Camera Raw Tutorial – From Camera to Web

Periodically, I have friends asking me about digital cameras or Photoshop and in the past I’ve put together little tutorials to help them. Recently, someone asked for a tutorial I put together years ago and after I sent it to her I realized it wasn’t so relevant anymore for dealing with raw images in Photoshop. These days, when you open a raw image in PS, the Camera Raw box will appear. It’s very powerful and contains most features you need to adjust photos, aside from serious retouching like cloning or compositing. So I completely revised the tutorial to focus specifically on preparing a raw image for the web, using Adobe Camera Raw. Even advanced users will find it useful as I go into many of the controls in-depth. Leave me some feedback so I can keep improving it! Download it as a PDF here. Or scroll down…


Guide to Creating Web Ready Jpegs From Your Raw Images

When you open a raw image in Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, the Camera Raw dialog automatically opens. Here you can make most adjustments to the photo without the need to work in Photoshop directly. This tutorial describes the steps to adjust and color-correct a raw image from a digital camera using Camera Raw, and then output that photo to your preferred size and format. Most digital cameras are capable of shooting in raw, as well as JPEG. Raw is not a specific format, but a term used for images that contain all the information captured when you take a photo, without any compression or adjustments. Each camera manufacturer has their own proprietary raw format as indicated by the file extension: Canon is .CR2, Nikon is .NRW, Minolta is .MRW, and so on. A raw file contains information (such as dynamic range and bit depth) that gives you more control over the final image so that you can create the highest quality digital camera photo. Another huge benefit in shooting and using raw images is that you cannot permanently alter the original raw file. Any changes to the raw image can be changed or removed at any point, now or years from now. When you have finished making your adjustments in Camera Raw, you will always save the image in another format – you cannot save over the raw image – so your alterations are never permanent. (The adjustments you make are generally saved in a sidecar, or .XMP file, that lives in the same folder as the raw file.) There are other image editors capable of adjusting raw files, but I think the overall capabilities of the Adobe versions are superior in both the raw engine and the features they offer in one place.

Working with Raw Images in Camera Raw

Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw Dialog Box To begin, open your raw image in either Photoshop product and the Camera Raw box will appear. There is no need to adjust pixels that will be thrown out later on, so before we adjust color and details, rotate (if needed), and crop your image with the rotate and crop tools at the top of the box. (Don’t worry about changing your mind about cropping later on because these settings can be changed at any point in the process, including after you export and close the image. Now you will set the resolution for your desired outlet (email, website, Facebook) and then adjust color, exposure, contrast, and sharpness. Finally, you will save the image in the appropriate format for your purposes.

Resolution

The first thing you need to decide is the size of the final photograph. At the bottom of the dialog there is a line that indicates the output resolution (not the current file resolution), in megapixels (MP). Click that line and you get a choice of Space, DepthSize (final resolution), Resolution, and Sharpen For.

For most purposes, you should keep all of the default settings, but change the Size to your desired final resolution. The available options will change based on the original resolution. (The original resolution is the Size setting without a plus or minus sign next to it.) For print or retouching in Photoshop later, you always want the original resolution, which is the resolution the camera shoots in. The resolution is the number of pixels tall and the number of pixels wide expressed in megapixels. For emailing, the lowest resolution is usually fine, somewhere around 600 to 800 pixels on the longest end. (For my 21MP camera, the smallest size isn’t small enough for emailing. In this case, I will finish adjusting everything in Camera Raw, then click Open on the bottom right to open in Photoshop, then click File > Save for Web and change the resolution there before saving.) You can also increase resolution by selecting one of the sizes marked with a plus sign, but I caution against this unless you desperately need a bigger image as it will result in a blurry, lower quality image. (Photoshop will essentially be guessing at what the extra pixels look like. This process is “interpolation”, and it’s not pretty.)

Geek-out: 1000 x 1000 pixels = 1 megapixel. This is pretty small as most camera phones are higher. A professional camera can be 20 megapixels or more = 5000 x 4000.

Color refers to the color space and can remain the same, but for outputting JPEGs, change this to sRGB. See below for a deeper explanation of color spaces. Depth refers to bit depth which is the amount of color information each pixel can display. Leave it on 8 bits/Channel because JPEGs cannot display more than that. For working in Photoshop with PSDs, 16 bits is preferred. You can leave the Sharpen For on None since we’ll be working with the Detail option in Camera raw.

