Processing Images and RAW power




Taking a good photo is only one part of the photography process. An excellent image is often worked on in a digital darkroom to get the most out of the original image. Darkroom is not a new procedure, and although the technique is different with computers, the principals are the same as a chemical darkroom. One is not cheating when they process their images; they are merely continuing the steps of photography. You would not say a chef was cheating by putting his raw ingredients into an oven, you would expect it. The same goes for photography, getting the perfect image on the sensor is only half of the job.


RAW images contain a lot of information that is jettisoned from a JPEG image, and their processing power is remarkable. Think of JPEG as a printed image, and RAW as a negative. Whenever your camera takes an image in JPEG, it shoots a RAW image first. It then looks at your camera settings, either set by you, or by the camera's profile (landscape, portrait, sunset, etc.) and applies this criterion: white balance, sharpness, contrast, saturation, exposure, etc. The camera discards the additional information. In doing so, it gives you a JPEG image, roughly a third of the size. It provides you with an easily shareable and readable image by giving you the most widely used image file format. However, once that additional information is lost, it is impossible to get that information back. So editing a JPEG image means you have less power to create dynamic images.




I tried to take the original in-camera  JPEG and make it look presentable. As you can see from the image above, the after shot is better than the before image. However, there is still a lot that I could not do by starting with the JPEG. Firstly the original was shot with automatic white balance, and the result was less than perfect. My camera chose to make the white balance quite blue, so I spent a bit of time putting warmth back into the image. In RAW I could have just changed the white balance after the fact, but in JPEG, I have lost this information. The second major issue was the highlights. The sky retains no colour and no detail. There was very little I could do to remedy this.

Lightroom Process

To change the photo of Notre-Dame de Paris from a dull, lacklustre image into a vibrant, engaging image, there are a couple of different ways one can proceed. I will show examples of two here today, Adobe Lightroom, and then Adobe Photoshop CC. The following is my process of processing the image in Lightroom. Ultimately I used Photoshop CC, but thought I would start by explaining the Lightroom process and then move on to why I prefer to use Photoshop for these kinds of images and why the two are different.

Step 0 - Original Image
Nikon D7000 - AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED @ 48mm - f/4.3 - 1/320 - ISO100

Step 1 - White Balance

Step 2 - basic tone & presence

step 4 - radial filter

step 6 - final image

step 3 - lens corrections

step 5 - adjustment brush

masking problems

  1. Basic > White Balance - I changed the White Balance from Auto to Custom 4700K and brought the tint to +18
  2. Basic > Tone - Exposure up to +35, Contrast up to +20, Highlights down to -38, Shadows up to +38, Whites up to +17
    Basic > Presence - Clarity to to +30, Vibrance up to +20, Saturation up to +20
  3. Lens Corrections > Defringe - Purple amount 5, Purple Hue 30/71, Green amount 5, Green Hue 0/20
    Lens Corrections > Vignetting - Amount down to -15
  4. Radial Filter - Create a radial filter covering most of the image, but leaving exposed the bottom half at -1 exposure. This creates a nice vignetting darkness at the bottom of the screen.
  5. Adjustment Brush - This is probably the most important step. We create an Adjustment brush with the values Temperature -25, exposure -0.5, Contrast +33, Highlights -66, Shadows +100, Backs +20, Dehaze +70., Saturation +20 Using the Auto Mask I painted the entire sky. 
  6. We have our final image. I then export my JPEG image here.
  7. The problem with this method is in its most crucial step: the adjustment brush. We are creating a different set of rules that apply only to one segment of the image, leaving the rest untouched. This is the part that is restoring the sky and the details in the cloud. Unfortunately the auto mask element inside LR is not the best. You could try to come in and manually work on it, I prefer to use photoshop to nail this final element.


Photoshop Process

I have started from scratch in Photoshop CC. In the Camera Dialogue Box, I have entered the same values as I did in Lightroom for Steps 1 through 3. They are in different places, but they are all still there. From here I ended up opening the base image. I returned to the RAW image and entered values to work solely on the sky and clouds, then opened that image as well. 

step 1 - Base image adjustments

step 1 - Base image adjustments


step 2 - Sky Layer Image adjustments

step 3 - Layer Mask (Alpha view)

step 3 - Layer Mask (Alpha view)

step 3 - Layer Mask (Issolation viEw)

step 3 - Layer Mask (Issolation viEw)

Load both images into the same file as layers. With Photoshop CC's superior masking abilities, create a mask of the sky around the Church. I spent a bit of time here with the Magic Wand (which hilariously in French is called the Magic Baguette) or colour range and then using the Refine Edges tool. I applied the mask to the sky image and then revealed the base image below.

step 4 - Radial Layer Adjustment

step 4 - Radial Layer Adjustment

step 5 - Central Contrast adjustment

step 5 - Central Contrast adjustment

From here I  added my Radial filter, similar to the way I did in Lightroom before. Finally, I made a small layer adjustment where I increased the contrast and applied this to the centre of the image. Using the Photoshop method does involve more time and effort, but in the end it does create a final image with more precision, so I think it is worth the extra time. I do care about these little details, and I think the results prove themselves.



Some people prefer the version I made in Lightroom, others the Photoshop version. The point of this article was not to get into the tiny nitty gritty of it, but rather to act as an example of the kind of possibilities that Raw can offer. The incredible amount of post-processing power capable with a Raw image is league ahead of working with a Jpeg image. So why not flick the switch and make the change. 

Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley

Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.