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Working with camera raw images

Raw images are high-quality image files that record the maximum amount of image data possible, in a relatively small file size. Though larger than compressed formats such as JPEG, raw images contain more data than TIFF files and use less space.

Many common file formats involve in-camera processing of the incoming image data that can effectively degrade the quality of the image. In creating a compressed file, data deemed superfluous is discarded; in mapping the spread of captured data to a defined color space, the range of the color information can be narrowed. In contrast, raw images retain all of the data captured for each and every pixel.

Capturing your photos in raw format gives you more flexibility and control when it comes to editing your images. Raw files do incorporate camera settings such as exposure, white balance and sharpening, but this information is stored separately from the image data. When you open a raw image in Photoshop Elements, these recorded settings effectively become “live;” the Camera Raw plug-in enables you to adjust them to get more from the raw image data. With 12 bits of data per pixel, it’s possible to retrieve shadow and highlight detail from a raw image that would have been lost in the 8 bits/channel JPEG or TIFF formats.

In the following exercises, you’ll work with a raw image in Nikon’s NEF format as you explore the Camera Raw window. This section will also serve as a review of the image editing concepts and terminology that you learned earlier.

  1. In the Organizer, isolate the Lesson 4 images in the Media Browser, if necessary, by clicking the arrow beside the Lesson 04 keyword tag in the Tags panel. In the thumbnail grid, locate the camera raw image DSC_5683.NEF. Right-click / Control-click the thumbnail and choose Edit With Photoshop Elements Editor from the context menu. Photoshop Elements opens the image in the Camera Raw window.


The moment you open a camera raw file for the first time, the Camera Raw plug-in creates what is sometimes referred to as a sidecar file in the same folder as the raw image file. The sidecar file takes the name of the raw file, with the extension “.xmp.” Any modification that you make to the raw photograph is written to the XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) file, rather than to the image file itself, which means that the original image data remains intact, while the XMP file records every edit.

  1. Use the Windows System Tray or Notification Area, or the Dock on Mac OS, to switch back to the Elements Organizer. In the My Folders list in the left panel, right-click / Control-click the Lesson 4 folder and choose Reveal In Finder from the menu. A Windows Explorer or Mac OS Finder window opens to show your Lesson 4 folder. Click the folder, if necessary, to see the contents; the newly created XMP sidecar file, DSC_5683.xmp, is listed beside the NEF image file.
  2. Return to the Editor—and the Camera Raw window—in Photoshop Elements.

Getting to know the Camera Raw window

On the right side of the Camera Raw window is a control panel headed by three tabs: Basic, Detail, and Camera Calibration. For this set of exercises you’ll work with the Basic tab—the default—which presents controls for making adjustments that are not possible with the standard editing tools in Photoshop Elements.

  1. Make sure that the Preview checkbox above the image window is activated.

  2. Hold the pointer over each tool in the toolbar to see a tooltip with the name of the tool and the respective keyboard shortcut. Click the Toggle Full Screen Mode button (togglefullscreen.jpg) at the right of the tool bar to switch to full screen mode.

  3. Click the menu icon at the right of the Basic tab’s header bar to see the choices available from the control panel Options menu. You can apply the same settings you used for the last image you worked with, have Photoshop Elements revert to the default Camera Raw profile for your camera by choosing Reset Camera Raw Defaults, or save your own custom settings as the new default for the camera that captured this image.

Adjusting the white balance

The white balance presets can help you to rectify a color cast caused by lighting conditions. You could correct the white balance of a photo shot on an overcast day, for example, by choosing the Cloudy preset. Other presets compensate for artificial lighting. The As Shot preset uses the settings recorded by your camera, while the Auto setting recalculates the white balance based on an analysis of the image data.

  1. Switch between the presets in the White Balance menu, comparing the effects to the default As Shot setting. In the following pages you’ll discover why setting the appropriate white balance is so important to the overall look of the image.

