RAW Creativity

RAW Creativity

Most articles on the RAW digital photo format will most likely be about how crazy you are not to be capturing your images in RAW format if your camera supports it. While I do tend to agree, there is more to RAW than just converting images to other file formats.

Adobe’s Camera RAW (ACR) plug-in software — which comes packaged with Photoshop — has some really interesting adjustment options not available in Photoshop itself. When you open an image in ACR, you’re presented with the “Basic” adjustments panel, which includes an image histogram, white balance presets in a pull-down menu, and some exposure adjustment sliders.

Image 1: Basic adjustment panel in Adobe Camera RAW.

Image 1.jpg

These sliders for the most part have equivalents in Photoshop. For example, Exposure and Contrast are ACR adjustment sliders with similar adjustment layers in Photoshop. There are however some really interesting options in ACR that don’t appear in Photoshop, like the Fill Light slider and the Clarity slider.

(Note: Up until the release of Adobe Photoshop CS4, the Vibrance slider was exclusive to ACR, but it’s now an adjustment layer in Photoshop CS4 itself. Vibrance saturates colors that are a little weak, as opposed to Saturation, which saturates all colors linearly across the board).

Back to RAW creativity: I had been seeing really cool images on the web. They looked almost like high dynamic range (HDR) images, but not quite. I could not figure out how to reproduce the effect. The images seemed to be lit from within, almost painterly.

Image 2. Image with an intense effect.

Image 2.jpg

I think I finally figured out how to re-create the look of this photo. Like everything else, I’m sure there are other ways to accomplish this, but this method is pretty easy using the ACR adjustments.

First, open an image in ACR. I am using a RAW image for this tutorial, because this effect seems to work best with the maximum amount of data that a RAW image contains. But it can also work with almost any high-resolution, properly exposed image.

(Note: Did you know you can open more than just RAW files in the Adobe Camera RAW software? Yep! If you use Adobe Bridge, just right click (ctrl+click on a Mac) on an image and choose “Open in Camera Raw.”)

Image 3. RAW image opened in ACR.

Image 3.jpg

Since this effect is definitely not going for photo realism, you could forego corrections like white balance, etc., but it’s just as well to start off with the best image you can. So if your image needs corrections or cleaning up, go for it, but keep in mind that things like color corrections, or noise reduction might be in vain at this point.

Go to the Fill Light slider, which is the fifth slider down. In this case I’ve cranked it way up to 97. Now you’d never normally want to do this. If a photo was so underexposed that it required the fill light to go this high, the result would be a pretty bad image, with a whole lot of noise. Your number will vary of course, but for the most part you are going to be taking the Fill Light very high, so that the image looks very washed out with blown highlights.

Image 4. Turn the Fill Light way up.

Image 4.jpg

Now you’ll want to bring back some of those lost details using the Blacks slider, which lives right under Fill Light. In this image, I’ve increased the Blacks slider up to 100, but I still have a washed out sky, and some blown out detail on the lighter parts of the giraffe and the rocks. I can’t increase the Blacks, so I’ll reduce the Fill Light until I get those details back.

Image 5. Increase the Blacks to recover lost detail.

Image 5.jpg

I still don’t have enough detail back in my image (above). One thing I could experiment with is reducing all that Fill Light I cranked up after I first opened this image in ACR. I brought it down to about 85. Any lower and my effect will start to diminish. Here’s one more ACR option not available directly in Photoshop: Recovery! Just remember, Recovery to the rescue. What Recovery is more or less designed to do is to lower some of your brightest highlights in order to recover lost, or blown-out, detail. It’s a great option that has improved a lot of photos for me. In this case though, Recovery can be invoked to bring back some of the details we (seemingly) obliterated with the Fill Light slider.

Image 6. Here, the Recovery is brought all the way up.

Image 6.jpg

In this image, now you can see the Recovery is way up, and the Fill Light is down just a bit. The bright details are back, and the sky is again blue with pretty well-defined clouds.

