Monday, September 3, 2012

From RAW To Fully Cooked: How I Develop My RAW Image Files

The RAW format is a favorite choice of pros for many reasons. It indisputably offers the best and highest quality images that your camera has to offer along with flexibility in processing. The images are more "elastic", you can change things like color balance and saturation without degrading the quality of your images. The RAW files can also be processed to either offer more detail in either the shadow or highlight areas of your images. Processing an image both ways, you can later combine those 2 images in a photo editing program to create one image that has more detail in both the shadow & highlight areas of a scene than you would with just a single capture alone. Not as much detail as you could obtain by using fancy HDR (high dynamic range) programs and combining a series of 3 or more separate image captures, but still an improvement over a single processed image alone.

I often choose the RAW file format for several reason. One reason is because I prefer to shoot handheld and often deliberately underexpose my images a touch for reasons explained in past blog posts. I find that brightening a slightly underexposed RAW images result in less digital noise than lightening a similarly underexposed jpeg image. Another reason I often prefer RAW is because I like the extra control I have over color. I can change color balance more easily and accurately with a RAW file than with a JPEG image. I do also notice a particular increase of quality as far as color is concerned in my images that are processed from RAW files. They seem to have more pop and intensity than the jpeg versions. This is especially true with my floral photography.

Of course it is not always possible, or even necessary to capture all your images in the RAW format and there may be reasons you prefer or must capture a jpeg image. I discuss the subject matter of file formats in greater depth in my past blog post: "RAW, JPEG, or TIFF? "

Like my JPEG workflow, my RAW workflow and adjustments are pretty simple. Some people process their images and save the RAW file for later use. This is a good practice. But for myself, I have never wanted to go back and reprocess an image. I found that I was using up a great deal of media to save files that I am not likely to go back and redo. So for this reason, I no longer save my unedited RAW files except for a few select images. Whether you do or not is up to you. You also have the option of just saving the RAW files of select images that you feel you may want to reprocess in the future as software improves. Again, it is up to you. You can read about general workflow in my past blog post "Go With The (Work)Flow."

I process my RAW files in Adobe Camera RAW, which is part of my Photoshop Elements program. The version of this program that comes with Adobe CS offers more features than my version, but I find that the simpler version works fine for my needs. You can also process your RAW files in Adobe Lightroom or any one of numerous programs that are available. Many of those programs offer similar features to the ones I use and review here in this blog post.

Here are the adjustments that I typically make when processing my RAW files. The order does change from image to image, but I do generally go from top to bottom as they are presented in the program and will go back to adjust a previously adjusted setting if necessary.

The image as captured in camera is on the left. The bluer,
cooler imageon the right is my preferred color balance for
this image. Some may prefer a warmer,more natural color balance.
That's the wonderful thing about photography and RAW capture.
Choose your own preference or develop several versions if you wish.
Your art, your choice.
Color Balance
If the image needs some color adjustment this is my preferred place to do it. Sometimes an image will need to be "warmed" up or "cooled" down, I adjust the blue/yellow slider to adjust as necessary. Occasionally an image will also have either a magenta or green cast to it. Adjusting the magenta/green slider will fix this color cast.
There are times when I find myself an image that I can’t seem to place what exactly the color issue is. When that happens I will choose "auto" or one of the standard color temperature options from the pull down menu and then adjust from there.
And from time to time, I will also choose to process an image with two different color balances when I can’t decide which one I prefer or when I like both a warm and a cool version of the image.
Color balance, like all things photographic, is really a subjective preference more than an exact science. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different color balances other than the "correct" one.


Brightens or darkens an underexposed or overexposed image. I do find that when brightening an image via "Exposure", it can add a bit of contrast. When that happens I pull back the setting and choose to further lighten the image using "Brightness." instead. I have had good luck saving overexposed images via the "Exposure" adjustment. As long as the image is not too overexposed, it works well.

When shooting through glass to capture my backyard birds,
I often find the need to increase the black setting for a clearer
image. I also adjust the clarity setting as well.

Adjusting the blacks in the image not only darkens the blacks but it also deepens color and adds a bit of contrast to the image. I like this adjustment feature and use it often.


I like using this option to lighten and brighten my slightly underexposed images without adding contrast, as adjusting "Exposure" often can. I do not like using it on overexposed images though. I find that when using this option to darken an image, it makes it rather flat and muddy looking. I prefer to adjust overexposed images using "Exposure" instead. I will often adjust the "Brightness" option in conjunction with "Exposure" adjustment, but at a very low setting if fixing an overexposed image.


This adjustment adds apparent sharpness by using an algorithm that increases contrast selectively to parts of the image. This is not quite the same as sharpening an image using sharpening commands. It is much more subtle, and when used at a very low setting is a good tool to use. As I have already mentioned in past blog posts, I prefer to sharpen just right before publication to avoid artifacts. I have not had any issues with artifacts with any of my images that have had clarity adjusted though. As long as used at a low setting, I recommend it.


Adds or subtracts color saturation in images. Not quite as strong as adjusting color saturation by using "Saturation." It is subtle and it is my preferred way of increasing color saturation in my images.

Fill Light

I occasionally use this adjustment to recover image detail in darker parts of an image that may be in shadow. Care needs to be taken though, as if you adjust too far the image will look unnatural and have a lot of digital noise.


The opposite of "Fill Light", this allows you to recover detail in the bright areas of an image. Again care needs to be taken as banding and unnatural color can result if the sliders are pushed too far. Some highlight detail just can not be brought back. I will occasionally use this adjustment in conjunction with adjustments to "Exposure" and "Brightness."

I rarely apply this adjustment to my RAW files unless contrast is a problem in the image. I instead prefer to adjust contrast using the "Exposure" and "Blacks" adjustments as they are a subtle way of doing so. If I want to add contrast to an image, I usually do so later in Photoshop when I am finishing off the image.

And there you have it, my favorite adjustments to make to RAW files. There are many adjustments available as well, but I don’t use them. One thing I never do is sharpen an image during RAW conversions for reasons I cover in my previous blog post. Also, if an image has a lot of digital noise I do those adjustments later in Photoshop with Imagenomic’s Noiseware Pro plugin. I hope reading about my RAW techniques have given you some good ideas to use in your own RAW processing adventures. Don’t be afraid to experiment and develop your own techniques and style of processing your own images.

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