Raw file image processing made simpler

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Every so often, you come across something that challenges the way you’ve done things for a long time. So it was for me last week when I stumbled across Philip Frye’s video critique of an image on Outdoor Photographer.

Update, 27 June 2012: with the launch of Lightroom 4 and Adobe Camera Raw 7.1 as part of Photoshop CS6, Adobe released a new ‘2012 process’, in which various sliders  were replaced, renamed or reconfigured to deliver better results. Mr Frye has published a couple of videos that cover the changes in depth; they are well worth watching. If you wish to ‘zero’ the values properly to match the zeros set in Lightroom 3 (zeros in Lightroom 4 equate to the old Adobe mid-tone boosting defaults of +50 Brightness and +25 Contrast), read on.

His basic thesis is that the ‘factory’ settings in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) obscure the image data that is present in your raw files. As soon as you open a file for the first time, ACR boosts Brightness, Contrast and Blacks, sharpens the image and applies noise reduction and a Medium Contrast curve adjustment – all before you touch a single slider.

He suggests instead that you should instead set all of these values to zero and instead rely on Curves, as follows:

In ACR, go to the Curves panel (sorry, Photoshop Elements users – you don’t have this) and select the Points tab.

Annotated Adobe Camera Raw point curve

Select Linear as your curve rather than ACR’s default Medium Contrast curve (once you make changes – as I have here – the option selected will be shown as Custom).

If space is showing on either side of the histogram behind the curve, move the black point (1) and/or white point (2) nearer to the start of the histogram behind the linear curve. This focuses in on the tonal range actually captured in the raw file; as you do so, the multi-coloured histogram at the top of the ACR menu will expand.

Create points (3 and 4) in the linear curve and drag out an S-shaped curve that’s as pronounced as your image requires: the more vertical the line that you create, the stronger the contrast generated within the image.

In term of global exposure, brightness and contrast control, that’s all there is to it. With the exception of the White Balance control, you can leave the sliders in the Basic tab of ACR alone. Users of Photoshop CS4 or above might wish to make local enhancements using the Adjustment Brush or Graduated Filter, as I did in one or two of my sample images below.

If you find the technique works for you too, you can zero everything and then choose  Save New Camera Raw Default from the little fly-out menu on the right of the menu tab array to ensure that your raw file opens in its original state.


Here is a selection of some of the images I have processed using this technique (click on the thumbnails to enlarge). I found that it enabled me to achieve both a more natural colour balance and stronger contrast. Let me know if it works for you, too.

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True zero values in Lightroom 4 and ACR 7.1:

  • Exposure: -1
  • Contrast: -33

Mr Frye recommends using the new black point value of zero (equivalent to +25 in Adobe’s 2010 process) and the new linear curve (equivalen to the old medium contrast curve).

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