Final touch

By adding so much black, we really increased the color saturation. This may be a good time to lower your saturation, while still inside ACR. You definitely don’t want to pull out too much color though. This technique is pretty over the top, so desaturating too much will take away some of the drama. You also may want to decrease the contrast a little bit, either in the ACR Basic Panel, in the ACR Tone Curve panel, or in Photoshop.

Finally, open your image in Photoshop. You will definitely want to apply some noise reduction. Applying the ACR adjustments to such an extreme extent comes with a price: noise. You may also want to apply sharpening, and possible other corrections, now that you’re in Photoshop.

One word of caution: If an image has a lot of very dark areas with clipped shadow detail, the Fill Light slider may turn those dark areas into gray blobs, in which case you may need to try a different image.

Have fun with this technique, experiment, and remember, it’s all undoable!

Image 7: Final image with the ACR technique applied. I reduced overall saturation, darkened the blue sky, and desaturated the greens a bit, all in ACR.

Image 7.jpg

Read more from our Post Production category

Kenneth Setzer is from Pixtography - a site dedicated to helping photographers, artists, designers, Photoshoppers, and pixel pushers increase productivity and creativity

Some Older Comments

  • James September 19, 2012 04:56 am

    What a great disappointment that Photoshop CS6 - Raw 7.0 does not have the Fill light slider, there for I was not able to try this example.

  • Naz August 31, 2012 06:13 am

    Yuo've discovered the 'jill greenburg' camera raw settings basically- You can also mess aroudn with vibrance and contrast and clarity too till you get a look you like- when you do, be sure to save the 'preset' so you can use it again- also experiment with hte color sliders if the photo looks too cooked in places- folksl iek Jill Greenburg, Dragan, and others have made their careers off of overproceessed images, and they've doen exceptionally well too- caterign to the large crowd of folks that do infact liek the look-

    Also, try converting processed image into black and whites for soem strong looking strong detailed B&W's

  • totwotoo July 17, 2011 09:20 pm

    First, to Photoguy and Alessandor Casagli: I would like to know how you would do it. Critics are those that do not do' as movie reviewers. Mentors, on the others hand, can do.
    Second, I learned some things, which makes this tutorial beneficial. Thank you you posting it.

  • gerome July 17, 2011 08:23 pm

    Your remark: Most articles on the RAW digital photo format will most likely be about how crazy you are not to be capturing your images in RAW format if your camera supports it. While I do tend to agree, there is more to RAW than just converting images to other file formats.

    Just a little off base. Maybe good for hobbyists who have a lot of spare time on their hands. Most professionals I've looked up will say you're crazy to shoot in raw, except for one or two special images you want to tweak. For assignments, weddings etc., shoot in JPEG. They make well over $100,000 annually in their business and what they say is: I don't have the time to spend countless hours fooling around with adjusting photos shot in RAW then converting to JPEG when shooting in JPEG in the first place does the job I need. Time is money, and shooting in RAW wastes my time in post processing.

  • Heath C March 12, 2010 07:05 am

    I like the result, who cares if it looks fake, we can all tell it is overdone but that is the whole point. Thanks for the method.

  • JotaSolano January 10, 2010 11:39 am

    Thank you for the tutorial. Even if this is not the kind of effect that I would ideally want to achieve, it's quite representative of the power of ACR and Raw; i guess the final idea is to take those pictures that can be improved and use ACR a little so that it looks good, but not fake.

  • Ben April 24, 2009 09:20 pm

    I just ignore the ones who make rude comments :P

  • jacob April 24, 2009 05:27 am

    I'm actually turned off by the jerks who spoke their opinions so rudely. If you're going to speak your opinion, do so politely and don't be such an ass.The guy was just showing a technique that some people like. Just because you're a stuck up photographer doesn't mean that you have to bash on something that other people like. If you don't like it, don't bother reading and stop wasting time making other people feel bad. Grow up.

  • Chris April 23, 2009 08:00 am

    Good tutorial. Nice effect... def. not for every picture, but fun to play around with.

    Sorry, I saw this and had to laugh:

    "It is a Noun so starts with a capital, it is not an acronym so should not be referenced as RAW."

    Book is a noun too, but I don't capatilize it unless it's at the start of a sentence... weird. Also, 'Noun' shouldn't be capitalized either.

