that can transform your post-processing. In this tutorial I am going to give you a primer on the key characteristics of Raw files (and why they are so great), and then show you how to use the myriad controls of Adobe Camera Raw to process them successfully. There's a lot to get through, so I will be to-the-point! Let's get started...

What is a Raw file and why should you shoot in Raw?

In a nutshell, 'Raw' means that an image contains only the raw information that was recorded when it was taken. None of the settings that are automatically applied to JPEG files in-camera (some of which we have control over, like white balance) are applied to Raw files.

Similarly, unlike JPEG's, no information is thrown away to reduce (compress) the file size of Raw images. JPEG's are compressed to 8 bits/channel, whilst Raw files can be processed in Photoshop at 16 bits/channel (this is a measure of colour depth, for more: Colour Modes and Bit Depth).

So with Raw, we have a big and unprocessed file. It's digital photography's equivalent of a film negative. With a JPEG meanwhile, we have a smaller file, which has had some of its information discarded in order to compress it for convenient storage (this kind of compression is called lossy compression).

Because of the automatic adjustments made to JPEG's, they look pretty good right off the bat. Our cameras immediately apply saturation, sharpening and contrast settings to images saved in a JPEG format. Raw files, on the other hand, look dull and flat. They need to be processed with software (Adobe Camera Raw) in order to improve their appearance and convert them to JPEG (or any other extension) format.

JPEG version:

Unprocessed Raw version:

So, whilst the disadvantage of Raw is that the files take up more space on our memory cards and computers (and take longer to write to the card when shooting), the BIG advantage is that we get to fine tune the appearance of the final image to perfection!

Plus, crucially, because Raw files can be edited with 16 bits/channel, whilst JPEG's have only 8 bits/channel, we have much more flexibility for editing. The considerably greater bit depth (colour depth) and dynamic range (tonal range, from pure white to pure black) of Raw files means that we can push the colours and tones much more in processing than we can with JPEG's.

So Raw files are much less likely to suffer from posterization/banding as a result of processing than their 8/bit JPEG counterparts. Posterization occurs when the colour depth (bit depth) of an image is insufficient to continously and smoothly span a range of colours specified in Photoshop, causing artifical step-changes in colurs to appear:

Now that we know what a Raw file is, and how it gives us lots of flexibility in post-production, let's get on to the fun bit: using Adobe Camera Raw!

 

Adjusting exposure in Camera Raw

The first stage of my workflow involves changing/correcting the exposure. As we've seen, the excellent dynamic range of Raw files gives us quite a lot of freedom here.

Open a Raw file, either from Photoshop or by double-clicking it in Bridge. The Camera Raw application will open up. It works as an accompaniment to Photoshop, rather like Bridge.

At the top of the Basic tab (which shows by default) is the Exposure slider. This changes the exposure of the whole image, from highlights to midtones to shadows. I usually leave it alone because it's indiscriminate.

Recovery rescues detail in the highlights - very handy. Fill Light rescues detail in the shadows - also very handy, although lightening shadows always increases noise (luckily, we can deal with noise in Camera Raw too! More later).

Play with both these sliders to improve your image:

After increasing Fill Light:

After increasing Recovery:

If you wish to brighten the midtones of the image, use the Brightness slider. I sometimes use this first if my image is definitely underexposed, then use Fill Light.

After increasing Brightness:

So we've corrected exposure, but balancing shadows and highlights is obviously detrimental to the overall contrast. Can you see how your image is looking flatter? Use the Blacks slider to introduce some contrast, in addition to the Clarity slider which also has a sharpening effect. These 2 sliders should add real 'punch' to your photo:

The Blacks slider returns depth and contrast:

Clarity boosts contrast and has a sharpening effect:

 

Adjusting white balance in Camera Raw

Raw files do not have a white balance embedded in them. So your picture likely has the wrong colours. Click on the white balance tool - third from left on the top toolbar. Find somewhere in the image is supposed to be gray and click on it once. White balance set!

