Digital Image Enhancement With Adobe Camera Raw

FinalAdobe Camera Raw rocks! RAW shooters know that. But get this-the new version of Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop CS3 isn’t only for RAW shooters and wannabe RAW shooters who may have been intimidated by RAW image processing. This image enhancement tool is for all digital photographers, JPEG and TIFF shooters included. You see, the new Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), with all of its creative controls, actually lets you process JPEG and TIFF files, too. Who would have ever thought?
I don’t have room in this column to describe all of the cool features of the new ACR, so I thought I’d share with you just a few of my favorites—features you can use for a Quick Fix on some of your photographs. Let’s go!

Before1. The opening picture for this column started out looking like this—rather flat, among other drawbacks. Why? The file wasn’t yet processed. All RAW files need processing, just as film negatives need processing. That’s the first thing you need to know about shooting RAW files.

#22. The second thing you need to know, if you’re to process your files in Adobe Camera Raw, is how to navigate and use the new and improved dialog boxes. The options on the left are the same as in the previous version, but the stuff on the right is totally redesigned. Three new tabs have been added. Under the B (Basic) tab, the check boxes for Auto and Default in the previous version of ACR have been replaced with the option to click on the words Auto or Default (use Default if you want total control). There’s a new Vibrance slider, an impressive feature that I find better than Saturation. The new Recovery tool helps us recover overexposed highlights. And, well, there just isn’t enough room to look at all of the new features. But that’s a good start, and we’ve only talked about what’s under the B tab. So, let’s get on with enhancing my image of an iceberg that I photographed during an awesome adventure to Antarctica.

#33. Whenever I open an image in ACR, I have the Shadow and Highlight clipping warning boxes checked at the top of the window. That way, I can see if I’m going too far when I adjust the exposure, brightness, blacks and so on. Here you see the simulated effect (clipped highlights in red and clipped shadows in blue) of overdoing it, indicating a poor exposure.

#44. For most of my work, everything I want to do is accessed under the B tab.  The settings you see here are the ones I used for the opening picture. However, there are excellent tools under the other tabs, too. For example, I like to create black-and-white images. In ACR, I’ve found the best black-and-white conversion under the H (Hue/Saturation Grayscale) tab. You have eight tone sliders that give you a tremendous amount of control over the final image.

#5a#5b5. This is the effect of using the controls under the H tab (right, a darker, more vivid image) compared to the Convert to Grayscale check box under the B tab (left, a flat image).

#7 6. As long as we’re talking about image enhancement and RAW files, note that all RAW files need sharpening. So, you might think that sharpening in ACR is a good idea. Well, if you sharpen in ACR, you apply sharpening to the entire image. That’s seldom necessary. Take my iceberg image, for example. Why would I want to sharpen the sky and water? I only want to sharpen the ice. A new feature in CS3, Smart Filters, lets you do what I just described by applying the filter as if you’re using an adjustment layer and a layer mask.

#77. Two useful tools in ACR are found under the L (Lens Correction) tab. Chromatic Aberration reduces and can even eliminate red/cyan and blue/yellow fringes, which can occur when two strong colors meet in a scene. This happens most often with inexpensive, wide-angle lenses. In my Antarctica shot, taken with a Canon 28-105mm lens, there were no chromatic aberrations. Lens Vignetting is also a useful feature for reducing and eliminating vignetting, which can be caused by using the wrong-sized lens hood or by stacking filters. Here, I used Lens Vignetting to create the opposite effect, darkening the edges of the image—not a good idea for this image, but on a portrait or still life, it can enhance an image, drawing more attention to the main subject. Ansel Adams used this technique, as did some of the Renaissance painters.

#88. Another feature you can play with is the Tone Curve, found under the T (Tone Curve) tab. You’ll see the histogram for the image “behind” the curve line, making Curves easier to understand for new users of that tool. Here, you’ll find sliders for Highlights, Lights, Darks and Shadows. Ah, that’s the way Curves should be.

In closing, I’ll leave you with something I say at my workshops: RAW Rules!

Rick Sammon has published 27 books, including his latest: Idea to Image, Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photography 2.0, Rick Sammon’s Travel and Nature Photography and Rick Sammon’s Digital Imaging Workshops. Visit for more information and meet up with Rick at one of the PCPhoto/Outdoor Photographer workshops.


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