Photographers latched on to the benefits and convenience
of a Raw image workflow immediately. Now
art directors and designers are being lured by the
advantages of securing original images in Raw format.
It offers great flexibility for editing content and
endless opportunities for artistic interpretation.
The Raw capture saved by your camera can
be likened to a “digital negative,” in that you use
Camera Raw software as a digital darkroom or photo
lab. A digital negative may be interpreted in any
number of ways to end up as a unique “digital print.”
In fact, the functionality built into Camera Raw far
exceeds that of a messy darkroom, and with Camera
Raw you can perform many editing tasks that
would be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce in
Essentially, this workflow uses all of the Raw
data saved by the camera for the shot, along with
critical information, known as metadata, about how
the data was captured. The metadata includes ISO
setting, aperture value, shutter speed, white balance
setting, and more. Raw files generated by different
cameras may be encoded and named differently, such
as Nikon’s NEF files or Canon’s CRW format. A software
converter such as Adobe Camera Raw processes
the Raw data so you can perform additional image
editing like setting white balance, exposure, tonal
range, and color. Lastly, Camera Raw converts the
image into a designated RGB working space, ready to
be printed, or for further editing in Photoshop.
To show you how this process works, I’ll walk
you through a sample Camera Raw workflow—using
Camera Raw version 3.x that’s built into Photoshop
CS2 and Adobe Bridge—to produce an image with
The Camera Raw software launches when
you open a Raw file in Adobe Bridge or Photoshop
CS/CS2 (figure 1). Navigation controls such as the
Zoom and Hand tool—which function the same
as in Photoshop—are at the top tool bar. Specify
options for the converted image, such as an appropriate
working space, bit depth, file size, and resolution,
in the section titled Workflow Options at the
bottom of the screen. These settings specify how the
final image will be output. For example, to process
an image that will be posted online, you might specify
the sRGB color space, 8 bits per channel data,
and the smallest file size.
The software also provides some important tools
that can help you evaluate the image before editing.
The Preview checkbox displays the color conversion
from the original colors to the designated color space.
The Histogram, a map of the tones in the designated
color space, lets you check tonal range as well as the
clipping of the end points in the converted color
space. (Shadows appear on the left and highlights are
located on the right side of the Histogram.) Finally,
the top right corner features a continuous RGB readout
showing the conversion at the current settings.
Appearance of light
Begin by setting the all-important White
Balance—the color of light. The White Balance
acts as the background canvas and impacts the
appearance of all colors in the image. Camera Raw
offers a couple ways to set it. The easiest way is to
choose a setting from the White Balance menu.
Choose a preset option that is closest to the lighting
conditions for your image, such as Daylight,
Cloudy, Fluorescent, etc., or choose Auto to let the
software make a best guess based on the information
in the file.
You can also set White Balance with the
Temperature and Tint sliders, or use them to fine-tune
one of the preset settings. The Temperature
slider lets you tweak the balance along the blue/yellow
axis and adds a cooler or warmer cast to the
quality of white light. Similarly, the Tint slider
lets you shift between the green/magenta axis for
fine control. Setting the White Balance with the
Temperature and Tint sliders is quite a visual process,
so I recommend that you make small moves while
previewing the image constantly.
Establishing the tonal range
The next set of controls—arranged in the order
they should be attempted—lets you set the dynamic
range: the complete range of tones from whites to
blacks (figure 2). However, you may not use every
control because some edits—as you’ll discover—are
best done in Photoshop, post-Camera Raw.
Along with setting White Balance, adjusting
Exposure is the most critical step in this workflow.
The Exposure slider lets you set the overall brightness—
in a way that’s intuitive to photographers—
by using the digital equivalent of f-stops. Use the
Exposure slider to set the white end point. You can
add brightness to underexposed images and recover
a degree of missing highlight detail in slightly overexposed
images by underexposing minimally.
The histogram for this image shows a small
spike in the highlights that indicates a slight clipping
in one or more channels where pixels have maximum
brightness and contain no details. In the original
image, some highlight areas—also verified by the
preview—are blown out. To fix highlights, I placed
two color samplers on corresponding areas in the
image to monitor these values easily. Then I moved
the Exposure slider very slightly to the left, using
the down arrow on the keyboard (which reduces the
Exposure in increments of half a stop) until there
was no longer a spike in the highlights and the RGB
readout showed acceptable values.
Setting contrast and color saturation
The process rescued some important highlight
detail, but also had the effect of weakening the overall
shadow contrast. In the next steps we’ll address
shadows and additional concerns with other controls
shown in figure 3.
The Shadows slider lets you set the black endpoint
of the image. Move the Shadows slider to the
right to increase the contrast in the shadows while
retaining important shadow detail. Since I had to
slightly underexpose the highlights in the previous
step, the shadows in the image needed extra punch. I
hit the up arrow on the keyboard until the shadows
improved and some shadow noise was covered.
