As you gain experience with digital photography, you will soon encounter the RAW vs jpeg debate. The truth is that there is no one right answer that fits every photographer. We’ll take a brief look at RAW vs jpeg, and then go on to look at how to make Photoshop RAW adjustments. If any of the points in the discussion are not clear, take this course for understanding the fundamentals of photography.
RAW Pros and Cons
When you capture a digital image, the sensor records the light levels as data. This data is a record of how much light hit the sensor at each pixel location. If you are shooting jpegs, this data is then processed based on settings in your camera and saved to the card. A RAW capture simply saves the original data without any processing in camera. You can think of it as the original, “uncooked” data from the sensor.
The immediate drawback to RAW is that it is not really a picture yet. It will need some processing and conversion to a jpeg or tiff before anyone else can view it. If you shoot jpegs, then they can be shared right from the camera without taking any further steps. Many good event and portrait photographers shoot jpegs. They are masters of exposure and their niche requires fast turnaround that would be impeded by an extra processing step.
There are, of course, some strong advantages. We all should strive to make the best exposure and white balance choices on every shot. However, as careful or good as we may be, there will be times when action is too fast for metering to respond, or to manually change settings. Some shots just don’t wait. In those cases perhaps we don’t have the best capture we would have liked. You can improve your exposures with this course on exposure in digital photography.
By using RAW, we can use post-capture processing to recover from some problems. You can recover up to 2 stops of over or under exposure in some cases. In-camera jpegs have “cooked” that extra information out of the data and it is gone, not able to be recovered.
With RAW, you can correct white balance mistakes as a setting, rather than actually changing picture data. The actual color adjustment is harder with jpeg; with RAW, it is a simple settings change. Again, the RAW has left you with more data to work with later. Learn about white balance in this article on getting started with a DSLR camera.
Beyond the ability to correct exposure problems, RAW preserves your options by preserving data. It gives you the opportunity to get the most out of your capture. It is especially useful to those who do a lot of creative post-processing, such as fine-art printers. Explore the world of fine art photography in this course.
Guide to Photoshop RAW Adjustments
When you open a RAW exposure in Photoshop, you will see the image histogram and a set of sliders. You can tackle the sliders in any order. We will cover them from top to bottom here.
First up is Exposure. This will adjust the overall lightness or darkness of the photo, similar to making exposure adjustments on the camera. The Exposure slider will work more on the midtones of the pictures and will not move the extreme lights or darks too much.
Next comes Contrast. This will affect the difference between the brights and darks in an image. It is an overall adjustment. Some photographers find that the next 4 sliders offer finer control of contrast, and this slider is often not used.
The next slider is Highlights. This slider will affect the brighter half of the histogram, but not the extreme bright pixels (that comes later with Whites). This allows you emphasize or de-emphasize the brighter pixels, as you choose. Sometimes a slight darkening of this area will bring out some detail that was lost to excessive brightness.
Just below this is Shadows. This slider works on the darker half of the photo, leaving out the extreme darkest pixels. You can use this to either show or hide detail in the darker areas of the image. It might seem counter-intuitive to hide detail, but darkening the shadows can increase the contrast of the image, which is often a good thing.
Next up is the Whites slider. This works on the extreme bright pixels. You can use this to set the white point, making the brightest pixels in the image white. It is possible to overdo it with this slider. There is a feature to prevent this which is discussed below. Always use the image as a guide to how your adjustments are working, not a rote observation of the histogram.
The last of the tonality sliders is Blacks. This will set the darkest pixels in the image. Often, the single best adjustment to make to an image is to set the black point, with the darkest pixels at or close to pure black. This sets a base from which the colors can show. It often has a big effect on how the colors look.
All of the previously mentioned sliders feature an ability to detect whether darks or lights have gotten clipped, or pushed beyond pure black or pure white. This is done by holding the Option key on Macintosh or the Alt key on Windows. You will see a mostly blank display, and as you move the slider toward either end, you will see pixels light up on the display, indicating that these have become clipped. You can use this to guard against overuse of the slider.
The remaining set of sliders are more oriented to color and overall adjustments. The first of these is Clarity. This affects the contrast of pixels on a small scale, and is often called a micro-contrast adjustment.
Just below that is Vibrance. This slider affects the saturation of colors, but just for colors that have low saturation. Often a digital capture will not quite get the saturation right, and this slider is a good way to fix the problem.
The last slider is Saturation. This will change the saturation of all colors. It has the danger of making already highly-saturated colors become too garish and unrealistic. It is best used sparingly.
So there you have it. This should get you well on your way to making great Photoshop RAW adjustments. Now expand your horizons with this course on photoshop skills.