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Photography - Image Processing - RAW Files

I ignored RAW for two years. My bad. Now I shoot only RAW for better final control of white balance and exposure. Start shooting RAW and you will think you have a new camera!

What is RAW? - RAW is just what it implies, RAW data from your camera sensor before any image processing has been applied. As such it provides the greatest flexibility in photo editing before converting to a final file format. In particular you can make adjustments in white balance and exposure with a good RAW converter that you cannot make nearly as well once the RAW file has been converted to TIFF, JPEG, etc.

Note: RAW file formats include the data from the camera sensor and the data for the camera setting details for the picture i.e. EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) data.

  • When taking a JPEG picture, the camera applies the EXIF data to the camera sensor data in the camera to produce the JPEG file. While the EXIF data is also included in the JPEG file, you cannot use this data during photo editing to change the JPEG image as the processing was already done by the camera.
     
  • When taking a RAW picture picture, the camera sensor data and EXIF data are not combined in the camera. Thus, during photo editing of RAW files, you have the opportunity to apply any/all/none of the camera setting details e.g. white balance, exposure, brightness, contrast, sharpness, etc. to the RAW image.

Taking RAW Pictures - Taking RAW pictures is easy. Just select RAW as the record mode (5050 User Manual pages 125 - 126), (D70 User Manual pages 41 - 42).

When taking pictures in the RAW format, keep your histograms to the right, just short of overexposing the picture, to provide the most room for optimizing shadow detail. The reason for this recommendation is that digital cameras don't capture as much information on the left or shadow side of the histogram as they do on the right or highlight side. For a detailed explanation see Expose Right by Michael H. Reichmann.

Processing RAW Files - To process your pictures you need a RAW converter for your PC. In it's simplest form, a RAW converter allows you to open the RAW file on your PC and save it in a more universal file format e.g. TIFF, JPEG, etc.

But the real magic is done by RAW converters that allow you to photo edit the image as a RAW file before converting it to another file format e.g. adjust white balance and exposure before converting to TIFF, JPEG, etc.

  • Some converters allow you to edit a lot of parameters at the RAW level. Others offer more limited capabilities. That said; to fully utilize the potential of RAW, ALWAYS adjust the exposure and white balance using the RAW converter. NEVER adjust the sharpness if you plan to do additional processing in Photoshop or any other photo-editing program as sharpening should normally be done as the last step in editing. As for shadows, brightness, contrast, saturation, etc. you can make these adjustments using your RAW converter, or you can make these adjustments later with your favorite photo editor ... the choice is yours.
     
  • If you use either Adobe Photoshop or Elements, it's probably easier to learn to photo edit RAW than JPEG because the RAW tools available are limited but powerful. Thus there aren't many choices about what to do or even what order to do them in. In Adobe Photoshop RAW, just start at the top with White Balance, then Exposure, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation. Normally that just leaves me with Crop, Resize, Clone, and Sharpen to complete the editing. Point is, it's pretty much photo editing by the numbers ... at least it is for me.

    Note: When setting White Balance, in addition to picking around with the eye dropper, I try the auto selection. In many cases it does a better job than the eye dropper, particularly when there are no true gray objects in the picture. And even when it doesn't get me what I want, it sometimes gives me a better starting point than the as shot setting for twiddling with the sliders.
     

Monitor Calibration - If you plan to do a lot of editing and/or you are particular about how your pictures will look when printed or displayed on other monitors, you should calibrate your monitor. My favorite hardware/software combo for calibrating both CRT and LCD displays is the  ColorPlus version of the Spyder by ColorVision.

When using ColorVision there are two options you need to select. Per the manual and on screen prompts;

  • "Choose the Gamma to which you would like to calibrate. 1.8 is the standard for Mac and 2.2 is the standard for a PC. If you are not sure which to choose, select 2.2."
     
  • "Select the Color Temperature to which you would like to calibrate. 5000 is the traditional standard for print. 6500 is the preferred standard for PCs and digital imaging. If you are not sure which to choose, select 6500."

I use 2.2 and 6500 since most of what I publish is on the Internet and most of my audience is using PCs.

--- RECOMMENDED CONVERTERS ---

Photoshop CS RAW Plugin Converter
Olympus & Nikon & Others - Windows & Mac

The Photoshop CS RAW plugin converter is included with the Photoshop CS software. However, you may have to update the the plugin for newer camera models e.g. Nikon D70.

Using the Photoshop RAW Plugin converter is easy. First, open the RAW file in the Photoshop CS File Browser which opens the RAW file with the camera default settings applied. This way the picture is pretty good to start with and you can easily make adjustments from there. When you are finished making all the adjustments you can make with the converter and click "OK",  you can continue editing the file in Photoshop as you would any other file, or you can save the image as a lossless PSD or lossless TIFF file and work on it latter.

Note: When PS opens the RAW file it applies the camera default settings as a starting point. But unlike the camera applying these settings to create a JPG file, no changes have in fact been made to the RAW file. So, for example, if you don't like the way the white balance is, you can select different white or black points until the picture looks good to you.

Read the Manual - Read the PS CS Help section "Getting Images into Photoshop and ImageReady". It reads like a step by step "How To" manual and it describes some "hidden features" for Exposure and Shadows using the Alt Key in combination with the slider that are simply fantastic.

