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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.