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Real World Camera Raw: The Adjustment Brush

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Jeff Schewe shows you how to use the adjustment brush in Camera Raw, and explains that while using the Adjustment Brush in Camera Raw shares some passing similarities with working in Photoshop, there are some fundamental differences, which he also explains.
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The Adjustment Brush

One of the biggest bits of news for the last version of Camera Raw was the addition of parametric localized image adjustments. Figure 4-78 shows the various parameters available in the Adjustment Brush, which is essentially unchanged in Camera Raw 6.

Figure 4-78 The Adjustment Brush and options.

Using the Adjustment Brush in Camera Raw shares some passing similarities with working in Photoshop, but there are some fundamental differences. First and foremost, when painting with the Camera Raw Adjustment Brush, you aren’t painting adjusted pixels into the image but instead are modifying a mask through which the adjustments will be processed. In this regard, it shares a closer resemblance to painting in an Adjustment Layer mask. You can paint and then erase the mask. It’s common for us to paint large, soft paint strokes and then zoom into the image to erase bits of the mask with a smaller and more precise brush.

You should also understand that while you may start by setting a single adjustment parameter, you can go back to add more adjustments and continue to tweak the original adjustments. In point of fact, it’s optimal to adjust as many parameters as possible with a single mask because adding many new single parameter adjustment masks will slow things down.

When you add additional masks, “pins” are put on the image. Each pin is a single discrete mask made up of multiple dabs or strokes and indicated by the pin shape, which shows up once you start painting. Clicking a pin activates the mask and parameters for editing. All of the mask particulars such as opacity and stroke coordinates are stored along with the adjustments as metadata in the file or file’s sidecar.

While the Adjustment Brush is a really cool tool for the nondestructive editing of raw files, it is not a replacement for Photoshop. There will be many tasks more suited to Photoshop’s strengths. Some tasks—while possible in Camera Raw—might not make good workflow sense when doing final high-quality digital imaging. That caveat presented, what you can do with the Adjustment Brush and its related tool, the Graduated Filter (see “The Graduated Filter” later in this chapter), can greatly improve a raw processing workflow and substantially reduce the amount of time spent in Photoshop.

Control Channel Parameters. When making a local adjustment, you select one of the seven control channels offering adjustments. These channels do not directly correspond to the similarly named controls offered elsewhere in Camera Raw. The results will be similar, to be sure, but the control channels are tuned for use locally rather than their global cousins.

Figure 4-79 shows the tool options for the controls. You begin by either clicking one of the Quick Adjust buttons (the + and - circles at either end of the sliders) or grabbing a slider to make the adjustment. After you’ve applied a brush stroke, the options change from New to Add. This allows you to add more channels or to adjust the original. When you hold down the Option key, the Additive brush turns into an Erase brush that lets you delete portions of the painted mask. You can change the Separate Eraser Size behavior in the Adjustment Brush flyout menu (shown in Figure 4-80). Once you’ve made an adjustment, you can click one of the Quick Adjust buttons to pick a new primary adjustment and start a new brush stroke.

Figure 4-79 Adjustment Brush tool control channels and options.

Control Channel Presets. If you find that you’re constantly making the same sort of adjustment with the same settings on multiple channels, you should consider making a Control Channel Preset. Why fight the sliders if you already have a preset saved? Figure 4-80 shows one preset already saved named “Skin smoother,” which is a combination of Brightness +17, Contrast -12, Clarity -30, and Sharpness -42. This preset will smooth skin tones by gently lightening and decreasing contrast while adding negative Clarity and negative Sharpness.

To create a new preset, make the adjustments you want to have in the preset (including the color) and select the New Local Correction Setting option in the flyout menu. When you select it, you’ll be prompted to name and save the preset (see Figure 4-80).

Figure 4-80 Control channel presets.

When you save a preset in the Adjustment Brush menu, the same preset will also be available in the Graduated Filter menu. So, what you create in one tool option is available in both.

Paint Brush Sizing. Camera Raw’s brushes are not a fixed pixel size; they are based on the pixel dimensions of your image. Thus, a size setting of 100 will be the maximum allowed based on your image. Setting the size to 50 will be 50% of the maximum and so forth until you get to the smallest size. Figure 4-81 shows the relative sizing based on the maximum and minimum for this image.

Figure 4-81 Brush sizing.

Brush Feather. Not unlike Photoshop’s brushes, you can change the softness and hardness of a brush. Remember that what you are painting is the mask; you are not adjusting the image directly. The brush cursor indicates the current softness by showing an inner, more solid line (where the dab will be applied at the full amount of the Flow/Density setting) and an outer circle where the dab drops off to nothing. Figure 4-82 shows different amounts of feather.

Figure 4-82 Brush feathering.

Brush Flow. The brush Flow modifies how strong the mask will be applied and the resulting buildup of strokes. A low Flow allows you to sneak up on the strength of the resulting effect. You can adjust the control parameters to be stronger and then gently apply the effect by using a lower Flow setting and more strokes. Figure 4-83 shows the subtlety of various Flow settings.

Figure 4-83 Brush Flow settings.

Density vs. Flow. While both Density and Flow will modify the opacity of the resulting painted mask, they do so in a different manner. Flow modifies the gentle buildup of strokes; Density sets a maximum threshold of opacity for those strokes. Figure 4-84 shows the difference.

Figure 4-84 Density vs. Flow.

As you can see, a reduced Flow at full Density will result in a buildup in those areas where the strokes overlap. With a Density setting of 50, the maximum density of the resulting strokes will be limited to 50. So, in use, when you’re trying to build up an effect, and you do want the overlap to build up, you would use a higher Density with a lower Flow. Where you want to paint in an area that needs a specific mask opacity, the Flow matters less than the threshold set in Density.

Brush stroke and Mask relationship. When you paint a stroke, a pin is added and you’ll see the results of the current control parameters. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where you have and haven’t painted. To find out, use the Show Mask toggle or hover the brush cursor over the pin; either will make the mask visible. Figure 4-85 shows a stroke and the stroke’s mask.

Figure 4-85 Brush stroke and mask.

You can adjust the color and how the mask is previewed. Clicking the mask color options (the actual color swatch is a button) brings up a Color Picker that allows you to choose the color that the mask will be shown in and whether the preview will be of the Affected or Unaffected areas. Figure 4-86 shows the mask color options.

Figure 4-86 Mask color options.

Erasing the Mask. After the mask has been painted in, you can go back into the mask and, while holding the Option key, “unpaint” or erase the mask. Figure 4-87 shows a small part in the center of a paint stroke being erased.

Figure 4-87 Erasing a mask.

Auto Mask. When you select the Auto Mask option, the mask is generated based on the color and tone of the image area under the center of the cursor when painting is started. This allows you to paint in an area and automatically have the mask set to the shape of the object you paint into. Figure 4-88 shows an area with an auto mask.

Figure 4-88 Using the Auto Mask.

The trick is to make sure the center of the brush cursor remains inside the area where you want the mask to be painted. Note that the Auto Mask option works when erasing a mask, so if you go over an area a bit, you can use it to help erase the overpaint. Simply hold down the Option key when erasing with the Auto Mask option selected.

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