What is Adobe Camera Raw?

If you are a serious photographer, shooting in RAW is already a part of your workflow. There is a huge advantage of shooting in RAW. There is much more image data in it. A JGEG image consists of 256 level of colors and tones whereas RAW contains 4,096 to up to 16,384 level of color and tones. So, when you are post processing in Photoshop in terms of pushing and pulling the levels of brightness, there are a lot more pixels to be pushed and pulled in a RAW photograph as compared to a standard JPEG photograph. To take the advantage of this article and just in case you do not shoot in RAW, I would recommend you reading the article on RAW published earlier – Why Shoot RAW?

ACR or Adobe Camera RAW plugin is a wonderful piece of software that lets you post process your RAW photographs in a non-destructive manner. The original RAW file remains intact and adjustments made to the RAW are written on to an additional file. So, you can recover the original photograph as and when required, unlike a JPEG in which changes are stored permanently unless you have made a backup elsewhere.

ACR can be invoked from Lightroom, Bridge, Photoshop etc. For this article we will use Adobe Photoshop to post process our photographs in ACR. Click File, click Open, browse to the specific folder and choose the RAW Photograph and click Open to load the RAW photograph in ACR. Let us explore some of the most important adjustments in ACR. At the time of writing this article, I have used ACR 8.0 that came inbuilt with Adobe Photoshop.

Photograph with any adjustment in ACR

Photograph after adjustments in ACR

Let us start with White Balance. White Balance is to get the colors in your Photographs as accurate as possible. Different sources of light create different color ‘casts’. White balance control helps you to make sure that things that are supposed to be white actually look white in your final image. You may have White balance in “Auto” or a predefined mode while shooting. You can recover the whites by adjusting the Temperature slider, either to the left or right. Pushing it to the left will make the photograph look Cooler and towards the right will make it Warmer. Additionally you can even use the White Balance Tool on the tool bar and select a white area on the photograph for the adjustment.

Exposure controls the Midtones of the photograph, which would affect the middle area of the Histogram (Histogram – Interpreting the Photography Graph). You can move the slider to the left or right to darken or brighten the photograph. The Exposure tool gives you the control of going up to +5 to -5 level of exposure even after the photograph has already been taken.

Highlights focus on adjusting the brighter part of the photograph. Generally dragging it to the left (negative) recovers the details in highlight zone. Although you may at times need to drag it to the right if the situation demands.  The Highlight slider does a fantastic job in getting the details back to the extent possible. The Shadows slider focus on recovering the details lost in the shadow zone. Generally you would push it to the right for detail recovery.

The Whites slider adjustment tool is complementary to the Highlight adjustment tool. If the detail recovered but pushing the highlights to the left seems low, you can still recover some more detail by pushing the slider on the Whites slider. The Blacks slider works on the same principal of Whites, except for it is a complementary adjustment tool for the Shadows adjustment tool. Activate the two small Triangles available just above the Histogram to get a reference to the zones which have Highlights and Shadows.

After the above adjustments we head over to the second adjustment tool Contrast. Contrast is the difference between the lights and darks. If there is a little contrast, the photograph will be flat. Generally turning up the contrast makes the subject stand out a bit from the background but not always. It is specific to the situational demand.

Next we move to the Clarity adjustment tool. It adds a punch to the photograph. Clarity has a similar functionality to Contrast; however, it works on the Midtones of the image rather than the entire image like Contrast. Vibrance boosts the saturation of your lower-saturated colors. It will not over saturate colors that are already bright. Saturation increases or decreases color intensity across all channels. Too much saturation will make your photos look artificial, while -100 saturation will remove all color. The saturation adjustment tool needs to be dealt with caution.

Photograph after Noise Reduction in ACR

Although there are several Tabs for adjustments, for now we will move to third Tab “Detail”. ACR has a brilliant built in tool for Noise correction.  To get an exact preview you must zoom into 100%. Push the Luminance slider to right and you will see a dramatic change in the noise levels. Play around with Luminance Detail, Luminance Contrast, Color and Color Detail till you have achieved the desired results.

Another brilliant tool available is Sharpening. You can play around with Amount, Radius, Detail and Masking till you achieve the expected results. One word of caution though, try to play around as minimal as possible for best results.

These were some of the important adjustments of ACR. Although there are plenty of more Tabs to explore for finer adjustments. We will cover them in detail later. The greatest advantage of shooting with RAW is, the original photograph is untouched. Hence with updated future release versions of ACR you have the opportunity to adjust the odd photograph for a better output.

Here are a few tips to get started with ACR:

  1. You can click the “Auto” link available in the “Basic” tab to get started and adjust the settings as per requirement to get a desired Histogram.
  2. You can always click the “Default” link to get back to undo any changes.
  3. Just in case you feel the adjustments are not correct even after clicking the “Default” link, browse to the folder using Windows Explorer and safely delete the associated “.xmp” file with the RAW.  You will safely get back the original RAW without any adjustments to it.