Raw to Cooked with Adobe Camera Raw
Now that we've covered what RAW files are, it would probably be an opportune time to discuss what to do with them. Since every camera maker has their own proprietary raw version, they each also have their own software programs for converting them. Some programs do support a variety of raw formats though, and among them Adobe Camera Raw (included with both Photoshop CS and Elements 3.0) is the most well known.
Photoshop is smart enough to automatically open raw images using Adobe Camera Raw (often referred to simply as "ACR"). When it does, you are presented with the dialog shown here.
DNG files ("Digital Negative") will also open in Adobe Camera Raw.
If you don't see this window, you may need to check if you have another plug-in that is taking priority. Nikon shooters are definitely susceptible to this problem since Nikon Capture, Nikon View and now Picture Project can install a plug-in that steals control of the NEF file type.
The main portion of the window is filled with a preview of the selected image. A three-color histogram and most of the controls that affect how the image gets converted run down the right-hand side, with a few others are running along the bottom and lying elsewhere around the image. At first this may seem a bit overwhelming, but if we take things step-by-step, it can be surprisingly quick and simple to convert a typical image.
Let's start in the lower left. Here, you can select the bit depth, size and resolution you want along with the target color space. ACR gives you the option to keep the image the size it was shot or to upsize or downsize it during the conversion process. This is mainly just a convenience, but if you have a camera that uses non-square pixels (or have tested with images from your camera and like the results) you might want to upsize here at least part of the way. You can only choose from a list of pre-selected sizes so you will likely only be able to get in the ballpark size-wise. The resolution number you enter here only determines how the image pixels will be interpreted. It won't add or remove any pixels; to do that you'd need to change the Size option. The color space is the one that your image will be converted when it actually opens into Photoshop proper. It needn't be the same as you selected in your camera when you shot it since a raw image really doesn't have a color space until it is converted. The Elements version of ACR does not have this control so your image will use the as-shot color space. All of these settings are over in the bottom corner since you won't likely need to adjust them on every image. Once set, they can generally be left alone unless your needs change.
The main controls you need to use when working on an image all on the right-hand side of the screen in the Adjust tab. Adobe was thoughtful in laying this tab out as you can generally just go through these sliders in order.
First up are the White Balance settings. You can use the main dropdown list to get reasonably close. The choices here should look mostly familiar if you're used to the choices offered on your camera, but they likely won't match exactly. Remember, this list was made by Adobe, not Nikon or Canon. Underneath the dropdown list are sliders to give you more fine-grained control. Use the Temperature slider to control the orange to blue axis much as you would color conversion filters such as an 81A or 80C on a film camera. The Tint slider is much like the knob on your TV set with the same name and controls the green to purple color axis. For outdoor photographers, the Temperature slider will likely be all you need, but if you shoot under fluorescent lights you'll be thankful that Adobe provided the Tint control.
Especially when shooting at sunrise or sunset, you don't really want to neutralize some color casts. You were probably out shooting at that ungodly hour because you wanted that magic glow, so you can feel free to set the Temperature based only on how the image looks. If you do need to shoot for a specific target you can get close by keeping an eye on the histogram in the top right. As you move your mouse cursor over the image itself, you can also double check the RGB value of specific areas by using the RGB readout on the right-hand end of the bar directly underneath the image area.
Next up is the Exposure slider. This works very much like the White Point slider in Photoshop's own Levels dialog except that it operates on the raw data to afford you wider latitude of adjustment without degrading the image. Just as in Levels, you can hold down the Alt/Option key to check for potential clipping. When you hold down the key, the entire image should turn black. Any part that does show will be clipped in the color channel shown.
The Shadows slider underneath it functions similarly to the Black Point slider in Levels and is the next control you should adjust most of the time. Holding down the Alt/Option key will turn the entire image white. As you move the slider, any color that does show indicates areas that will be clipped on the shadow end. Given that shadows are supposed to be black, this may not matter as much as clipping on the highlight end (Exposure slider).
Next, move on to the Brightness slider. Unlike the menu option of the same name in Photoshop, this one is a useful adjustment. In fact, it works much the same as the middle (gray point) slider in Levels, allowing you to adjust the overall image brightness. After setting white point and black point with the Exposure and Shadows sliders, you can then use Brightness to restore the overall exposure of the image. Personally, I would have preferred that Adobe name these three controls White Point, Black Point and Mid Point to avoid confusion with the choices in Photoshop itself. But then they didn't ask me.
Generally, the Contrast and Saturation sliders at the bottom of the tab aren't needed. As with Brightness mentioned previously, Contrast here is not the same thing as the identically named menu option in Photoshop. Instead, it operates much as does adjusting Curves. It changes the midtone slope without affecting the two endpoints so it won't cause clipping at either end. Try sliding it back and forth while watching the histogram to get an idea of its effect. Saturation is pretty much self evident. Both of these are often able to be adjusted with greater control in Photoshop itself.
When you get to the bottom of the tab and you have things looking as you want, simply click on the OK button at the top and the image will be opened the rest of the way into Photoshop itself. If you really mess things up, click Reset instead and you can start over. Whatever settings you do have set when you click OK will be remembered and become the new default settings for this image if you open it in ACR later on.
We haven't looked at all the control Adobe put in the ACR window, and haven't even touched the Detail, Lens, and Calibrate tabs. What we have done is to walk though the most used sliders and controls, the ones you will likely use most often. After all, I have to leave myself something to write about in future weeks, now don't I?
When cooking in the kitchen, most people need a recipe to follow to one degree or another. After gaining experience, they may not rely on it so much, but at first, it can make the difference between dinner ending up on the table or being fit only for patching holes in shoe leather. OK, maybe I exaggerate, but developing raw images into cooked ones (so to speak) is no different. Hopefully I've given you a basic recipe here that will serve you well as you get started with Adobe Camera Raw.