Basic Raw Workflow in Photoshop

Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

www.ronbigelow.com

Photoshop CS or Photoshop CS2 Used in this Tutorial

Despite the advantages that the raw format offers, many photographers stay away from the format. This is especially true for photographers that are new to digital photography. They may have heard that the raw workflow is difficult, complicated, and time consuming. However, as mentioned in my article on "Why Raw", raw workflows can vary from the incredibly simple and quick to the incredibly complex and time consuming. It is all up to the photographer. For example, I have worked on raw images that took me thirty seconds, and I have worked on raw images that took me thirty hours (if you think that is unreasonable, think of how much time Ansel Adams put into his prints). Things need to be kept in perspective. Long complicated raw workflows are used by experienced photographers that wish to create something special (such as fine art prints), and they (like Ansel Adams) are willing to invest the time necessary to achieve their purposes.

Raw workflows can be simple, quick, and easy. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate such a workflow. It is important to understand the purpose of such a workflow. This workflow is good when a photographer wants to create a small to medium sized print with good (but not maximum) quality. Some examples of where this workflow would be appropriate are: family shots, vacation shots, hobby photos, shots for use on the web, and many business applications (e.g., for use in a brochure). This workflow would not be appropriate in those situations where the image is going to be enlarged to the maximum limits of the image or where maximum quality is mandatory (e.g., fine art prints displayed in a professional gallery). In short, this workflow, and others like it, works fine for many photographers in many situations. After all, for every photographer out there who intends to shoot an image for display in a major New York gallery, or for use in National Geographic, there are a ton of us who shoot for less demanding purposes.

This raw workflow will use Camera Raw for the raw converter and Photoshop as the image editing software. These are two of the most commonly used tools for raw workflow and are owned by a large number of serious amateur and professional photographers.

The image selected for this editing session is a raw file that I shot of a Green Mojave Rattlesnake. I unexpectedly encountered this creature late one afternoon, slightly before dusk, while hiking alone in an isolated canyon near Sedona, AZ. Luckily, the rattler gave enough warning that I was able to stop before I got into striking range.

One caveat needs to be mentioned. This image was edited on a high quality, color calibrated, 19" monitor. Even though most of the editing adjustments were relatively small, the effects of the editing are clearly visible on this monitor. However, the images have been greatly reduced in quality and size for use on this web site. This reduces the ability of the viewer to see the full impact of the changes. In addition, the quality of the monitor used to view this article will have a huge impact on the ability to see the editing changes -- the better the monitor, the more the effects of the editing will be seen. Poorer quality or older monitors may not clearly show the effects of the editing.

General Workflow

This process will start with a raw file. Certain adjustments will be set in the raw converter. A 12 bit conversion will be performed and the file will be opened in Photoshop for final editing, interpolation, sharpening, and saving.

Adjustments

In performing a basic raw workflow, the primary areas for consideration are:

Now, a novice might look at this list and be concerned that there are several items that must be dealt with in this raw process. Let me assure you that each of these items is quick and easy to set. Once a person has done a few of these, the entire process should take all of about two minutes (assuming the computer is reasonably quick).

For this simple raw workflow, the exposure and color is set in the raw converter; all other adjustments will be done in Photoshop. Table I shows where the editing is performed in this workflow.

Table 1: Editing Choices
EDITING WHERE PERFORMED COMMENTS
Exposure Camera Raw Performed in Camera Raw with the exposure adjustment.
Color Camera Raw Performed in Camera Raw with the temperature and tint adjustments.
Black and White Points Photoshop Performed in Photoshop with the levels tool.
Contrast Photoshop Performed in Photoshop with the curves tool.
Saturation Photoshop Performed in Photoshop with the Hue/Saturation tool.
Interpolation Photoshop Interpolation is done in Photoshop just before sharpening.
Sharpening Photoshop The last step in Photoshop before printing/saving.