Color Space

Color Space refers to the color gamut or the range of color the image is able to display. Obviously, the wider the gamut, the better, but web browsers generally can only display a limited range of colors. A web friendly color space is sRGB. If your color is critical, you should convert your web or email JPEGs to this space as noted above For editing in Photoshop and printing, you should use a wider gamut color space like Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB so you have access to a wider range of color. That being said, unless you’re a professional, this is not something to worry about. The differences are subtle and won’t produce major shifts in color for most purposes. You can see the differences in color spaces in Photoshop by clicking View > Proof Setup > Custom and selecting the space you want to preview. This doesn’t change the actual image Color Space, it merely displays it. This is useful for seeing how the image will look on different monitors or printed on different papers, and is also very helpful when trying to match what you see on the screen with how the print comes out, but that is a whole separate discussion.

Basic Settings

Basic PaletteOnce you’ve chosen your resolution, you can proceed to affecting the look of your image. On the right side of the Camera Raw dialog, you’ll see various controls on the Basic palette. I’ll describe what each one does, then give you some suggestions for making most images look better. All of these settings can also be applied directly in Photoshop, but I recommend doing them in Camera Raw because they are conveniently in one place and are just as robust as the Photoshop options.

White Balance. Refers to the color temperature of the light source in the photo. The drop-down box shows common lighting, such as daylight or tungsten (standard indoor bulbs). Temperature. Used for fine tuning color temperature. Subjective choice unless you need accurate color for clothes or products; some prefer a cooler (bluer) or warmer (redder) photo than the original. Tint. Sets the white balance to compensate for a green or magenta tint. Not usually necessary unless you’re dealing with funky color from multiple, differing light sources. Exposure. As in the camera, this affects the brightness or darkness of the entire image, not selective or specific areas, and is very useful for under or over exposed shots. Recovery. Brings highlights down in brightness. Very helpful for overexposed highlights. Too much can dull the bright areas, reducing contrast. Fill Light. Brings shadows up in brightness. Very useful in brightening mid to dark areas. Too much can also reduce contrast and make your blacks grey. Blacks. Affects only the darkest areas. Good for increasing contrast and color saturation, but too much can reduce detail in the shadows. Brightness. Affects the overall brightness, but unlike Exposure, will not create highlights without detail. Tends to expand shadow detail but often results in a washed out image. Contrast. Increases contrast overall; blacks become blacker and whites become whiter Clarity. Similar to sharpening, it increases local contrast giving the impression of more detail. Vibrance. Affects saturation, but only for less saturated colors. This helps prevent oversaturation of already saturated colors. Saturation. Changes the color saturation of everything equally. Mostly useful for making color images black and white. Use sparingly to increase saturation. Vibrance is usually a better choice.

Recommended Settings

Experiment with the various sliders and you’ll start to get a feel for what each does and how they relate to the each other. I’ll outline some best practices and recommended settings based on my experience. Temperature. I use Temperature sparingly but will often add warmth, especially for portraits because it makes for more pleasing skin tones. Adjustments in either direction usually fall into the 200-500 range or higher, depending on your preference. Keep in mind that the number refers to color temperature the photo was shot in, not the temperature you are changing to. Exposure. I will usually brighten slightly with Exposure, depending on the original image exposure. I try to avoid increasing exposure by more than .5 or 1 f-stop as it can affect the smoothness of the color gradation, making the color look blocky with too much contrast and loosing detail in the highlights. Underexposed photographs can only handle about 2 f-stops increased exposure before they become unacceptably harsh in color and contrast. Recovery. For overexposed skies (as often seen in scenics since the photo is usually properly exposed for the land), I’ll use Recovery to bring some detail back if it’s available. Somewhere between 30 and 50 the highlights start to look dull or grey, so once you see that happening, pull back a little. (Often the camera will record more information or detail than is initially obvious and using these controls can make them visible without affecting other areas too much.) Fill Light. I use Fill Light often, but sparingly, so that my blacks retain richness. The amount can vary dramatically with each image so experiment. If you want to brighten a more specific area, it’s best to use the Dodge tool in Photoshop. Blacks. The Blacks slider starts at 5 by default; 7-15 is normally plenty, but some bright images can take much more. Beware of crushing those blacks altogether, as you’ll lose detail fast. Brightness. There is some overlap between this and Exposure, and I rarely use it since I’m usually trying to add contrast, not remove it. Contrast. Contrast is useful, but I’ll usually get the same or better results with judicious use of Exposure and Blacks. Still, I might push it from its default of +25 to 35 or 50 because it can improve the highlight brightness slightly when more Exposure is too much overall. Clarity. Clarity is used sparingly; 5-15 is usually enough. I tend to use the Detail pane for a sharper look instead. Vibrance. I’ll use Vibrance sparingly, maybe 5-15, and only if the colors aren’t quite popping enough. This is often already achieved with the previous sliders, especially Black. Saturation. I only use it to create B&W photographs, or if the colors are exceptionally dull and the other sliders didn’t help.

