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Basic Editing in Camera Raw

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Ben Long covers the basics of editing in Camera Raw, including image-editing workflow and processing an image using Camera Raw.
This chapter is from the book

Once you’ve got your images imported and organized, and made your selects—that is, chosen the images you like enough to pass through the rest of your workflow—then you’re ready to start editing. As a Photoshop user, if you were shooting in JPEG, you’d normally just open your JPEG images in Photoshop and start editing. But as you’ve already learned, before a raw image can be edited, it has to be processed by a raw conversion program. In your case, that program will be Photoshop Camera Raw, which includes all of the editing tools that you need to get most of your images looking exactly the way you want them.

Before we jump into Camera Raw, though, I’d like to mention one or two things you should keep in mind while you begin to work with your camera’s raw files.

We all know the arguments for digital over film: instant feedback, smaller cameras, no film or processing costs, none of the hassle of carrying and changing rolls of film. But nowadays it’s hard for the digital photographer or 35 mm film photographer to remember that mass-produced roll film was actually a similar convenience when compared with the tools and techniques required in the early days of photography.

Early masters of photography such as Ansel Adams not only had tremendous command of exposure and composition, but they also were experts in film chemistry. They spent countless hours making their own photographic paper and preparing custom emulsions for their film plates. They experimented at length with everything from the mixture of their chemicals, to the timing of development, to the amount of agitation used while processing their film.

Their understanding of the chemical response of the film and paper they had created was so refined that, when shooting, they frequently made exposure decisions based upon how they expected to process the film when they got back to the lab. While looking through the camera, they never lost sight of what they would need to do in the darkroom to achieve the image they were visualizing.

Though these photographers were frequently referred to as “expert craftsmen” or “master artisans,” if they were alive today, we would use another word to describe them: geeks. These people were the original photography gearheads and nerds. Granted, they also had an incredible level of innate talent and artistry, but this talent was useful only thanks to their fundamental understanding of the basic imaging characteristics of their technology.

Shooting raw benefits greatly from a similar combination of technical understanding and visual artistry. When you shoot raw, you’re capturing fundamental image data, just like the fundamental data captured by a piece of film. It’s only after that data is processed through raw conversion software that a usable image appears.

The camera is only one part of the photographic process. Since the inception of photography, good photos have depended as much (and sometimes more) on good darkroom work as on good shooting skills. Digital photography is no different. And just as geeky master photographers of old made shooting decisions based on their understanding of what they could achieve in their darkrooms with their chosen chemicals and films, you need to develop a similar understanding of your raw converter and editing software.

For example, the image in Figure 4.1 is very flat and not particularly dramatic. When I shot it, though, I knew that I would have enough latitude in my image to brighten up the doorway and wall to create a very different picture.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Because I had a good idea of how much I could push and pull the tones and colors in my image, I was able to visualize a more dramatic image when I saw this scene.

The image in Figure 4.2 was initially nothing more than a composition exercise. As I shot, though, I realized that I would be able to pull a lot more contrast out of the sky and deepen the texture and saturation of the lighthouse to make a more compelling picture.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Paying attention to the potential contrast and color in a scene is essential to visualizing a good photo when you’re in the field. But the only way to recognize those potentials is to become familiar with the capabilities of your editing software.

So while working through these explorations of Camera Raw, don’t just try to memorize what each control does. Play with the controls and experiment with images from your particular camera, and pay attention to how much you can brighten or darken an image before it turns noisy or blows out. Note how far you can expand the contrast of an image before you start to see posterization artifacts. (If you’re not familiar with these terms, don’t worry—we’ll be covering them here.)

Different cameras yield different amounts of data, so try to get a feel for how much latitude the images from your camera have. This understanding will help you identify potential pictures when you’re out shooting.

Opening an Image in Photoshop Camera Raw

If you worked through the discussion and workflow presented in Chapter 3, then you should have some images copied to your computer and you should have sorted through them to identify your selects. If you followed my suggestion, then your selected images have been assigned a rating, and you’ve filtered your browser software (Bridge, Organizer, or whatever else you may be using) to only show images with your select rating. You’re now ready to start editing.

As you learned in Chapter 1, Photoshop Camera Raw is a plug-in for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. When you open a raw image in Photoshop, the raw file is automatically passed to the Camera Raw plug-in.

There are several ways to open a raw image in Photoshop Elements:

  • In the Elements Editor, choose File > Open and navigate to the raw file that you want to open.
  • Drag and drop a raw image file onto the Photoshop Elements icon.
  • In Organizer (on Windows), select the image(s) you want to open and then choose Full Edit from the Editor pop-up menu on the menu bar (Figure 4.3). Or press Command/Control-I. Finally, you can also right-click on the image and choose Full Edit from the shortcut menu.

