Most digital cameras (with the exception of many compact cameras) offer the option to shoot both in Raw and Raw + JPEG formats. Whereas JPEGs, as a compressed format, get various in-camera algorithms to produce an image that the camera thinks is best, Raw files get no in-camera’s adjustments. Because the data is relatively untouched, users can adjust various parameters such as white balance and exposure after the fact on the original shot.
While image editing programs like Adobe Photoshop Elements are equipped to make some adjustments to JPEG files, Raw file processing provides a much broader and more accurate method of image editing. (Whether and when it's advantageous to shoot Raw is another story.)
While most manufacturers include some sort of Raw conversion software with their cameras, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR, now in version 8.3) is an excellent choice for “developing” your Raw files. In the example below, I used Adobe Photoshop Elements 12 (PSE). Be sure your copy of Elements 12 is up to date to access the latest version of ACR, then follow the steps below for a quick, basic Raw processing workflow. You can also process JPEG files in ACR, but you get more flexibility with Raw files.
Open PSE Editor
I prefer to work in the Expert mode but Quick and Guided modes will work, too. Go to File > Open and choose a Raw file. (To open a JPEG file, go to File > Open in Camera Raw and click on a file.)
At the bottom of the screen, click the down arrow for Depth and choose 16 Bits/Channel.
On the top right, click the white and black arrows at the top of the Histogram to show shadow and highlight clipping on your image. The blue areas on the sample image show where shadows have been clipped and details lost.
Click the Basic option (the first icon) under the Histogram. Be sure Preview is checked in the main viewing screen.
The quickest way to adjust White Balance is to use the presets in the drop down menu. Then tweak the white balance using the temperature and/or tint sliders. The white balance on this image was pretty accurate as shot but I reduced a slight red tint on her face by moving the tint slider to the left.
Alternatively, choose the small eye dropper at the top of the Raw screen and click on a white area in the image. Avoid specular highlights such as a bright white spot from a flash on a shiny object.
Click Default above the Exposure sliders. Avoid Auto whenever possible; it generally overexposes images, as shown here. The red overlay indicates highlight clipping.
Use the Exposure slider to lighten (move right) or darken (move left) the image. Watch the Histogram to see a graphic representation of the changes. The Histogram doesn’t always have to be evenly distributed across shadows, midtones and highlights. Since the sample image is dark, the graph is heavily weighted on the black/shadows side and that’s okay.
To bring back some tonal range and details in the bright side of the model’s face, I adjusted the contrast highlights and whites. The change is subtle but necessary. For most adjustments, less is more.
Even with a slight adjustment to the Exposure, the blacks of the model’s jacket and hat are clipped. Adjusting the Shadows slider lightened the jacket to the point where it looked almost grey. To maintain a rich black, I moved the Blacks slider to the right until the majority of the blue clipping warning disappeared. Viewed at 100 percent, the black clipping warning is still visible (in blue), along with a couple of tiny red warnings for highlight clipping on the jacket’s silver buttons. Any additional adjustments, however, causes the jacket to lose some of its rich black.
Use the Clarity slider to restore details or sharpness if previous adjustments have softened them. This is not the case in this image, so I left Clarity at its default setting. Vibrance is also left at default but I increased the saturation just a bit to bring more color to the model’s face.
To crop the image, if needed, click on the Crop icon in the viewing panel. Adjust the size and aspect ratio that you think works best and hit Return. If you’re not happy with the crop, click the Crop icon again and make your final adjustment.
To finish, you can click the Save Image button and choose the DNG format. Click Done to apply changes and exit ACR. Alternately you can click Open Image and make final edits in Photoshop Elements Editor, and then Save As a JPEG for printing or posting on the Web.
Since there is so much depth to ACR, take time to explore all of its features. When you’re comfortable with the Basic adjustments, click Detail (second icon to the right of Basic) to adjust sharpness and reduce noise. Also check out Camera Calibration (third icon to the right of Basic) for different process versions and camera profiles.
Use your iPhone or iPad for photography? Get pro tips for taking better images at our photography session at Macworld/iWorld in San Francisco March 27-29.