After the Shoot, Part 2: Basic Image Adjustment in Adobe Camera RAW

This ongoing series of articles covers what do you do after you have taken the picture with your digital camera. In this part we examine the basics of working with Adobe Camera RAW.
For many photographers Adobe Camera RAW is an essential part of their workflow if they shoot RAW and use Photoshop. Let’s look at one way (there are so many) to work with ACR.

I typically open my images into ACR from Bridge, using it to browse images in a folder to determine what I want to work on.  If you double-click on a thumbnail of a RAW file (NEF, CR2, etc) or right-click and choose Open in Photoshop it will come up in ACR for you to adjust before it gets passed to Photoshop.

Adobe Camera RAW

The Workflow Options (middle bottom link) allow you to control how the image will be passed to Photoshop. You can choose 8 or 16 bit per channel, pixels per inch and the resolution of the image. Setting the PPI here saves you one step and changing the size of the image likewise.

Adobe Camera RAW

Adobe camera RAW resizing an image
At top left you have a pretty full set of manipulation tools. From left to right these are:

  • Zoom
  • Pan around
  • White balance tool
  • Color sampler point tool
  • Crop
  • Level (to level horizons, etc
  • Red eye removal
  • Preferences
  • Rotate anti clockwise 90 degrees
  • Rotate clockwise 90 degrees

How you use these will very much depend on you individual photography and the way you like to work in Photoshop itself.  For me I like the Level, Crop and Red eye tools. I prefer to do other work, like retouching, in Photoshop.

To the immediate left of the histogram are the preview toggle and the full screen mode toggle. Working in full screen mode is generally useful in ACR. The preview toggle is extremely useful in judging whether your adjustments are improving the image or not. I will often toggle the adjustments on and off to see if I am improving the image or not.

In the top corners of the histogram are the highlight and shadow clipping toggles. You use these to turn the highlighting in the preview window of highlight and shadow clipping warnings. When on, highlight clipping is shown in red and shadow clipping in blue. I always leave these on.

Beneath the histogram is a tabbed panel that offers:

  • Basic
  • Tone Curve
  • Detail
  • HSL/Greyscale
  • Split toning
  • Lens corrections
  • Camera calibration
  • Presets

panels for a variety of options.

Now we come to the basic adjustments. It is rare for me to use more than the Basic tab in ACR as I prefer to do the rest in Photoshop, but we will cover those later. The histogram and the preview of the image serve as your guide here. You may wish to go to full screen mode to get as large a preview as possible; it does help. The Basic panel is effectively divided into three sections: basic color, exposure and color enhancement.

The top section is used to adjust the white balance from what the camera gave you. There are preset values accessed from the drop down menu that defaults to As Shot, you can manually adjust the two sliders or you can use the white balance tool to select a neutral part of the image. All three approaches are valid: you just need to work with the one or combination that gives you the image you want. Remember that is most photography color balance is quite a subjective thing. Some will like an image warmer, some cooler. Where it becomes a particular issue is in product photography and, to a less extent, portraiture (where some personal interpretation is usually fine).

The predefined settings, such as daylight or tungsten will roughly correspond to these options on your camera and I find server as a good starting point that gets me close to what I am after. Likewise the white balance tool, if you have a nice, neutral area in the image, will also get you close. Further adjustment can be made with the sliders.

Temperature effectively moves you between warm and cool. Tint adjusts the image along a green-magenta axis. Between the two you can tweak the image exactly.

My approach is to use either the white balance tool (when there is a neutral point in the image) or the presets to get me close to a neutral color balance. Then I use the sliders to bump it as desired. Generally I find this mostly entails just the Temperature slider to give an overall warmer or cooler balance to the image. Localized warming and cooling I do in Photoshop.
Adobe Camera RAW

In the case of this image the color temperature is probably about right for how it actually looked. We could warm the image up a little bit though by choosing Shadow.
Adobe Camera RAW

With this image of my wife and myself, shot by our daughter, using the White Balance tool on the black jacket is all that is needed.
Adobe Camera RAW

After white balance, getting the exposure adjusted is the next step. As you can see in this image, the default settings leave large areas of over exposed highlights but the histogram is pretty right in shape and coverage.
Adobe Camera RAW

Clicking Auto goes a long way to improving the image, and is always something I try to see whether the Default or Auto setting gives me the best starting point. In fact I toggle back and forth between these to see how ACR would evaluate the image.
Adobe Camera RAW

The six exposure-related sliders work in interesting combinations of ways.

Exposure moves the entire histogram up or down. I use it to set my white point, in other words to set the brightest part of the image.
Adobe Camera RAW

Recovery allows you to recover blocked up highlights without moving the rest of the histogram too far down the exposure range.
Adobe Camera RAW

Fill Light is Recovery for the shadows and, like Recovery, won’t tend to burn out your highlights.
Adobe Camera RAW

Blacks is used to set your black point.
Adobe Camera RAW

My approach is to use Exposure to set the white point, then Black to set the black point and then use Recovery or Fill Light if I need to get back detail in any of these areas.

Brightness acts like the Gamma (middle) slider on the Photoshop
Levels control and Contrast increases the steepness of the tone curve in the mid tones. I rarely use these, though I sometimes use Brightness when I need more than I can get with Exposure. Instead of contrast I prefer to use the Tone Curve.

All of the above you can do in Photoshop, if you prefer. It is largely a personal decision about how much you do in ACR and how much in PS. I tend to do this in ACR as it means I have the best image I can going into PS and then can concentrate on local adjustments.

Next article in the series: RAW vs. JPEG

The first article was: Import

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