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The Next Step: Camera Raw—Beyond the Basics

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Scott Kelby covers some more advanced Camera Raw topics such as sharpening, fixing chromatic aberrations, and noise reduction.
This chapter is from the book

“The Next Step” is really a pretty decent name for this chapter, because (a) it’s about what you’d do next in Camera Raw, after you’ve got the essentials down, and (b) it’s also the name of a song by jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel (from his album of the same name). Now, as far as jazz guitarists go, Kurt certainly is good (hey, I did listen to a 30-second clip of his song in the iTunes Music Store), but my favorite jazz guitarist in iTunes is Barry Greene. Now, I actually know Barry Greene (have known him for years—he’s a great guy and an unbelievable guitar player), and while I’m proud to know him, I’m embarrassed to tell you how I know him—he was once the guitar player in my band. That, in and of itself, isn’t all that embarrassing, but it’s when we played together, and what we played. It wasn’t jazz. That’s right, it was in the early ’80s and we played in a disco band. That’s right—I’m not ashamed of it—I was the keyboard player in a disco band. For years. With Barry. An equally embarrassing admission is...I liked it. Sadly, I dressed the part of the ‘80s disco keyboard player, with long coats, thin ties, I had blonde highlights in my hair, I wore bolos, gloves with the fingers cut out, white boots, you name it. We all did (we thought it was cool. We were wrong). Worse yet, I still have our band photo, and because I want to give you the ultimate mental break before we head into more advanced Camera Raw stuff, I posted it, just for you, on my blog at (when you go there, in the search field on the right, type in “Rumor Hazit,” the name of our disco band back then, and you’ll find a link to the photo). Now, you may notice that besides wearing devastatingly cool stage clothes, I had a slightly different (thinner) appearance, as well. So when you go there, I have but one request: be kind.

Double-Processing to Create the Uncapturable

As good as digital cameras have become these days, when it comes to exposure, the human eye totally kicks their butt. That’s why we shoot so many photos where our subject is backlit, because with our naked eye we can see the subject just fine (our eye adjusts). But when we open the photo, the subject is basically in silhouette. Or how about sunsets where we have to choose which part of the scene to expose for—the ground or the sky—because our camera can’t expose for both? Well, here’s how to use Camera Raw to overcome this exposure limitation:

Step One

Open the photo you want to double-process. In this example, the camera properly exposed for the room, so the bright light outside the windows is totally blown out. Of course, or goal is to create something our camera can’t—a photo where both the inside and outside are exposed properly. To make things easy, we’re going to open this image as a Smart Object in Photoshop, so press-and-hold the Shift key, and the Open Image button at the bottom changes into the Open Object button. Click that button to open this version of the photo in Photoshop as a Smart Object (you’ll see the advantage of this in just a minute).

Step Two

Your image will open in Photoshop as a Smart Object (you’ll see the layer thumbnail has a little page icon in the bottom-right corner). So, now we need a second version of this image—one we can expose for the foreground. If you just duplicate the layer, it won’t work because this duplicate layer will be tied to the original layer, and any changes you make to this duplicate will also be applied to the original layer. So, to get around that, go to the Layers panel, Control-click (PC: Right click) on the layer, and from the contextual menu that appears, choose New Smart Object via Copy. This gives you a duplicate layer, but breaks the link.

Step Three

Now double-click directly on this duplicate layer’s thumbnail and it opens this duplicate in Camera Raw, but this time, you’re going to expose for the view outside the windows, without any regard for how the room in the foreground looks (it will turn really dark, but who cares—you’ve already got a version with the room properly exposed on its own separate layer). So, drag the Exposure slider way over to the left, until you can see some detail through the windows. Here you can see the ocean outside the windows.

Step Four

You now have two versions of your photo (as seen here), each on different layers—the brighter one exposed for the interior on the bottom layer, and the darker version on the layer directly on top of it, and they are perfectly aligned one on top of one another.

Step Five

Now, at this point I usually try a little trick first that automatically combines the two images into one, and while it doesn’t work with every photo, when it does, it’s a thing of beauty. Go to the Layers panel and double-click right below the top layer’s name (not on the thumbnail—right below the layer’s name) to bring up the Layer Style dialog’s Blending Options (seen here). At the bottom are two Blend If sliders, and if you drag the top one to the right, it will blend the darker areas from the layer below it. The problem is it’s a very harsh blending (you can actually see harsh jaggy edges), that is unless you press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key before you start dragging. This splits the slider in two, and gives you a smooth blend (look at the half of the slider circled in red here—it splits the slider nub in half).

Step Six

In our example, I dragged the top split slider all the way to the right, and it created a blend of the outside exposure and inside exposure (as seen here), but it also did one thing I didn’t like: Take a look at the light bulbs in the hanging light fixture over the dining table. They look, well...kinda lame. So, luckily, you can bring back any areas from the original background layer by doing this: click on the Add Layer Mask icon (at the bottom of the Layers panel—it’s the third icon from the left), then get the Brush tool (B), choose a soft-edged brush, press D, then X to set your Foreground color to black, and paint right over the area that doesn’t look good (in this case, the hanging lamp), and it returns it to its original condition. Basically, you’re covering up the blending with a black mask. More on masks later in the book.

Step Seven

Unfortunately, most of the time we have to blend these two images manually using layer masks, which just takes longer. Let’s start by deleting our duplicate layer, then go back to Step Two and make a copy of your Smart Object layer, and lower the exposure and all that stuff, but stop before you use the Blend If sliders. Instead, go to the Layers panel, press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key, and click on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. This puts a black mask over the layer with the photo exposed for the outside, covering it so you only see the lighter image on the background layer (as seen here). Remember: The darker outside version is still there—it’s just hidden behind that black mask. Now, press the letter B to get the Brush tool, then click on the down-facing arrow next to the word Brush in the Options Bar and choose a medium-sized, hard-edged brush from the Brush Picker (this helps to keep you from painting outside the lines). Now, press the letter D to set your Foreground color to white, and start painting over the areas of the photo that you want to be darker (in this case, the windows). As you paint with white directly on that black mask, the white reveals the darker version beneath the mask. Just be careful not to paint on the walls, curtains, etc.

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