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What is Photoshop Camera Raw?



sample image with the processed RAW file
Harry Guinness

Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw is Adobe’s RAW image processing engine. It allows you to convert the RAW image files created with your camera into widely supported shareable usable JPGs. If that̵

7;s just a lot of jargon for you, let me explain.

RAW Photos Redux

iphone sample raw file
Even iPhones can now capture both RAW and JPG files.

If you take a picture with a digital camera, it will not see the world as a JPG. Instead, the sensor “sees” more data about the light levels and colors in the scene than can possibly be recorded as a single compressed image file.

If your smartphone or camera is set up to take JPGs, clicking that shutter button converts all that data into a small image file that you can send to your friends or post to Instagram, and everything is thrown away. not necessary. It still uses all the raw data to create the image, but you just can’t access it after that.

But what if you want all that photo information so you can use it when editing your images? Well, that’s where RAW photos come into play. Rather than creating usable but compressed JPGs, your camera stores a data file that contains all of the image information when you shoot RAW. You can’t upload it directly to social media, but you have a lot more leeway if you edit it.

Most camera manufacturers have their own specific RAW format. Canon, for example, is CRW and Nikon’s is NEF. However, Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) format is slowly becoming a recognized standard.

The biggest drawback to RAW files is that they have to be processed into more widely supported image formats (usually JPGs, sometimes TIFFs) before you can do much with them. When you create JPGs with your smartphone or camera, the device does all the editing for you. However, if you’re shooting RAW, you have to do it yourself – and that’s where Camera Raw comes in handy.

RELATED: What is Camera Raw and why would a professional prefer it over JPG?

Camera Raw is a digital darkroom

photo opened in Camera Raw

Adobe Camera Raw is the processing engine used by Adobe apps to edit and convert or develop RAW files. It is often referred to as a digital darkroom because it has the same role as a traditional darkroom in film photography: taking your raw negatives and making usable photos. It’s available as a plug-in in Photoshop and After Effects, can be accessed through Bridge, and is what’s running under the hood in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

edited photo in camera raw
Edits like this are nearly impossible to do with JPGs – that is, if you want something that looks good.

The advantage of using Camera Raw over, say, letting your smartphone do its thing is that you have the process under control. You can use all that extra data to perform nondestructive operations. Shadows a bit too dark? You have the image information to brighten them up. Highlights start to blow? You can fix that too.

And it’s not just the lights and dark colors that you can control, but also the color. With Camera Raw, you can completely reset white balance, or how blue or yellow the whole image appears. Resetting white balance with JPGs is not always a trivial task and can be difficult to get right.

If you are serious about taking great photos then this kind of editing control is essential.

Open photos in Camera Raw

Camera Raw is a plug-in built into Photoshop. If you open a RAW image (regardless of the manufacturer’s format) in Photoshop, it will start automatically.

In other words, to open Camera Raw, open a RAW file in Photoshop as you normally would. If Photoshop is already running, the easiest way is to go to File> Open, navigate to the RAW file you want to edit, then click “Open”.

open a photo in photoshop

If you’re using Lightroom CC or Lightroom Classic, all editing features in the Develop module are powered by Camera Raw. Just open your image in one of those apps and you are good to go. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the Photoshop plugin version.

Note: Camera Raw is also available as a Photoshop filter, so you can use the editing tools on your regular images. It won’t have the same power since there isn’t the same amount of data to work with, but you can do this by going to Filter> Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop.

open camera raw filter in photoshop

Editing images in Camera Raw

Camera Raw is a completely non-destructive image editing app. Most controls are in the form of sliders or drop-down menus. For example, there is a Exposure slider that you drag left and right to adjust the exposure of your image. The same goes for other more specific functions, such as clarity and texture.

The editing controls are split into nine sections:

  • Basic: All the tools needed to adjust the brightness, contrast and color of your image.
  • Curve: A histogram and curve tool similar to the Curves adjustment layer in Photoshop.
  • Detail: Tools for sharpening and noise reduction.
  • Color mixer: Sliders to control how colors are displayed in color images, or to control how different colors are converted to different shades of black and gray in black and white images.
  • Color correction: These tools allow you to creatively adjust the overall colors in your image.
  • Optics: Correct or minimize optical distortion and aberration, either automatically (using Adobe’s lenses database) or with manual tools.
  • Geometry: Correct for problems with perspective and camera angle.
  • Effects: Add image grain or a vignette.
  • Calibration: Advanced controls for handling how Camera Raw interprets the data in the RAW file.

editing tools in Camera Raw

There are also tools in the right sidebar that allow you to:

  • Crop your image.
  • Remove small spots and imperfections.
  • Apply various other edits to specific areas of your image by using a brush, a graduated filter, or a radial filter.

As you can see, Camera Raw gives you a tremendous amount of control over how exactly the data in your RAW file is interpreted. While it is part of Photoshop, it is rare to have to use regular Photoshop tools to make adjustments when processing your files in Camera Raw.

How to Save Photos from Camera Raw

Camera Raw is a non-destructive image editor. Nothing in the original RAW file is ever permanently changed. Instead, all edits are stored in a sidecar file (or, if it’s a DNG, they can be embedded).

Saving photos from Camera Raw can be a bit confusing. Your three main options are as follows.

Camera Raw storage options

To save the original RAW file with your edits, click “Done” in the lower right corner. This will create a sidecar file next to the RAW file in its folder. The edits will be applied automatically the next time you open the RAW image.

Click ‘Open’ to save your edits and properly open your image in Photoshop. You can then use Photoshop to make even more changes and export the image as JPG.

To directly save your photo as JPG, click on the save icon in the top right corner.

Camera Raw storage icon

From the ‘Preset’ drop-down list in the Save Options window, select ‘Save as JPEG’. Then click on ‘Save’.

Camera Raw storage window

Now your photo is in a format that you can share on social media, post on your website, or send to a friend.

Should you be using Camera Raw?

Camera Raw is an incredibly powerful RAW processor. It does a great job of taking your RAW files and giving you the tools to take incredible photos from them.

If you only occasionally edit a RAW file and already use Photoshop, this is probably the easiest tool for you.

If you take a lot of RAW images, it’s worth taking a look at Lightroom. It has the same image editing controls, but the additional catalog features make managing all your files a lot easier.

If you haven’t signed up for Adobe Creative Cloud, you don’t have to do that alone to process RAW files. Free alternative apps are available.

RELATED: How to Process Camera Raw Without Paying for Adobe Photoshop




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