The next two adjustments, Brightness and
Contrast, let you fine-tune contrast in the midtones.
Unlike the similarly named Brightness/Contrast
adjustment in Photoshop, these tools do not change
the end points in the image and may be safely used
to tweak the overall brightness in the midtones. The
Brightness slider applies a gamma correction, while
the Contrast slider applies an S tone curve to boost
contrast in the midtones. I generally do not use the
Contrast adjustment in my workflow, partly because
the Curve tool in Camera Raw version 3.x is superior
for this purpose.
The Saturation slider can be used to globally
increase or reduce color saturation in the image.
However, I prefer to use the Hue/Saturation adjustment
in Photoshop—post-Camera Raw—as in
Photoshop you can employ additional controls like
masking and layer opacity.
Throwing contrast a curve
The tab titled Curve in Camera Raw works similarly
to the Curves adjustment in Photoshop. But unique
to Camera Raw, the histogram underlies the curve,
which helps to correlate your changes to the tonal
data in the image (figure 4). You can start by choosing
a Tone Curve setting, such as Medium or Strong
contrast, then edit it to suit your image (figure 5).
At this stage in the workflow, you will have established
the contrast and color appearance of your
ultimate image. A few additional tools can help
put the final shine on the image. In the Detail tab,
you can sharpen the image or just its preview (you
choose it in Camera Raw’s Preferences). Sharpening
is another function I prefer to perform in Photoshop
because of additional controls.
A stellar feature in Camera Raw is the ability
to reduce luminance and color noise—the bane of
most digital captures. Zoom to at least 100 percent
to view areas filled with brightness noise or colored
noise pixels. Then adjust the sliders in the Detail tab
to efficiently minimize the noise in these areas (see
Now you’re ready to confirm the final
Workflow Options to create a winning image from
the original Raw capture. You can save the settings
you have meticulously set up by choosing Save
Settings or Save Settings Subset (figure 7) in the
Camera Raw menu (accessed by clicking the small
right-facing options arrow at the top).
Either click OK to apply the changes and
open the resulting image in Photoshop, or hold the
Option (Mac) or Alt (PC) key and choose Open
Copy. Opening a copy allows you to compare the
appearance of your final optimized image to the original
Raw capture. By following these steps, you will
have interpreted the digital negative to craft a unique
digital print for your output needs.
SIDEBAR: When to Shoot Raw vs. JPEG?
JPEG is the default file format saved by most digital
cameras. To save a JPEG, the camera software processes
the Raw capture, determining optimum exposure, color
range, and contrast. Then the camera software creates a
tidy compressed file, which invariably causes some loss
of data. Using a JPEG may be adequate for some imaging
needs, but falls short when greater control over color,
contrast, and detail in the image is necessary. In a RAW
file, only the ISO speed, aperture, and shutter speed are
preset—everything else is open to interpretation—giving
you complete control over the rendering of delicate
tones, color balance, and fine details.
A JPEG file is, by definition, only 8 bits per channel
and will support only minimal editing before the damage
becomes obvious. In a converter such as Camera
Raw, colors are edited in a higher bit space, typically 12
bits per channel or higher. Using Camera Raw software
allows you to make larger editing moves with less data
damage like posterization of tones or dropped details.
Finally, where JPEG applies set sharpening and noise
reduction when compressed, a Raw image does not.
Instead Camera Raw allows you to customize the sharpening
and control luminance (brightness) noise and colored
noise in the Raw image.
Raw files have a couple of downsides. Raw file sizes
can be as much as four times larger than JPEG files.
Thus, file storage and management become important
aspects of this workflow. Raw files with custom settings
require longer time to process. To help offset the longer
processing times, you can use Adobe Bridge’s version
of Camera Raw software to edit and process images,
leaving Photoshop free to work on other tasks. Also,
automation features such as batch processing are built
into both applications.
As with most new software, using Camera Raw
involves a small learning curve, one that’s well rewarded
when you can create unique and high quality artwork.
SIDEBAR: Pro Tip: White Balance Tool
If you’ve shot the image with a gray card, or if
the image contains important highlight detail,
you can use Camera Raw’s White Balance tool
to easily set the White Balance. With the White
Balance tool at the top, click on a light-gray
area of the image—it should be neutral (or the
lightest gray patch in the captured gray card)—
and all the other colors will fall into range
automatically. You can now fine-tune the White
Balance further by using the Temperature and
Real World Camera
Raw with Adobe
Photoshop CS, by
Bruce Fraser, $34.99,
Real World Digital
Edition, by Katrin
Eismann, et al, $49.99,
Raw: Studio Skills,
by Charlotte K.
Lowrie, $34.99, Wiley Publishers