You can also choose from the pre-set white balance options at the top of the Basic tab. These correspond to the pre-set options within your camera, i.e. Daylight, Cloudy, Tungsten and so on.

In addition you can use the Temperature and Tint sliders to fine tune colour balance manually.

Personally, I find myself using the white balance tool, then following up with a bit of fine tuning with the sliders, the most. Find the system that works for you.

 

Adjusting colour intensity with Camera Raw

To increase colour intensity, move the Vibrance slider at the bottom of the basic tab to the right. Vibrance saturates the colours in your photo, but holds back on those that are most saturated to begin with. This is great, as it prevents an unnatural effect, which can be a problem with the Saturation slider (which applies universal saturation).

Vibrance set to 50 (deepens colours naturally):

Saturation set to 50 (begins to appear artificial):

What about when you want some areas of a photo to be more vibrant/saturated than others, like eyes in a portrait photo? Easy - click on the HSL/Grayscale tab and select the Saturation tab. Now choose the Targeted Adjustment tool, fifth from the left on the top toolbar.

Click on a part of your photo that you want to work on, and drag up to increase the saturation of the colour in that area, or drag down to desaturate it.

Using this technique, you can even create cool photo effects like 'colour-popping' from within Camera Raw itself. Desaturate all colours but the one of your main subject, e.g. a red flower.

 

Making various local adjustments with the Adjustment Brush tool

The adjustment brush tool is brilliant tool for making careful, local adjustments. Click on it - fifth from the right on the toolbar - and notice the options in the panel to the right. The sliders are all of the settings that you can change with the Adjustment Brush.

Select the settings on the right and then 'paint' them on to the photo using the brush tool. Say, for example, you wanted to remove the shadow on one half of someone's face in a portrait. Increase the exposure or brightness slider, and paint over the face in the right area.

You can intensify colours, add contrast and sharpen important parts of the photo too. The settings at the bottom of the panel determine the characteristics of the brush. A shortcut for increasing/decreasing the brush size is to tap ] to increase it and [ to decrease it.

The great thing about this tool is that it lets us make really subtle, localized, non-destructive edits right in Camera Raw - a bit like using masks in Photoshop. It's non-destructive because, after painting in the adjustments, you can go back and change the position of the sliders and the changes you have already made will be altered accordingly. To view the areas you have painted with the brush, hover the cursor over the green pin.

 

Applying graduated filters in Camera Raw

This is one of my favourite parts of Camera Raw. Click on the Graduated Filter button - third from the right along the toolbar at the top.

You know what gradient filters are, right? They can be attached to your lens to create all sorts of effects, like darkening part of an image. Well, we can apply some of those filter effects right here in Camera Raw.

Click on your image to set the point where your filter begins, and drag out either diagonally, horizontally or vertically, to set the point where it finishes. The first point will be green, the second point will be red. The adjustments we make will be most prominent at the green point, and slowly fade out towards the red.

The sliders to the right, as well as the colour picker, are the available settings that can be applied to the photo. Start by darkening the image in the gradient that you have selected, by reducing the Exposure slider. This can be a good technique to apply to skies in landscape photos. Increase the contrast a bit too, by using the contrast slider, and choose a colour from the picker at the bottom to add a tint.

To add a new gradient, select the New button at the top of the right hand panel. Drag out another gradient in a new part of the image, say the foreground area of a landscape. Make changes, like increasing the exposure, adding a colour tint and increasing contrast.

Then just click the Hand tool (second from left in the toolbar) to leave the Gradient panel and return to normal view.

 

Correcting lens distortions in Camera Raw

Sometimes our use of lens, and proximity to subject, can result in distortions to the perspective of an image. Have you have seen a picture of yourself with a 'bulging' face and large nose? Don't worry - it's not accurate! We can correct those sorts of things right here in Camera Raw.

Click on the Lens Corrections tab:

This is what I do 9 times out of 10: click the Profile tab and tick the Enable Lens Profile Corrections checkbox. Done!

Camera Raw detects the lens you took the shot with, using the image's metadata, then finds its inbuilt profile for that lens and does the correction for you. Easy as that.