    I'm only being critical to the critics. I'm sure the author of this tutorial doesn't use this technique for every photo that he edits. Who knows, maybe this has a place in his, or someone elses, world of photography.

    Thanks for taking the time to share!


  • steve April 21, 2009 10:42 pm

    sorry, Raw! and i agree, this definitely isn't for everyone but it can only help create a better understanding of post processing, it's certainly doing so for me. and i guess it's up to you what you do with it after all.

  • steve April 21, 2009 10:34 pm

    i have CS2 at home and CS3 at work. CS2 doesn't have the same range of controls within camera RAW such as 'fill light' and 'clarity'. is it possible to download the later versions of camera RAW for CS2 which will have these?

    great tutorial though.


  • Liz Ness March 19, 2009 07:52 am

    D'oh... that was "an" impact not "and" impact... These fingers have a mind of their own!

  • Liz Ness March 19, 2009 07:51 am

    I love tutorials that really demonstrate and impact. This one is great! It gets the point across (visually) about what happens when... Then, the student can run with it and use it as desired (tone it down, add to it, etc.). Thanks for the awesome tutorial!

  • Ben February 23, 2009 01:33 pm

    Pretty great tutorial. I may try this on some images once I upgrade to CS4. Keep posting Ken!

    Check this site out if you are interested in seeing true HDR images both "realistic" and "artsy" looking (http://www.hdrsoft.com/gallery/index.php). I think it's all on what the photographer wants to portray and how he/she wants the image to look. Either way, everyone has their own taste but it doesn't mean that it's disgusting, bad or fake. In my mind, it's all art and that's what we (photographers) do. Try to represent and show what we feel we seen and to invoke a mood or feeling in the viewer. If we have succeeded in that part, then we have accomplished our goal. Producing pleasing art/images.

  • Mary February 20, 2009 09:10 am

    I tried it - I was fairly pleased with the results. I may try it again on some different stuff to see how it is generally. Thanks for taking the time to share this tip.

  • Beth February 19, 2009 03:46 am

    I thought this was a great tutorial...and while it might not please every eye and it may not be right for every image, the technique can work beautifully with the right image. Your writing of the tutorial is great, very easy to follow along and recreate the effect. I like this technique, I thought the finished product was great! Thanks for posting, Ken, keep them coming!!!

  • alex February 13, 2009 10:29 am

    i love this image, why do things always have to be realistic ....?or should they??? I am also wondering in lightrooms 2.2 there is the camera calibration and after messing with that I found it seemed to do alot that I had previously done while messing with saturation /hue/black/brightness etc. I am wondeing how you know what image that you see on the computer versus in camer and what will be the true image that comes once you print it as Idi not understand what or how all the calibrations for cameras/programs work but am assuming they affet how the colours are seen.

  • Zvonko Petroski February 13, 2009 10:09 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    This short tutorial helped me so, so much. Help is in that, I finally found out how to open JUST ANY photo on Raw - through Adobe Bridge. And following tutorial is so, so useful. I will recommend this site to many people.
    And, my minority has to say - very professional and knowledgeable you are! (if I didn't mistake the word - I mean, you are fool of knowledge)

  • Sarosa February 13, 2009 05:13 am

    Thank you, nice tutorial, I will definitely try it out, in a more moderate way maybe.

    What I am curious about is this statement:

    "(Note: Did you know you can open more than just RAW files in the Adobe Camera RAW software? Yep! If you use Adobe Bridge, just right click (ctrl+click on a Mac) on an image and choose “Open in Camera Raw.”)"

    Can some lighten me up please? I cannot open jpg or tiff in camera raw. Why? I am working on mac, when I left-click on a jpg or tiff file, and go to open with, there is no option camera raw. Camera raw is not an application it is a part of photoshop, isn't it? Can someone help me please? Thanks a lot.


  • Lisa February 13, 2009 04:29 am

    easy to understand tutorial, something different for sure. For all the comments on it being to overprocessed I think thats the point right?!?! Its not for every image. By the way I am so tired of hearing so many negative comments on this site. Not constructive just very negative. there are some grumpy photographers out there!

