Capturing digital photos in RAW mode provides a variety of benefits, such as the ability to fine-tune color temperature after capture, greater exposure latitude than JPEG capture and the opportunity to work with high-bit data. Despite these benefits, many photographers opt for JPEG capture because RAW is perceived as being overly complicated. The truth is, the latest software tools make a RAW workflow easy. The key is to become familiar with the basics so you’ll be able to process your RAW image files with confidence. In most cases, working with RAW is simply a matter of opening it in your image-optimization software. This will enable you to access a wide variety of controls for optimizing the image in the conversion process.
Optimize Color Temperature
While digital cameras generally do a good job of evaluating the color of light illuminating a subject and compensating to give accurate color, sometimes you’ll need to provide a little bit of help. Most RAW conversion software provides preset options that mimic those found on your digital camera such as Daylight, Cloudy and Tungsten. That’s a good start, but you can achieve a better result with a manual adjustment. This is accomplished primarily with a Temperature adjustment that allows you to shift the color of your image between blue and yellow. Think of this adjustment as being both corrective and creative, and make an adjustment that produces the most pleasing result. You also may have a Tint slider available that provides a shift between green and magenta, and is more corrective in nature generally (and, therefore, calls for a modest adjustment).
Maximize Tonal Range
Maximizing the distribution of tonal values in the RAW conversion will help ensure you have the maximum amount of information and detail in the image as you begin optimizing the resulting image. This involves adjusting the white and black points for the image so the brightest pixels are rendered nearly white and the darkest pixels are rendered near black. If you’re using Adobe Camera Raw, you can hold the Alt/Option key while adjusting Exposure and Blacks to enable the clipping preview display that shows where detail is being lost. Adjust both sliders to the point just before you start to lose detail. You also can focus your attention on the histogram display, adjusting the white and black points until the histogram stretches to the full width available without getting “cut off” at the edge of the display. Keep in mind that while most images will benefit from tonal range expansion, for scenes with particularly low contrast, you should prioritize the appearance of the image rather than the histogram.
Fine-Tune Overall Tonality
While the key priority is maximizing tonal range, it’s also helpful to produce a converted image that will require the minimum adjustments to look its best. The Color Temperature adjustments help ensure the color is optimized, but you may need additional refinements for the overall tonality. Stick to the Brightness adjustment that will allow you to optimize the overall tonality without undoing the tonal range expansion you’ve already applied. It’s best to avoid other adjustments for contrast, as those likely will serve to adversely affect the previous maximization of tonal range.
Apply Noise Reduction
The latest cameras do a remarkable job of combating noise, but when the capture requires a high ISO setting some noise is unavoidable. Fortunately, you can counteract noise to some extent in the RAW conversion process. You’ll have options for reducing both luminosity noise (represented by undesirable variations in tonality at the pixel level) and color noise (unwanted color variations). In both cases, you’ll want to use the minimum value that produces an acceptable result. Using an aggressive setting for reducing luminosity noise will reduce detail and perceived sharpness in the image, and excessive color noise reduction can cause colors to blend together or become less vibrant.
While we all want the sharpest images possible, generally it’s best to use a gentle touch when it comes to sharpening in the RAW conversion. Zoom in to a 100% scale for the image, and use just enough sharpening to compensate for a slightly soft appearance. Think of this as the point at which you ensure the image looks like it was captured in perfect focus, and not where you should apply aesthetic sharpening or final sharpening for a print.
Establish Output Settings
Once you’ve optimized the adjustments for your RAW capture, you’re ready to establish your output settings. If your image-editing software supports 16-bit-per-channel images, it’s a good idea to utilize that option for the conversion. Be aware that in many cases, however, 16-bit support is limited. For example, Adobe Photoshop Elements only supports adjustment layers for 8-bit-per-channel images. If your software offers limited (or no) 16-bit support, 8-bit might be your best choice. If a resolution setting is offered, be aware that this is merely a convenience setting and doesn’t impact the actual RAW conversion.
At this point, you’re ready to convert your RAW capture. Mostly, that simply involves choosing the option to open the image based on the settings you’ve applied. You also can save the image directly from most RAW software. In either case, ultimately you want to save the file in a format that enables you to retain the maximum amount of information. The TIFF file format is a safe bet, though you can use a proprietary file format such as the Photoshop PSD file format supported by Photoshop and Elements, as well. A JPEG isn’t the best choice at this point because as you make changes to the image in Photoshop and resave, the effects of the JPEG compression will be cumulative. After a few saves, your once-beautiful RAW file will show significant degradation. With the RAW capture converted, you’re ready to continue applying adjustments in Photoshop, Elements or your other software of choice to fully realize your photographic vision.
Tim Grey has authored over a dozen books on digital photography and imaging for photographers, including the best-selling Photoshop CS4 Workflow. He also publishes the Digital Darkroom Quarterly print newsletter and the Ask Tim Grey eNewsletter. Details are at www.timgrey.com.