Before lens correction (slight 'bulge' from wide angle lens):

After lens correction (normal perspective):

Feels free to select the Manual tab and play around with the sliders manually. You can make good correction like this too, it just takes longer. At the bottom of the Manual tab are 2 more useful correction options: Chromatic Aberration and Lens Vignetting.

Use the Chromatic Aberration sliders to eliminate coloured fringes that can sometimes appear around edges in an image. Use the Lens Vignetting sliders to cut out any vignetting (appearance of shadows around the corners of a photo), or to add vignetting if you wish (to create a 'border' effect).

 

Using the Spot Removal tool to eliminate sensor dust

Camera Raw includes a Spot Removal tool, 7th from the right at the top. It's a really well designed tool, and it enables you to blast away annoying sensor dust right here in Camera Raw.

Select the tool and click on a speck you want to get rif of. If the circles are not big enough, use the Radius slider, ot tap ] a few times, to increase it. Leave the green circle in position and drag the red circle over an area that can be used as a reference for filling in.

Click on the next dust speck to repeat the process. When you're done, select the Hand tool to return to normal view.

 

Cropping and straightening in Camera Raw

We can crop and straighten photos non-destructively in Camera Raw, which is a terrific advantage. Select the crop tool - sixth from the left - and drag out the selection. To constrain the proportions of the image, select the whole picture, hold shift, and then drag the crop selection out.

Having made a crop, the original full image is not lost. Click the Hand tool and your cropped image will be displayed. But re-select the Crop tool and you'll notice that the original image is still, there just faded out.

You can drag the crop selection back out to regain the full original image if you wish. Similarly, you can re-position your cropped area so that it covers a different area of the original photo.

To straighten an image you can simply hover over the corner of a cropped area and rotate it left or right. But there's also a really useful Straighten tool - seventh from the left in the toolbar. Select it and trace over a line in the image that is either supposed to be perfectly horizontal or vertical. The correction will be made automatically.

 

Noise reduction in Camera Raw

Camera Raw's noise reduction feature is absolutely brilliant. It's much easier to successfully cut out noise here than it is in the main Photoshop workspace.

Click on the Detail tab. Zoom in close to an area of your image where there is noise. High ISO speeds are the primary factor that cause noise, but if you've increased the exposure in dark areas of your photo (by using Fill Light, for example), you will probably see plenty of noise too.

In the Noise Reduction slider, move the Luminance slider to the right.

Notice how the noise in your photo begins to disappear. You should also notice that almost all the details remain in tact. If you have to move the Luminance slider so far to the right in order to eliminate noise, that some of the details begin to suffer, move the Luminance Detail slider to the right to compensate.

Before:

After:

The Color slider is automatically set at 25, so I rarely increase this. When noise shows as coloured specks, though, this can be a very useful slider to use.

 

Applying cool photo effects in Camera Raw

Usually we can only play around with cool effects in the main Photoshop workspace. But there are some things we can do in Camera Raw. We've already seen how to use the HSL/Grayscale saturation tab in conjunction with the Targeted Adjustment tool to create a colour-popped photo.

We can also produce a split toning effect, with different tints in the highlights and shadows. Click on the Split Toning tab and use the sliders to choose a colour/hue for the highlights and shadows.

The saturation sliders will increase the respective colours' intensities:

Another nice effect is sepia tone. Go to the HSL/Grayscale tab and tick Convert to Grayscale.

Then go to the Split Toning tab and find a sort of orange/ocre faded tone for both highlights and shadows. You can leave the image like this, or go seriously retro and produce an old-photo, grainy look. Click on the Effects tab (FX) and use the Grain sliders to increase the level of grain.

The Vignetting sliders can then be used to either darken or wash out the borders of the image:

adobe camera raw processing tutorial

 

Previewing before/after in Camera Raw

You can preview the before/after views of changes made in Camera Raw by clicking the Preview checkbox in the top right. The shortcut for this is simply to press P for turning preview on and off.

adobe camera raw processing tutorial

But there's a problem: you only see the before/after for the specific panel that you are in, i.e. Basic, Split Toning, Detail etc. To see a preview for all the changes you have made, select the Presets tab. Now tap P to see a full before/after view.