  • Stefanie February 13, 2009 02:30 am

    That was a great tutorial! I can't wait to try it!

  • JD February 11, 2009 10:36 pm

    Beautiful technique. Thanks Kenneth.


  • Paul R. Giunta February 11, 2009 01:59 pm

    Originally I only touched the White Balance in ACR before going into CS4. I messed around with some of the sliders in ACR and realized how to use them to my advantage and now I have find myself using ACR to make some minor adjustments that I would not have done before.

  • Greg February 11, 2009 01:29 pm

    Nice technique and tutorial, but too many of my photos have ended up looking similar to this effect. In other words, I like the punchy nature of the effect - but it lacks finesse. Looking forward to additional work in this area that gives a gutsy photo that has some lighter effects to balance it out.

  • Alejandro Z. February 11, 2009 05:44 am

    I don't mind the effect too much (though I probably wouldn't choose it), but the photo's composition is terrible. The giraffe should be on the left of the picture, leaning into the frame rather than out of it. It's really unbalanced (looks like it's going to tumble rightwards), and the negative space on the left hand of the picture is killing me. The giraffe's neck/back/tail COULD be a strong upwards diagonal, but it'd have to start far to the left. Maybe a closer crop would help? You'd lose the nice sky, but that's pretty meaningless in the photo as it is now.

  • Tony February 11, 2009 12:20 am

    Nice tutorial Ken, but in my eyes you've overcooked the processing a little.

  • Ken February 10, 2009 11:22 pm

    Hi - I typically fiddle with the fill light/black level/highlight recovery sliders in ACR myself, but I appreciate the slightly more formal treatment you've given them here.

    The technique you have outlined is a tool, an effect if you like. Sure, it shouldn't be over-applied, but I can absolutely see where it has its place if you're going for a particular look or result. It amuses me to no end that so many people consider themselves to be in possession of facts ("this is terrible!") when of course they are nothing more than opinions (I'm quite willing to accept the same person saying "I think this is terrible!" but I'd still like to know why they think that).

    Keep up the good work.

  • Ernie Hatt February 10, 2009 10:20 am

    Ken, thanks for this tutorial, regardless of the knockers, this has potential, I tried it on a couple of jpg's, and with a little time and effort one can come up with some excellent results. Keep them coming. Ernie

  • themisfit February 10, 2009 09:31 am

    It has an almost animated feel to it.

  • Ken February 10, 2009 05:45 am

    Thank you all for reading the tutorial. It's obviously not for everyone, e.g. photo "purists" or serious photogs. I just don't consider myself serious, at anything. Like Picasso said: "Ah, good taste--What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness."

    Writing, or teaching, always teaches me so much. That's why I really welcome constructive criticism.

    Other kinds, well, I hope at the very least you came away learning what you do NOT want to do, photographically!


  • johnny February 9, 2009 11:40 pm

    It's so unnatural. I don't like it. I don't think that's the point of post processing.

  • Hans February 9, 2009 11:36 pm

    I use Digital Photo Professional, it's a free program from Canon and it includes ACR.
    It also adds a lot more like picture styles, noise reduction and simple adjustments.
    Best thing is, it's a great free tool to baych-process your RAW-images.

  • cLugraphy February 9, 2009 09:58 pm

    intresting tutorial thanks for sharing.

  • Fletch February 9, 2009 09:29 pm

    I love RAW and ACR is the best. The flexibility in difficult lighting comparisions is fantastic.

    I did a comparison between ACR and in camera JPEG conversion, with the same image processed both ways and displayed side by side. The effect is quite astounding. See it here.


  • Roy Lister February 9, 2009 09:28 pm

    Ken, there is an effort to standardize the Raw format. Adobe developed the DNG open source format, which some camera manufacturer's have adopted, and eventually the others will follow or fade out of existance.

    And the Spelling is Raw, not RAW or raw. It is a Noun so starts with a capital, it is not an acronym so should not be referenced as RAW.

