RAW Photography Basics

Most professional design projects I'm involved with have a budget for photography. But every now and then I'll have a small project where I need to take my own pictures. When this happens, I like to shoot in Raw as it gives me a lot of flexibility.

In this quick tutorial, I'll walk you through some basic settings I change when editing in Adobe Camera Raw. I took the photo below with a Fujifilm X100s. But if you don't have a camera, many new phones like the iPhone 6S can shoot in Raw.

Sara Final
A processed Raw photo. Click to enlarge

The Editing Process

When a Raw file first comes out of the camera, it looks ugly because it's unprocessed. Years ago when I made my first attempt at shooting in Raw, I was dissuaded by these ugly images. I thought "What the hell, I thought this format was supposed to make my photos look good!" What I didn't understand at the time was that they could look better, but I had to adjust all of the settings manually to achieve it.

Here's our default file when we open it in Adobe Camera Raw:

Sara Raw 1
Click to enlarge

The first thing I'm going to do is make the temperature cooler. Overall it's slightly too yellow for my taste. Let's lower it from 6950 to 5700, and also move the tint down to 4. That gives us this:

Sara Raw 2
Click to enlarge

Next, I can see the shadows and blacks need adjusting. The model's hair and the yucca plant next to her are too dark so let's lighten them a lot. That lets us see more detail in the shadows:

Sara Raw 3
Click to enlarge

The last settings I'm going to tweak on this panel are the clarity, vibrance, and saturation. When I slide the saturation down, and the vibrance up, it creates a muted palette while maintaining a nice contrast. It feels more sophisticated:

Sara Raw 4
Click to enlarge

The "Tone Curve" panel is next. Here we see sliders that look similar to levels and curves in Photoshop. Here I brought the whites and blacks closer together to create more contrast and increased the mid-range values slightly. The previous step gave us a nice sophisticated vibe by lowering the saturation, and now we're making it pop a little so it's less muddy:

Sara Raw 5
Click to enlarge

Now let's sharpen the image. It's hard to see the effect when it's this zoomed out, but it's there:

Sara Raw 6
Click to enlarge

Now we come to the Split Toning tab. It's easy to get carried away with this setting. It reminds me of when I first started in design — I wanted to use all the effects I could muster to make to try impress viewers. Filters on filters on filters. Oy!

Those days are behind me and I want a natural look here. Our photo shouldn't look processed. After trying several setting combinations, I decided to add a slight blue shadow over everything. It makes the image feel "cleaner". Also, her pink shirt and the yucca tree come into the foreground:

Sara Raw 7
Click to enlarge

Our final step is to add a little grain to make it feel like it was shot on film. This is just a personal preference — to me it makes it feel more authentic.

Sara Raw 8
Click to enlarge

That's it! If you're at a desktop computer, Click here and scroll down to get a better sense of the progression.

Here's the Raw file if you want to try it yourself. My best advice is to mess around with the settings a lot. It may seem like I changed each setting here once and went on the next one, but in reality I was constantly cycling through all of these settings until I found what I liked.

If you want to see more advanced tips on formatting Raw photos, check out this excellent class on Skillshare from professional photographer Elizabeth Weinberg.

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