There are also tips on what to do with Sharpening i.e. turn it off (the default is on) if you plan to save the image as a TIFF or JPG and work on it further since sharpening should be the last step in image processing.

Read the Book - Bruce Fraser's "Camera RAW with Adobe Photoshop CS"  is an easy read and from it I learned some interesting things about Adobe Camera RAW.

  • Like if you save a copy of your RAW files from your hard drive to a CD/ DVD your edits will probably not be copied.
     
  • Like what order to use when adjusting white balance, exposure, etc. Hint, it's not necessarily in the order shown in the program.

Based on info like this, and more, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is uses Adobe Camera RAW. It's a cheap price to pay to get the most out of the RAW files you paid a small fortune to get.

Getting Started - My suggestion, shoot a few RAW pics top side and see how easy it is to use the RAW converter.

Photoshop Elements 3.0 RAW Plugin Converter
Olympus & Nikon & Others - Windows & Mac

The new 3.0 version of Photoshop Elements for Windows and Mac has almost the same functionality as that of Photoshop CS. In fact, it has everything in it that I have used to date with the exception of control over color space which may not be a problem for me or most folks as I can convert to sRGB latter if needed.

--- OTHER CONVERTERS ---

Most readers should stop here as the following converters are not nearly as good or appropriate as the Adobe offerings discussed above.

Nikon Capture 4 (Version 4.1)
Nikon Only - Windows & Mac

Nikon Capture 4 is a standalone program that can also be used as a Photoshop plugin. It contains a variety of tools for enhancing images, including brightness, contrast, color balance, unsharp mask adjustment, Digital DEE, and fisheye lens settings. With RAW (NEF) images, it can be used to adjust white balance and tone compensation, to reduce the effects of dust on the camera image sensor (Image Dust Off), and to correct for the slight darkening at the margins of an image (vignetting) particular to the field of view of a given lens.

I own this program but have not used it much as I find it too complicated to use as compared to the Photoshop CS RAW plugin converter. In particular the file browser is a strip instead of a light table and floating menus clutter up the workspace. That said, others say it is a more capable program than the PS RAW plugin converter. An additional advantage of this program is that it is a $99.00 standalone program that works in both Windows and Mac environments. So, for those of you who do not have the latest version of Photoshop CS or Elements 3.0 and/or prefer to use other photo editing software e.g. Paint Shop Pro, this is the least cost way to get RAW processing support for Nikon cameras.

Note: This program does not play nice with Photoshop CS, at least not for Windows systems. Specifically, if you install Nikon Capture on a Windows system with Photoshop CS installed, Nikon Capture will install plugin files for Photoshop CS that will will preempt the use of the Photoshop CS RAW plugin and may also crash Photoshop CS. To fix this problem, remove the Nikon NEF plugin, Nikon NEF Plugin.8Bi,  from the following directory or rename it Nikon NEF Plugin.x8Bi so that it is still there but not used.

C:drive>Program Files>Adobe>Adobe Photoshop CS>Plug Ins>Adobe Photoshop Only>File Formats

Then use Nikon Capture as a stand alone program and save the output files in TIFF format for final processing in Photoshop CS.

Corel RawShooter Essentials
Olympus & Nikon & Others - Windows Only

In February 2005, Corel announced the availability of  a free software download, RawShooter Essentials, which allows users to automatically import and batch process RAW files. During the RAW conversion process image adjustments such as color and exposure correction, sharpening and noise suppression can be made. The result is TIFF or JPEG files which can be opened in any software for final processing.

Read the manual - The program includes an easy to read 72 page users guide in PDF format.

ORF Suite Standalone Converter
Olympus 5050 Only - Windows Only

Orf Suite 1.26 works with 5050 RAW files but not 5060 RAW files and probably not for the other newer Olympus Models. It is a standalone Windows only program, not a plugin.  It has lots of features. More than I have time to explore right now. But on the surface, it looks like a good solution for someone who doesn't have Photoshop CS and  wants to start using their 5050 in RAW mode. And it's free.

Read the Manual - Read the help file (ORFDoc.htm) that is included in the zipped download. It's not an easy read. But it has info that you need to get meaningful results and not go crazy.

Olympus Converter
Olympus Only - Windows & Mac

You can get converters from the Olympus site that work as plug-ins for Windows and Mac for older versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements 2.0 (maybe 1.0 also). And they are free. That's the good news. The bad news. There is almost nothing you can do with the images in the RAW mode and therefore no reason to use it unless you happen to have some RAW files you have to convert to TIFF or JPEG.

To install the filter, copy it to the "Import-Export" folder inside of "Plug-ins". Then quit elements if it is running, restart it and the "Olympus RAW" should show up in the "Import" section of the File menu.

Paint Shop Pro 9.0
Olympus & Nikon & Others - Windows Only

In February 2005, Corel announced RawShooter Essentials that is intended as a front end RAW processor for Paint Shop Pro. So if you are a Paint Shop Pro user, you can stick with it by using RawShooter Essentials.

Additional Reading - RAW vs JPEG - A beginner article by James Wiseman at Wetpixel.com and The Mystery of RAW Converters by Eric Cheng at Wetpixel.com.
 

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