Detail Settings

Next click on the tab that looks like two triangles to open the Detail box where you can adjust sharpness of the image. Images from a digital camera almost always need sharpening, but be gentle, as over-sharpening can reduce the range of tonal values, make colors appear blocky, and the photo look amateurish.

Adobe Camera Raw Detail Palette

Amount. Increases sharpening strength. Radius. Adjusts the size of details that are sharpened. Finer details in a photo will need a smaller radius; larger details will need a larger radius. Detail. Affects the emphasis on edge detail. Lower settings are better for removing blurring while higher settings make textures more pronounced. Masking. Controls the areas to be sharpened. Lower settings affect less of the image, whereas higher settings will restrict sharpening to the strongest edges.

Recommended Settings

Depending on the image, these can vary greatly, so experiment with these settings. When you do, zoom into the photo to 100%, so your changes are more obvious. You can do this with the zoom tool on the upper left or the drop down box on the lower left. When zoomed out, the image should not appear obviously sharpened. The first two settings, Amount and Radius, are used to create more sharpening. The second two, Detail and Masking, are used to constrain and control how the sharpening is applied. For portraits, too much sharpening can accentuate blemishes or rough skin, so the settings will be different than a landscape where you probably want to sharpen things more and with equal application. Amount. The default setting for Amount is 25% and is applied to all raw images, but if you open a TIF or JPEG in Camera Raw, the default is 0% as it assumes you have already applied sharpening. I’ll start with 35%-40%, and then possibly come back to Amount after adjusting the other sliders. Amount can easily get up to 70% or more depending on your needs, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Radius. .8 – 1.2 is a good starting point. For a portrait, we want things like eyes and lips to be sharper, but not necessarily skin, which looks better smooth, so a higher radius is more effective. It’s saying the things that are sharper deserve more sharpening, but those that aren’t shouldn’t be as affected. For landscapes, a lower number is good because we want more of the image to be sharpened, and such images tend to have a lot of fine detail, like leaves or grass. Detail. A lower Detail setting is traditionally better for portraits, so start around 10, but for higher detail subjects, choose a higher number like 50. Sometimes, as a result of a higher Detail number, you might need to decrease the Amount slider, or vice versa for a lower Detail setting. Masking. The Masking slider controls where the sharpening is applied. At zero, no masking is applied, so the entire image will be sharpened. At 50%, some of the flat tone areas will be sharpened as well as most of the strong detail areas, like the eyes or lips in a portrait. At 100%, the mask will protect all flat tone areas like cheeks, but will leave the strong edges like hair and eye lashes unmasked, so the sharpening applied by the first two sliders will take full effect. A portrait might have a setting of 50-70% or more, whereas a landscape may have a setting of zero, so no mask is applied. As I mentioned before, keep these changes subtle. They should improve the inherent softness of digital camera images and make them feel crisp where needed. However, don’t try to make an out-of-focus image sharp, as it won’t work, since the software needs some kind of edge detail to work with. Slightly out of focus can be helped some, but like all photo retouching, you can’t make a great photo out of junk. I admit that sometimes I will use an image that is not tack sharp when examined closely because I think the image is so strong otherwise and the softness is not too distracting. Sometimes you want the blurring to indicate movement as in sports, but it should be there by choice, not because you screwed up! Camera Raw has many other functions, but for most images the settings I’ve discussed here are enough, and unless you need to add or remove things like dust or blemishes, you won’t need to work in Photoshop directly.

