Quick Beginner’s Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw

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Do you shoot RAW but then open it without processing? When you take a photo in RAW format, regardless of the name each brand gives to it, what you’re doing is saving a bunch of data without processing it inside your camera. This way you have more information to work with during your post-production stage.

But having too much of something can sometimes seem daunting when you don’t know how to approach it and as a result be a limiting factor instead of opening up your possibilities.

Adobe Camera Raw – Processing Raw Files in Photoshop

This quick introduction guide explores the basic tools of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) so that you can step into post-processing this digital “negative” and understand its possibilities but also its limitations, as not all can be fixed.

ACR Raw Post-processing Photoshop Basic Adjustments

Whenever you open a RAW file in Photoshop it won’t open in the interface that would normally go to when opening a JPG or a TIF file. It will open it in a window known as Above Camera Raw (ACR). Here you’ll see a lot of options that can look intimidating and give you the impulse to just click open and work directly on Photoshop.

However, if you do so then you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities, most importantly its non-destructive qualities. Please note, that I’m not going to explain the tools in the order you’ll find them in the ACR panel because some of them are related to each other and therefore it’s clearer to explain them together regardless of their position.

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw

EXPOSURE

The first slider you will see is Exposure. This would be the equivalent of changing your shutter speed or f-stop settings up to five steps up or down. What this does influence the brightness of your entire image. Look at the example below to see how far you can push it in either direction.

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw - exposure

CONTRAST AND CLARITY

The next slider you’ll find is Contrast, this refers to the relationship between the lighter and darkest areas of your photo. If you slide it to the right you will increase the contrast which is why a plus sign (+) will appear next to the amount. Moving it to the left will decrease contrast, therefore a minus (-) sign appears. This will flatten the image as there will be less tonal range in between dark and light tones in your image.

A few sliders below Contrast you’ll find Clarity. This is a tool I really like because it gives a nice punch to your photos but it’s easy to overdo it and having them look unnatural, so just be careful. I am mentioning it here because it also adds contrast but this is only to the mid-tones (technically it finds and enhances edges in the image), plus it gives a sharp/unsharp effect to the image.

Note: Clarity is not an actual sharpening tool.

Here’s an example pushing both tools to the limit in either direction so you can see that even if they are related, the result is not the same.

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw - contrast and clarity

HIGHLIGHTS AND WHITES

Then there is the Highlights slider which I’ll explain together with another one, Whites. I’m doing this because they are closely related. The names are actually quite accurate but somehow their use is still difficult to grasp. Having said that, I’ll try to make it more clear.

The Highlights slider controls the tonal range from the lighter parts of your image, like this:

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw - highlights slider

The Whites slider should have its name in the singular to make it more clear because what it does is set the white point of your image, in other words, the brightest pixels.

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw - whites slider

So if you move the white point of the image, it will have an effect on the range of the highlights. Let’s see them work together.

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw - highest highlights

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw

SHADOWS AND BLACKS

In between those sliders you’ll find one called Shadows which together with Blacks works the same way as Highlights and Whites, but in the other side of the light scale.

Therefore, the Blacks slider sets the black point of the image and affects a wider tonal range than the one affected by shadows that refers to the darkest parts. Check the example below to have an illustration of how they work.

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw

SATURATION AND VIBRANCE

Saturation is the next slider on the list. It has an impact on all the colors of your image so keep an eye on the entire image while you are applying it and not just on a detail or a zoomed-in portion. If dragged completely to the left you’ll lose all color and leave your image black and white. Dragged all the way to the right, Saturation can reach very intense colors.

However, if you only want to affect the colors that are dull, to begin with instead of the entire image, then you should use the Vibrance slider. This one can also have a big effect, to the point of reaching unnatural colors so be careful. Look at the difference:

Quick Guide to Processing RAW Files in Photoshop Adobe Camera Raw

When you’re happy with your image, you can just save the changes and leave it as is or you can open the image in Photoshop to continue working on it.

However, if you’re choosing the latter I suggest that instead of just clicking Open Image, press the shift key so that the button changes to Open Object. This way you’ll open your image on Photoshop as a Smart Object and you can come back to these ACR options and make some more adjustments later if you need to.

To learn more about it I invite you to check my tutorial How to Create with a Good Workflow Using Smart Objects in Photoshop.

Conclusion

I hope this makes it more clear for you. Remember that ACR offers other menu possibilities and there are various menus and tools that were too much to cover in this quick, beginner’s guide. So use this as a base and then keep exploring!

Read more from our Post Production category

Ana Mireles is a photographer and artistic researcher. She has been awarded and exhibited in Mexico, Italy, and the Netherlands. Through theory and practice, she explores the cultural aspect of photography, how it helps us relate to each other, the world, and ourselves. She has also a passion for teaching, communication, and social media. You can find more about her and her work at her website or acquire some of her works here.

  • Dave Hallberg

    Thank you for the explanations, they are clear and easy to understand. I do have a question that I have yet to find an answer for. When I am done processing the image how can I convert it to jpeg for posting. RAW files are too large to post in most places. Thank you again for the article.

  • TJ

    Dave…once you finish working in RAW and open the file directly into the main Photoshop application, you can do any final tweaks you wish to the photo and save it from there. When you click on “Save” at that point, it will automatically save a version as a jpeg file. Also, you can click on the “save as” button, which gives you the option to choose the file type, if you prefer to save as a TIFF, PNG, BMP, etc. Hope that helps!

  • Thanks a lot for sharing your ideas. Really the information you have shared is incredible.
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  • Ana Mireles

    Hi Dave, I’m glad you liked the post. Sorry for the late reply, I’m happy you already got a reply (Thanks @TJ ! ). Just to complement here’s a screenshot of what you’re looking for in the Save As window, it’s the option named File Extension and from the drop down menu you can choose .jpg (or any other) https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1c59e0402a9f7f11dc9be73a26354d83e938091246e1fba2aca8d3e42a8e922b.png

  • Ana Mireles

    I’m glad you find it useful, thanks!

  • Prithvi

    Thanks for this informative article. I’ve a query!
    I shot a picture of a monument with its reflection in water and sky above. The sky is bland with no cloud and very light blue in color, the color of monument is light brown, and the color of water is also not clear. How should I change colors (make more natural) of these three different elements in photoshop?

  • Ana Mireles

    Hi Prithvi, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. About your query, it’s very difficult to make an assessment like that, remember there’s no magic formula that works in every situation. Try moving your settings and see the result, that’s the great thing about ACR and if you’re not happy with it you can click the “Default” button and start again, or just Cancel and reopen (I’ll attach a screenshot to show where they are). However what I can understand from your description your problem is that the image is too flat, I would try to expand the contrast then. I hope this was useful. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/31fe663a49a39f03e41fc7d3d6e9c950ecff04e3591c3f80aef5e6cfcc598137.png

  • Prithvi

    Hi Ana, thanks for replying to my query. I’ll surely try to meddle with settings as you suggested!

  • Wow! great tutorial. Thanks a lot for informative and helpful article.

  • Ana Mireles

    @MartinBrookcpeu:disqus You’re very welcome, thank you for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  • Thanks!!!

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