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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!