Workflow

A general rule for editing is to address the biggest problems first. If no particular problem stands out, I generally perform the editing in the sequence shown in Table I.

Camera Raw is opened by clicking on the selected image in the browser. Figure 1 shows what the image looks like displayed in Camera Raw before any adjustments.

Figure 1: Camera Raw Before Settings

A quick analysis indicates that the following edits need to be made.

Figure 2: Bit Depth and Color Space (Cropped from Camera Raw)
Before the editing begins, a couple of settings need to be made. This image is being prepared for printing; therefore, the image will be converted into the Adobe RGB color space. This is done by setting the Space setting to Adobe RGB (1998). To create the highest quality print, the image needs to be converted as 16 bits. This is done by setting the Depth setting to 16 Bits/Channel. Figure 2 shows these settings in a crop from Camera Raw.
Figure 3: Adjust Menu (Cropped from Camera Raw)

Exposure: The exposure on this image was maximized in order to get the highest quality image (see my article Digital Exposure). Therefore, the exposure needs to be reduced a bit in the converter to bring the image back to the light level that existed at the time the photo was taken. Figure 3 shows the adjust menu in Camera Raw. The exposure has been decreased a small amount by moving the exposure slider to a setting of -0.40.

Color: I distinctly remember the color of this snake's skin having a bit more of a greenish tint (believe me, when you almost walk into one of these Mojave Green's, it leaves a fairly strong impression in your mind). The soil had more of a reddish tint. The way the image appears with no adjustments, it has a bit of a blue cast. Therefore, the color needs to be adjusted with the temperature and tint adjustments. Moving the temperature slider to a setting of 5650 warms the image somewhat. Some experimentation with the tint adjustment shows that a setting of +8 brings back a good balance between the tint of the snake's skin and the red soil. The rest of the settings in the raw converter will be left alone. Figure 4 shows the final Camera Raw settings.

Figure 4: Camera Raw After Settings
Figure 5: Image after Conversion
Clicking the OK button starts the conversion. Figure 5 shows the image after conversion.
Figure 6: Levels

Black and White Points: The black point sets the point at which the image is pure black (no detail in a channel). The white point sets the point at which the image is pure white (no detail in a channel). The black and white points look pretty good in this image, but they should be checked just to make sure.

The black and white points will be set in the Levels tool (see Figure 6). The levels tool is opened by selecting Layers/New Adjustment Layers/Levels. The black input slider is the small black triangle at the bottom of the histogram on the left. The black input slider sets the black point. Moving it to the right causes more of the darker tones to shift to pure black (e.g., moving the black input slider to a setting of 12 would make all of the shades between 1 and 12 map to 0). Holding down the Alt key (Option key on a Mac) and moving the black input slider makes the image turn white except for those pixels that have been clipped. Those pixels that show a color have been clipped in one or two color channels. Those pixels that show black have been clipped in all three channels.

For most images, with a full range of tones, it is best to move the black input slider to the right until it just begins to clip some detail and then back the slider off just a bit so that nothing is clipped except for those areas that should be pure black. For this image, holding down the Alt key and moving the black input slider shows that moving the slider to the right, even a small amount, would cause clipping of detail in the snake's skin. Therefore the slider will be left in its leftmost position.

The white input slider is the small white triangle at the bottom of the histogram on the right. The white input slider sets the white point. Moving it to the left causes more of the lighter tones to shift to pure white (e.g., moving the white input slider to a setting of 245 would make all of the shades between 245 and 254 map to 255). Holding down the Alt key and moving the white input slider makes the image turn black except for those pixels that have been clipped. Those pixels that show a color have been clipped in one or two color channels. Those pixels that show white have been clipped in all three channels.