    And as for some others comenting that this tutorial does not work, or produces lousy results. It amazes me how many people expect someone to write a tutorial that will then allow them to do exactly the same thing to an image of their choice. The settings would be different, maybe the image is not suited to what is being described. The whole idea of the tutorial is to give you something to think about and play with, and also show you tools that you may not have used before so that you can adapt them to your needs.

    So, to photoguy and Alessandro Casagli, your comments suck!!

  • Ken February 9, 2009 10:01 am

    Ringu, now you've got me chasing down instances of RAW/Raw/raw!!! Not only is the format far from standardized, but apparently the spelling isn't either. Adobe didn't invent the term, so I don't feel I need to go by what they do. However, other sources seem to use RAW, Raw, and raw. I spent a lot of time as a proofreader, so this is the sort of thing I love looking up (yeah, I'm a geek).

    You surely are correct, it isn't an acronym. IMO it should be raw. Just a plain old common noun.

    I think we should set the industry spelling standard here and now : )


  • Mikel February 9, 2009 08:06 am

    I have to say, that looks absolutely terrible. Its the typical technique I see new users applying to overall bland photos in the hopes of rescuing them. Very similar to the 'Dave Hill' craze which is finally, thank god, starting to die down, and the many horrendous HDR jobs I've seen as well. Though I'll admit I've also seen both techniques done very well, this is the exception vs the norm.

    Try this technique for something different indeed. Just know no one will take your work seriously, and some may avoid it like the plague.

  • critic February 9, 2009 07:06 am

    I think this looks reallly bad. First off, why would someone even want to reproduce that ridiculously fake effect? And in the end the picture's contrast is off the charts, it's sharp in all the wrong places and the colors look basically like you just cranked up the vibrance and saturation as far as possible. In my opinion, terrible technique that should be avoided by serious photographers at all costs.

  • lils February 9, 2009 06:55 am

    This is my kind of post :) I love ACR, it's so much easier to process images there. Including jpegs. One other feature I like is the saturation sliders that controls each color. It's on the 4th tab from the left, called HSL/Grayscale than the tab below to saturation...it's the funnest thing on there imo(well aside from bumping up blacks like this article mentioned).
    Great result!

  • LadyEdana February 9, 2009 06:44 am

    "Isn't very pleasing" is all in the eye of the beholder. Lots of people like the vibrant colors and depth that this technique produces. I've long been wondering how to achieve it, I'm very glad they showed it. I will say it's not for every photo, but I think they chose a wonderful photo to do it with.

  • Ringu February 9, 2009 06:17 am

    Nice. BTW, if you look at any Adobe software manual for either Photoshop or Lightroom it's spelled "Raw" and not "RAW." That's because Raw is not an acronym for anything.

  • hugh February 9, 2009 06:02 am

    RAW is the only way to go, but this technique's results aren't very pleasing.

  • Manal February 9, 2009 05:57 am

    Thanks for showing different outcomes when shooting in RAW. I use Paint Shop Pro X and it does not support RAW files so I cannot shoot in it. I am thinking of investing in Photoshop so I'll be able to shoot in RAW and have more freedom when editing my images. The images almost look like the have an HDR effect which is pretty cool!


  • Anthony February 9, 2009 05:03 am

    That was a pretty nice tutorial, thanks for explaining it all so well. I'm sure the algorithmic details are different but the results look similar to a tone-mapped RAW image (Photomatix/qtpfsgui and the like). Good point about the noise also, I've had a number of shots where the shadows had too little detail to restore without looking horrid.

  • Joaquín Windmüller February 9, 2009 04:32 am

    I did this same type of processing (sort of) to this picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joaquin_win/2855330742/ and got this really interesting results: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joaquin_win/2854649623/

    Since then I discovered the power of RAW and tend to use it all the time.

  • snargles February 9, 2009 04:08 am

    Very cool technique! Thank you!

  • Julieanne February 9, 2009 03:17 am

    Looks really nice, I'll try this next time when using CS3.

  • Alessandro Casagli February 9, 2009 02:26 am

    FAIL! totally OVERprocessed image..

  • photoguy February 9, 2009 01:56 am

    that is terrible tutorial sorry, not a good post photo technique to be doing.