How To Process A RAW File
A step-by-step approach to getting the most from a RAW image file
The brightness or darkness of a photo and its contrast have a great impact on how it's perceived by a viewer. Color obviously also has a big effect, but I find it better to start with tonal adjustments unless there are color problems. Here's how to work the tonalities in an image:
1. Highlights. Under the Adjust tab, hold down the Alt or Option key and click on the slider for Exposure. As you move the slider, the bright or colored areas represent highlights. The white is pure white with no detail. Move the Exposure slider to the right to increase bright areas, left to decrease. Click on and off or toggle the Alt/Option key on and off to see how these areas relate to the whole image. This is subjective, but generally you want at least part of your subject bright in most photos.
2. Shadows. Hold down the Alt or Option key and click on the slider for Shadows. Move the Shadows slider to the right to increase dark areas, left to decrease. The black or colored areas represent shadows—the black is pure black with no detail. Again, try clicking on and off or toggling the Alt/Option key on and off to see how these areas relate to the whole image.
3. Midtones. Making the highlight and shadow adjustments usually will make the image too bright or dark overall, even though the shadows and highlights are right. To correct this, move the Brightness slider right or left. This adjustment is even more subjective than the others and is totally a matter of taste. Use a calibrated monitor for best results. A brighter image will let you see more details, but it can lose some of the drama of a darker photo. Don't hold down any keys for this adjustment, however. It also can be useful to try the auto setting here.
4. Midtones 2. If you have Camera Raw from Photoshop CS2, you'll notice a new tab, Curve. This is an excellent tool to deal with midtones, with much more control than Brightness. Under Curve, Tone Curve works the same as Curves in Photoshop ("tone curve" is probably a better name for the latter, but two names for the same thing is confusing), but it comes with some premade adjustments (click on the drop-down menu). You can use the premade adjustments, tweak them or do everything yourself by clicking and dragging points on the curve.
5. Contrast. Back under the first tab of adjustments, you'll see this slider. It affects the overall contrast of the image, but is a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. You gain better control of the contrast by separately adjusting the highlights, shadows and midtones. Most of the time, you can leave it at its default.
6. Compare. It helps to see how the image has changed from how it came into the program. Go to Settings and click Camera Raw Defaults in the drop-down menu to see how the image originally looked, then back to Image Settings to see it now. If you find you've lost something in comparing the two, readjust the image. You can reset the whole thing by holding down the Alt/Option key and clicking on the button that now says Reset at the lower right.