    Figure 4.3

    Figure 4.3 To open a raw image in Organizer for Windows, select the image and then choose Full Edit from the Editor pop-up menu.

  • In Bridge (on the Mac or Windows), double-click on the image you want to open. Or, select the image(s) you want to open and then press Return. You can also select the images and then choose File > Open.

No matter which method you use, the Photoshop Elements Editor will open, and then the Camera Raw window will appear.

In Photoshop CS4, you can open a raw image by doing one of the following:

  • Choosing File > Open and navigating to the raw file that you want to open
  • Dragging and dropping a raw image file onto the Photoshop CS4 icon
  • Selecting the image(s) you want to open in Bridge and then pressing Return, or choosing File > Open

No matter which method you use, Photoshop CS4 will come to the front, and the Camera Raw window will appear.

When you open a raw image, Camera Raw selects a default set of raw conversion parameters. Using these settings, it performs a conversion of your image and shows you the result in its preview area. Some of these settings are dictated by the camera itself. For example, the white balance in Camera Raw is set according to the white balance EXIF metadata that the camera stored with the file. So, whatever the camera decided to use for white balance (or whatever you specified, if you were using manual white balance) is automatically dialed in to the Temperature and Tint sliders in Camera Raw.

The tone and color settings are preset defaults that Camera Raw uses when it opens an image. They almost always provide a decent conversion that yields a good-looking image. As you’ll see, though, you can adjust these to improve your image dramatically.

Technically, Camera Raw is a plug-in, just like a special effects plug-in that you might install. Camera Raw’s interface changes slightly depending on whether you’re running it in Elements or the Adobe Creative Suite (and there are differences from one version of the Creative Suite to the next), but the underlying image-processing code is the same. Some of the features that aren’t there when running Camera Raw in Elements are high-end features that you probably won’t miss and that we might not be covering in this book anyway.

The Camera Raw window

Camera Raw lives in a single window, but Adobe has packed an incredible amount of image-editing power into this one window (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 The CS4 Camera Raw interface houses all of its controls in a single window. This window varies from version to version, but its overall layout looks something like this. (If you’re using Elements, you’ll see fewer tabs.)

A large preview gives you a zoomable and pannable display of the image you want to edit. Above this you’ll find a toolbar with some essential tools. To the right of the preview sit the histogram display and the main control sliders. In CS4, these sliders are split among several tabs. In Elements, you’ll find a single panel of sliders, as Elements offers fewer options than does CS4. However, all essential tone- and color-correction tools are still present in Elements.

At the bottom of the window are controls for specifying some essential parameters of your processed file. We’ll get to these when we’re ready to save our converted image.

If you’ve opened multiple images, then those images will be stacked in a vertical filmstrip view on the left side of the Camera Raw window (Figure 4.5). Click a thumbnail in the filmstrip area to see it in the preview area.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 If you open multiple raw images, they will be stacked in a filmstrip view on the left side of the Camera Raw window.

Note that because of the nature of raw editing, it’s possible to apply the same edit to multiple open raw files, simultaneously. This can greatly speed your workflow, and we’ll be looking at this capability in the next chapter.

Basic navigation

Zooming and panning about your image in Camera Raw works just like it does in Photoshop, so if you’ve got even a little experience with Photoshop, you should be able to quickly find your way around your image in Camera Raw.

Camera Raw’s zooming controls can be accessed in several ways:

  • To zoom in, select the Zoom tool in the Camera Raw toolbar and click on your image at the point you want to zoom in to. Or, using the Zoom tool, click and drag a rectangle. Camera Raw will zoom in to show as much of that rectangle as it can.
  • To zoom out with the Zoom tool, click in the image while holding down the Alt/Option key.
  • The zoom pop-up menu and buttons beneath the preview let you zoom in and out by entering a zoom percentage or by choosing a preset percentage from the zoom menu (Figure 4.6).

    Figure 4.6

    Figure 4.6 You can use the zoom pop-up menu to zoom in and out of your image, but you’ll find it faster to use the zooming keyboard shortcuts, Control/Command- + and Control/Command- –.

  • To zoom using the keyboard, press Control/Command- + (plus) to zoom in, or Control/Command-– (hyphen) to zoom out.
  • You can temporarily switch to the Zoom In tool by pressing and holding Control/Command, or to the Zoom Out tool by pressing and holding Alt/Option.

When you’re zoomed in, the easiest way to pan about your image is to hold down the spacebar while you click and drag in your image. Alternatively, you can select the grabber hand from the toolbar and click and drag in your image.

The rest of Camera Raw’s interface is fairly straightforward, and we’ll cover each control in this chapter and the next. Before we jump into editing in earnest, though, it’s important to have a plan.

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