You Can Master RAW (Part 1)

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Learn how to process your RAW files to perfection

Most of us probably began shooting images in Jpeg, and while some have made the switch to RAW, others are more reluctant. While it’s true that Jpegs have their advantages, in some ways RAW is the less complicated format. A RAW file is a complete record of all the information captured by your camera. In contrast, Jpegs are processed in camera, with any unused information discarded. This means that RAW files are much more forgiving of mistakes as the extra information makes it easier to correct exposure, tease out details and tweak colours.

Adobe Camera Raw.

Adobe Camera RAW.

Perhaps the main reason some don’t make the switch to RAW is the relatively limited options in post-processing.

You can open a Jpeg in almost any image editor, whereas RAW files require converting before you can open them into Photoshop. The best place to convert them is in Adobe Camera RAW. But it’s far more than just a file converter. ACR has a range of powerful tools and commands, whether you want to adjust tones, remove noise, correct distortion, convert to mono or perform many other useful edits.

We’ll show you how to get the most out of ACR’s superb tools. And we’re not just talking simple tweaks either. You can use ACR to create a range of effects from HDR to hand-colouring.

As always, you’ll find accompanying videos among this month’s project files and a range of RAW files to play with.

Camera RAW interface

Get familiar with the interface and tools you need to improve your RAW photos

ACR has a simple layout; all the main controls and setting are on the right-hand side of the display, with a toolbar along the top. You can use these tools and settings to take advantage of a RAW file’s greater range of tones and detail. Every move you make in ACR is reversible, so you’re free to try out any combination of settings you like. You can close the image, then come back to it later and all the settings remain editable. And while Photoshop offers similar tools, doing the job in ACR will ensure the maximum possible quality.

Camera Raw interface

Camera RAW interface

01. Select all

If you have multiple files open, click the Select All button to make universal changes to the whole set. This is great for processing multiple images. For example, to correct a recurring sensor mark, open the set of images, click Select All, then simply remove the mark in one image with the Spot Removal tool.

02. Synchronise

If you’ve made a series of adjustments that you really like, and you want to apply them to rest of your image set, click the Synchronise button to apply them to the other images. You can choose exactly which settings to include or omit from the synchronization.

03. Zoom and hand tools

You can use these tools to zoom in and out, and pan around your image, or alternatively, you can use the trusty keyboard shortcuts Cmd/Ctrl and + or – to zoom in or out, and the Space Bar to pan. Double-click the Zoom tool to zoom to 100%, and double-click the Hand tool to pull back to full screen.

04. The targeted adjustment tool

This powerful tool enables you to target and adjust particular tones and colour sin your image simply by dragging left or right over them. Click and hold over the tool to choose from Parametric Curve, Hue, Saturation, Luminosity or Grayscale Mix.

05. Crop tool

Click and hold the Crop tool choose from a handy list of crop ratios such as 1 to 1 and 2 to 3. Nothing is irreversible in ACR, so if you change your mind about a crop, click back on the tool to re-adjust it.

06. Spot removal tool

Fix small marks and blemishes with the Spot Removal tool. It’s useful for removing a recurring sensor mark from a batch of images, but for most ordinary tasks the Healing Brush and Clone Stamp tools in Photoshop offer more flexibility.

07. Adjustment brush and graduated filter

Two of the most powerful tools in ACR, the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter enable you to make selective adjustments to colours, tones and detail across your image. The Graduated Filter is especially useful for improving dull, flat skies.

Adjustment brush

Adjustment brush…

…and Graduated Filter are Two of the most powerful tools in ACR

…and Graduated Filter are Two of the most powerful tools in ACR

08. Save images

This is really more like a ‘Save As’ command. Click the button to access your saving options. It’s great if you need to batch rename files, save a set of RAW files as jpegs, or convert a manufacturer’s RAW file (such as Nikon’s NEF) to the universal DNG format.

09. Workflow options

Click here to access output options such as Bit Depth. Choosing 16 Cits/Channel will  ensure the image has the maximum number of colours when you open it in Photoshop (so many, in fact, that your monitor and printer are capable of displaying them all). But it will also limit your image-editing options. Selecting 8 Bits/ Channel will give you fewer colour, but more options. You can also alter the bit depth in the main editor interface.

10. Histogram

The histogram displays the image’s tonal range from shadows on the left, to highlights on the right. The height of the graph at any point indicates the number of pixels with a certain brightness value. For most images, a healthy histogram should taper off at both ends. If it intersects the side of the box, it means areas of the image are lacking detail, having been clipped to pure black or white. If this is the case, you may be able to recover detail using the sliders in the Basic Panel.

11. Clipping warnings

You can toggle flashing clipping warnings on or off by pressing U for shadows (thinks under-exposed) and 0 for highlights (think over-exposed). Alternatively, hold down Alt while dragging the Exposure, Shadows, Highlights, Whites or Blacks sliders in the Basic Panel to see the clipped pixels overlaid on the image as you adjust the settings.

12. Sliders

Most panels display a set of sliders. You can double-click a slider to reset it, so you can get a handy before and after by holding your mouse still over a point on the slider then alternating between a single and double-click.

13. Open image

Click this button to open the file into Photoshop, or hold down Shift and click to open the image as a Smart Object, which enables you to go back and edit the file in ACR by clicking the Smart Object’s thumbnail in Photoshop’s Layers Panels.

Versions of ACR

Usually update new ACR

Usually update new ACR

ACR is regularly updated with new data and tweaks to the settings, so make sure you keep Photoshop up to date (Help > Updates). Your version of Camera RAW will depend on your copy of Photoshop. For example, if you have CS5 you will have version 6.7, whereas SC6 owners can use version 7.1. Some of the slider names have been changed, but the majority of the features remain the same in all versions. Elements users can also edit their RAW files in the ACR plug-in, but the Elements version is more basic, with access to three panels: Basic, Detail and Camera Calibration. A few tools are also missing, including the Adjustment Brush. It’s still a powerful plug-in (the Basic panel alone makes it an essential step in your workflow) but you’ll have to enter the main interface for more advanced adjustments.


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