 

Opening and saving Raw files

So now that we have finished adjusting our Raw image, it's time to open it in the main Photoshop workspace. From there we can save it as a JPEG file (or any other extension), ready for printing, displaying and so on.

Before you hit Open Image to exit Camera Raw and load the photo in Photoshop, click on the Workflow Options below the image. These specify the settings which will be applied to the image when it is opened. They are the details shown in blue link text below the image.

Clicking them will bring up the Workflow Options dialogue box:

Here you can set the colour space, bit depth, image size and resolution. Choose either Adobe RGB (1998) or ProPhoto RGB for the space. Next choose 16 Bits/Channel for the depth (this is the colour range for Raw files, so we want to preserve the maximum range instead of reducing it to 8 Bits/Channel). I leave the size at the native size of the image (with no plus or minus symbol next to it). Resolution depends on the intended use, between 200 and 300 is likely fine, but see this tutorial on size and resolution for more information. Now click Open Image.

But we have 2 more options having finished processing in Camera Raw. First, we can click Save Image in the bottom left and create a saved version on our computer, with the settings we have chosen, with any of the available file extensions (e.g. .jpg, .dng, .psd). You can do this if you have no need to make further adjustments in Photoshop.

adobe camera raw processing tutorial

Second, we can simply hit Done to exit Camera Raw but preserve all the settings we have created in the Raw file. Next time we open the file in Camera Raw, to make more edits or to open it in Photoshop, the changes we have made will all be there.

 

Applying Camera Raw changes to multiple photos

You can open multiple Raw images at the same time. Either use Cmd/Ctrl to select them from File>Open in Photoshop. Or Cmd/Ctrl double-click them in Bridge. Or, if you want to open some Raw and some JPEG images all in Camera Raw (yes, JPEG's can actually be editied using the Camera Raw application, but obviously you have less flexibility because of the lower bit-depth and dynamic range) just select them all in Bridge and hit Cmd/Ctrl + R.

Having made lots of edits to one picture in camera Raw, you don't want to have to do the same again to another photo, if it is very similar. So select previews of the photos in the left hand column, with Select All, then press Synchronize.

adobe camera raw processing tutorial

Specify the adjustments you would like to apply in the Synchronize dialogue box (most of them are selected by default) and hit OK.

But what if you rush home from a shoot and open up just one image, because you're desperate to process it. You make loads of careful, brilliant adjustments, hit Open Image to convert it to a JPEG and open it in Photoshop, then realize you forgot to synchronize the settings with the other pictures from the shoot!

No problem: right click on the Raw file preview in Bridge and select Develop Settings>Copy Settings. Then select all the other images you want to apply the settings to and right click on them. Select Develop Settings>Paste Settings and the Paste Camera Raw Settings will appear.

adobe camera raw processing tutorial

You can again specify which settings you want to transfer. As in the Synchronize option, most of them are selected by default. Hit OK and wait for the changes to be transferred to the selected images.

 

Summary

That brings to an end my crash course on processing Raw files in Adobe Camera Raw. You now know that Raw files are larger than JPEG's, taking up more space on our memory cards but containing far greater colour depth and tonal range, which brings tremendous flexibility for editing. You've also seen how the many controls within Adobe Camera Raw can be used to fine tune images both globally and locally for perfect results. I hope you found this useful! Please leave your thoughts in the comments if you would like to...

For a beginner-friendly book with step-by-step Photoshop tutorials, I recommend "Photo Nuts and Post" by Neil Creek.

Photoshop Tutorials For Beginners

Lesson 1: Getting Started In Photoshop

Lesson 2: Introducing Photoshop Layers

Lesson 3: Organizing Photos In Adobe Bridge

Lesson 4: How To Read A Histogram In Photoshop

Lesson 5: Photoshop Blending Modes and Techniques

Lesson 6: Having Fun With Adjustment Layers

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