For most images, with a full range of tones, it is best to move the white input slider to the left until it just begins to clip some detail and then back the slider off just a bit so that nothing is clipped except for those areas that should be pure white. For this image, holding down the Alt key and moving the white input slider shows that the slider can be moved to the left a little before clipping occurs. However, this image has no pure whites in it. Neither the snakeskin, the soil, nor the blades of grass have any pure whites. Therefore, to remain faithful to the scene, the print should not have any pure whites in it. Some experimentation with the white slider shows that leaving it in the rightmost position creates the best tonal balance. Consequently, as originally suspected, this image does not need any black point or white point adjustment. Clicking the Cancel button will cancel the levels tool.

Figure 7: Curves before Adjustments

Contrast: The contrast will be set in the Curves tool. The curves tool is opened by selecting Layers/New Adjustment Layers/Curves. Figure 7 shows the curves tool before any adjustments have been made. The bottom axis shows the value of the tones before adjustment. The vertical axis shows the value of the tones after adjustment. Clicking on the diagonal line sets a point on the line. This point can then be moved around to change the tonal distribution of the image. Moving the point up lightens the image at that point (as well as at other points depending on the curve that is created). Pulling the curve down darkens the image at that point (as well as at other points depending on the curve that is created). The Input box in the lower left of the Curves tool shows the tonal value of the selected point before adjustment. The Output box shows the tonal value of the selected point after adjustment.

Figure 8: Curves after Adjustments
Figure 8 shows the Curves tool after the adjustments were made for the snake image. An S curve was used to add some additional contrast. Two points were added to the line. The first point was added at the center of the line to anchor it (this point did not change any tones). A second point was added on the lower left of the line. This point was used to add the contrast. By pulling this point down a small amount, the dark tones got even darker. The input box shows that, at this point, the tone was originally at 68. The Output box shows that the tone is at 52 after adjustment. On the other hand. It can be seen that pulling the second point down has caused the curve to the right of the mid point to move up slightly. This will cause the lighter tones to become slightly lighter. So, the dark tones got a bit darker and the light tones got a bit lighter; thus, the contrast has been increased. Clicking the OK button closes the curves menu and adds it to the layer menu (assuming that the layer menu is open). Figure 9 shows the image after Curves.
Figure 9: Image after Curves
Figure 10: Hue/Saturation after adjustments
Saturation: The saturation is set in the Hue/Saturation tool. The Hue/Saturation tool is opened by selecting Layers/New Adjustment Layers/Hue/Saturation. The Hue/Saturation tool has three sliders (on the Master menu; several others on the menus for the individual channels). This image requires only a small increase in saturation. So only the Saturation slider will be adjusted. Moving the saturation slider to a setting of +8 (as shown in Figure 10) produces the desired saturation. Clicking the OK button closes the menu and adds it to the layer menu. Figure 11 shows the image after saturation adjustment.
Figure 11: Image after Hue/Saturation

The image is now ready to be sized and sharpened for printing.

Interpolation: A 10.5" X 7" print will be made at 300 DPI. The tool that will be used is the Image Size tool, which is opened by selecting Image/Image Size. The settings are set as follows (shown in Figure 12):

Figure 12: Image Size Tool after Adjustments

Clicking the OK button closes the menu and starts the interpolation.

Sharpening: The sharpening will be done with the Unsharp Mask tool. The Unsharp Mask tool is opened by selecting Filter/Sharpen/Unsharp Mask.

Unsharp mask makes it appear that the image sharpness has increased. In reality, Unsharp mask doesn't actually increase the sharpness. What it does is increase the contrast between pixels that have considerably different tones (i.e., along edges). Unsharp Mask has three settings (1) Amount: sets how much sharpening is done, (2): Radius: sets the width of the sharpening along the edges, and (3) Threshold: sets how far apart adjacent pixels have to be in tonal value before Unsharp Mask will sharpen them.

Figure 13: Unsharp Mask Tool After Adjustments

The settings for Unsharp Mask vary from image to image. For the snake image, the following settings were used (see Figure 13):

The final image can be seen in Figure 14.

Figure 14: Final Image

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