  2. For now, choose As Shot from the White Balance presets menu.

For many photos, the right preset will produce satisfactory results or at least serve as a basis for manual adjustment. When none of the presets takes your image in the right direction, you can use the White Balance tool (eyedropper.jpg) to sample a neutral color in the photo, in relation to which Camera Raw will recalculate the white balance. The ideal target is a light to medium gray that is neither discernibly warm nor cool. In our sample photo, the weathered wood is a potential reference, but we can probably be more certain that the steel fencing wire in the background is a neutral gray.

  1. Zoom into the image by choosing 100% from the Zoom Level menu in the lower left corner of the image window, or by double-clicking the zoom tool. Select the Hand tool (handtool.jpg) and drag the image downwards and to the right so that you can see the thick wire to the left of the girl’s hat.
  2. Select the White Balance tool (eyedropper.jpg), right beside the Hand tool in the tool bar. Sample a medium gray from the center of the wire where it crosses a relatively dark area. If you see little effect, click a slightly different point.

  3. Zoom out by choosing Fit In View from the Zoom Level menu in the lower left corner of the preview window.

The White Balance is now set to Custom and the image has become cooler. The weathered wood in the background is a more neutral gray and the skin tones are rosier. The eyes also look clearer, having lost the original yellow-orange cast.

  1. Use the White Balance menu to alternate between your custom settings and the As Shot preset, noting the change in the preview window, as well as the differences in the Temperature and Tint settings.

Working with the Temperature and Tint settings

The White Balance tool can accurately remove any color cast or tint from an image but you may still want to tweak the Temperature and Tint settings. In this case, the color tint seems fine, but the skin tones still have a slightly orange look that can be corrected by fine-tuning the blue / yellow balance using the Temperature control.

  1. Use the Zoom tool or the Zoom Level menu in the lower left corner of the preview window to focus closely on the woman’s face.
  2. Test the Temperature slider by dragging it from one end of its range to the other. You’ll see that the colors of the image become cooler or warmer as you move the slider. Reset the Temperature control a little below the edited value of 3700 (your value may differ, depending on where you clicked to set the white balance) either by dragging the slider or typing the value 3400 into the text box.
  3. Double-click the Hand tool or choose Fit In View from the Zoom Level menu. Now that the temperature has been adjusted towards blue, the automatically corrected tint of the image appears just a little pink.
  4. Decrease the Tint setting to −5 with the slider or type −5 in the Tint text box. Press Ctrl+Z / Command+Z to toggle between the new Tint setting and the value set with the White Balance tool, comparing the effect.


    Click to view larger image

    At the left, the skin tones produced by the White Balance tool still look a little too orange. On the right, the skin tones look more natural once the Temperature and Tint values have been reduced manually.

Using the tone controls on a raw image

Below the White Balance sliders on the Basic tab are sliders for improving a photo’s tonal range and presence, or image definition.

Exposure adjusts the overall lightness or darkness of an image. Its effect is most apparent through the middle of the histogram; an increased Exposure setting will move the body of the curve to the right, compressing the highlights if possible, rather than shifting them off the end of the curve. Tweak the Exposure to brighten a dull, underexposed photo or correct the flat, faded look of an overexposed image.

Contrast is the amount of difference between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. The Contrast control has the most effect at the ends of the histogram; an increased setting moves information outwards from the center of the curve. Adjust Contrast to add definition to a flat image, or to soften one that is too harsh or stark.

Highlights recovers detail from overexposed highlights and improves midtone definition by shifting image information from the far right of the curve inwards.

Shadows recovers details from shadowed areas—something close to the inverse of the action of the Highlights control—and adds depth to the midtone range.

Whites specifies which input levels are mapped to pure white in the final image. Lowering the Whites value decreases clipping at the right end of the histogram. Clipping occurs when a pixel’s color values are higher or lower than the range that can be represented in the image; over-bright values are clipped to output white, and over-dark values are clipped to output black.

Blacks specifies which input levels will be mapped to black in the final image. Raising the Blacks value decreases clipping at the left end of the histogram.