Save Raw Image as a New File

File Types

From Camera Raw, you can save the new image as one of four file types: Digital Negative (DNG), JPEG, TIF, or Photoshop (PSD). Digital Negative, or DNG is normally used for archiving and is similar to a raw file and doesn’t serve our purposes here. JPEG is the most common photo format and is exceptional at high compression, with little loss in quality, depending on the settings. TIF is similar to PSD in that it is not compressed (usually), and retains nearly all of the quality of the raw file. However, it can be permanently altered and tends produce larger file sizes compared to PSDs. I will often deliver final images to clients in TIF as it is a universal format that any image application can open. PSDs are the native Photoshop format and are a good choice when you are working with a file in Photoshop for retouching or compositing (adding or removing parts of a photo). When I want the best quality file for working in Photoshop that retains all layers and information possible, I use PSD. For web or email use, choose JPEG and set the Quality slider from 4 to 8, depending on how fast you need the image to load. Most images can get away with a 4 without noticeable degradation, but if file size is less of an issue, I’ll use 8. You’ll hardly ever tell a difference from 8 to 10 in quality, but you’ll get smaller file sizes with 8. A 4 or 5 in Quality can be a significantly smaller file size than an 8. Incidentally, the image resolution of the JPEG you are saving now will be the resolution you set at the bottom of the Camera Raw dialog box in the beginning. (To get a size that isn’t listed there, you can make specific choices by opening in Photoshop and clicking File > Save for Web on the menu bar as you would for a very high megapixel image.)

Adobe Camera Raw Save Options Box

Save the Image

You can now click Save Image in the lower left-hand corner or open the image in Photoshop by clicking Open Image in the lower right-hand corner. To save for emailing or a website, click Save Image and the dialog box will come up allowing you to select a location to save it in, rename the file, and select a format. Destination. You can save the new file to the same folder the raw file is in or to a new location. It might be better to save the new image in a folder that you have created for specific photos, such as “Family Pictures” where you save all of your family photos. This method helps you be more organized and saves time when looking for specific photographs. For example, each time you want to find photos of baby Sara, you don’t have to look into all the raw folders from all the different days you took photos of her, since you’ll have a folder called “Sara Photos”. This is up to you, but most importantly, choose a method that makes sense to you and be consistent. File Naming. The next choice in the Save Options box is File Naming. I usually leave the Document Name as the choice since I want it to be the same as my raw filename. That way, I can always find the raw file the new file came from to create other versions later. If you wish to rename your photos, which is a very good idea, I suggest you do it before opening in Photoshop. Bridge, which comes with Photoshop, makes it very easy to rename an entire folder of images. You’ll be able to tell the difference in files with the same name based on their file extensions. Sometimes I’ll add “Edit” or “Processed” to the file name for clarity, or I’ll add the version number after the file sequence number to indicate different looks or adjustments, e.g., v_1, v_2, etc. The naming convention is up to you, but be consistent with whatever method you choose.

Geek-out: Since I work with thousands of photos, my naming convention might be more than you need, but here’s an example. The photo below is – efp_090716_sepehr-zamani_0023.CR2.

efp stands for Eric Frazier Photography so that clients and I know it was shot by me. 090716 is the date of capture in YYMMDD format, July 16, 2009. I set the year first so the images are always grouped by year and not month. sepehr-zamani is the subject name, or sometimes the client name, or the project name.

0023 is the sequence number within the same shoot. I rename every shoot to start with 0001, which is a personal preference. There are many different ways to rename that are valid, but I do like having the capture date since it will always be specific to a particular shoot day – there will never be another 090716, but I’ve shot Sepehr many times. In Bridge or Lightroom and others, once you set up a preset with your preferred method of renaming, it becomes very automated.

Format. As noted above, you have four choices of format to save your file. For most purposes choose JPEG and set the quality, from 4-8. Click Save in the upper right and you’re done. Now go upload that sucker to the Interwebs for the world to see!

BEFORE

Camera Raw Before Version

 

The raw image straight from the camera without adjustment of any kind. Dark overall, shadows

losing detail, and not much contrast. Useable, but pretty blah.

AFTER

Camera Raw After Version

The final JPEG with color-correction and sharpening. More detail in the shadows, image is brighter

with good contrast, and colors pop more. With a little practice, this can be done in minutes.

 

Special thanks goes out to Sepehr Zamani for letting me use his handsome mug for this guide.

Copyright 2011 Eric Frazier Photography – www.ericfrazierphoto.com