RAW Images in Photoshop

Use Photoshop's camera RAW plug-in to convert them

If you're serious about your photography, then sooner or later you will want to start working with RAW images. We've looked at the advantages and disadvantages of the RAW format previously, so now we'll look at how to work with RAW images in Photoshop. 

What is RAW?

The RAW format has a meaning that almost matches its name: A RAW format image is something that is unprocessed — in other words, raw. It also cannot be read by your computer. For your computer to be able to process the information, you need to convert your images from a RAW format, like NEF, CR2, or ARW to a readable format (such as TIFF or JPEG).

Use a Dedicated Imaging Program

All digital cameras come with their own software, which offers basic conversion tools. However, for the best results, you really need to be using a dedicated imaging program. One of the most popular of these is Adobe Photoshop, which many pro photographers use.

The full version is extremely expensive, but Adobe makes a cheaper version for enthusiasts called Adobe Photoshop Elements. Depending on which version you chose, you can expect to pay between $60 and $120 for this. There are other (free) photo-editing programs available, too, but here we will focus on Photoshop.

New versions of Elements ship with an internal program — "Bridge" for Mac users and "Organizer" for Windows users — that converts RAW images. The conversion program offers much more than just a simple conversion tool, though. You can make many alterations to your images, but it's sometimes difficult to know which tools to use, and how to get the best out of them.

Photographer with gear

 PeopleImages / Getty Images

Top Tips for Converting RAW Images in Photoshop Elements

  • One of the best features of the program is the ability to "batch" process images. This means that you can apply the same changes to multiple images and save them all together. Alternatively, you can work on single images. Once you're in the Adobe Camera Raw screen, you'll see the option to Select All on the left-hand side.
  • You don't need to open all of your images in the Camera Raw window. In Bridge or Organizer itself, you can select the images you want to convert and give them different star ratings. You'll find this in the drop-down Select menu.
  • Digital files, particularly from lower-priced DSLRs, often are a little soft. You can adjust your sharpness in Camera Raw, and it's best to increase it to around +50 while taking the radius down to around 0.6. This will sharpen the image subtly, without causing obvious grain.
  • You can correct the white balance in Camera Raw. This is a particularly useful setting if you've accidentally set the wrong white balance on your camera. You can also tweak your color temperature with a sliding bar to allow for minute adjustments. Again, this is very useful, particularly if you've been shooting in an environment with very strong artificial lighting.
  • When you're starting out with photography — and trying to get past simply using the Auto button — your exposure settings can sometimes be a little off. Fortunately, the Camera Raw window also has an exposure correction slider, allowing you to adjust your exposure in + and - degrees.
  • The Recovery and Fill Light slider bars are great tools. The Recovery slider bar helps to bring back details from slightly over-exposed areas, while the Fill Light brightens up under-exposed areas. You have to use them cautiously, as they apply slight changes to the whole image. Keep in mind that with over-exposed highlights, the Recovery slider can't bring back detail that is no longer there.
  • As in a traditional darkroom, you can adjust brightness and contrast in Photoshop. The Camera Raw window tends to make images look brighter than they appear in print, so only apply a little brightness here; then adjust further in Photoshop itself if needed.
  • Another brilliant feature is Camera Raw's ability to correct lens vignetting, which is a common problem on the edges of images produced by cheaper wide-angle lenses. Using this slider bar will reduce the vignetting significantly. However, the maximum setting we would recommend using with this tool is +30.
  • The histogram has the ability to show clippings on the main image of over-exposed and under-exposed areas. You can use this before and after alterations to the image to make sure you have as balanced a histogram as possible.
  • The white balance dropper tool, located on the top row of tools, allows for precise alterations in color balance. Click this on a white area in your photograph, and it will adjust the RGB levels accordingly.

Obviously, there are a million and one other things that Camera Raw can do, but these are the ones that will make the most improvements to your images as a photographer. The trick with photo editing software is to always apply subtle techniques so that your image is still believable as a photograph. 

Follow these tips, and hopefully, you won't go wrong!

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