Clarity increases the local contrast between adjacent light and dark areas, sharpening detail without producing halo effects, and enhancing the midtone contrast.

Vibrance boosts color saturation selectively, having most effect on the muted colors in an image, while avoiding over-saturation of bolder colors and skin tones.

Saturation is the purity, or strength, of a color. Increasing the Saturation reduces the amount of black or white mixed with the color, making it more vivid. Reducing the Saturation increases the amount of black or white, making it more muted.

First you’ll adjust the overall exposure and contrast; then, set the white and black points to avoid clipping at the ends of the histogram before tweaking the highlights and shadows to bring out as much image detail as you can.

  1. Press the letter O on your keyboard to activate the white clipping warning; then, keep an eye on the histogram as you drag the Exposure slider slowly all the way to the right. The red areas that appear in the preview warn you which parts of the image are being clipped to white.

  2. Drag the slider to the left until all the red areas disappear—even from the woman’s head-band. The Exposure control doesn’t cause white clipping until the setting is extreme; for now, set the Exposure value to +0.5.
  3. Watch the histogram as you drag the Contrast slider through its full range, before setting it to a value of +50.

  4. Put the Whites slider through its paces. White clipping is already beginning to appear when the setting reaches +15. Return the Whites to a zero setting.

  5. Press U on your keyboard to activate the black clipping warning, and then play with the Blacks slider. When you’re done, set the Blacks to −10—the point below which the blue clipping warning appears in the darkest areas of the image.

  6. Move the Highlights slider all the way to the right. Although the effect on the image is quite extreme, there is no clipping now that you’ve set the white point. Watch the textural detail reappear in the sunlit wood as you reduce the Highlights setting to −50. Drag the Shadows slider to set a value of +50, watching as detail is retrieved from the darkest areas in the photo. Press the U and O keys on your keyboard to disable the clipping warnings.
  7. Choose a magnification level of 100% from the Zoom menu at the lower left of the image window, or double-click the Zoom tool; then, use the Hand tool to center your view on the girl’s face. Drag the Clarity slider to +30. Double-click the Hand tool to see the entire image, and then set the Vibrance value to +25.
  8. To compare the adjusted photo to the raw image, toggle the Preview check box at the right of the tool bar above the preview.

The photo originally looked somewhat dull, muddy, and indistinct, and a little too dark. It now shows a broader range of detail and is more vivid; the colors are brighter and the tones are more realistic. For the sake of clarity in our demonstration however, some of the adjustments you made were quite extreme. If you wish, you can now tone down the corrections to balance the image to your taste.

Saving the image in the DNG format

Each camera manufacturer has its own proprietary raw format, and not every raw file can be read or edited by software other than that provided with the camera. There is also the possibility that manufacturers might not support every format indefinitely. To help alleviate these problems, Photoshop Elements gives you the option to save raw images in the DNG format, a publicly available archival format for raw images that provides an open standard for files created by different camera models, ensuring that you’ll still be able to access your images in the future.

  1. To convert and save the image, click the Save Image button at the lower left of the Camera Raw dialog box. Under Destination in the Save Options dialog box, click Select Folder. Navigate to and open your Lessons folder; then, highlight your My CIB Work folder and click Select.
  2. Under File Naming, leave Document Name selected in the menu on the left. Click the menu on the right and select 1 Digit Serial Number. This will add the number 1 to the end of the file name.
  3. Click Save. The file, together with all your current settings, will be saved in DNG format, which you can reprocess repeatedly without losing the original data.
  4. Click the Open Image button in the right lower corner of the Camera Raw dialog box. Your image will open in a regular image window in Photoshop Elements. Choose File > Save. Navigate to your My CIB Work folder, name the file DSC_5683_Work, and choose the Photoshop format. Make sure that the new file will be included in the Organizer, but not in a Version Set.
  5. Click Save, and then choose File > Close.

Congratulations! You’ve completed your first lesson on the Editor; take a look at all the images in the Media Browser to refresh your memory about how many new photo editing techniques you’ve learned.

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