Tips for Shooting and Editing in Camera Raw

Why Shoot in Raw Format?

Whether you realize it or not, if you are using a DSLR camera you already are shooting in RAW. When you shoot in JPEG the camera is just processing the RAW file for you and compressing it. You may be wondering “then why shoot RAW at all”? The reason that most photographers prefer to shoot RAW format is because they retain the ability to take full advantage of all the information the camera’s sensor captured, and get more tonal range and color depth to work with.

It may seem simpler to let your camera do all the work and just edit the JPEGs, but you’re then leaving the look up to the camera instead of using your own judgment and style. Also it is much harder to fix mistakes to exposure or contrast in post processing when working with compressed JPEG images rather than RAW files. The time savings and conveniences often come at the price of overall image quality.

Tools for Editing in Raw Format

Something that often intimidates new photographers is the idea of having to use complex or expensive software to edit their photos, or the idea that doing so will take time they don’t have. Much of this is attributed to the complex array of tools available in programs like Adobe Photoshop.

This is usually due to not understanding a proper RAW editing workflow (which we will cover in a moment). When editing photos rather than using all the tools Adobe Photoshop has to offer for image manipulation, it is better to use either Adobe Camera Raw (a standalone application native to Photoshop) or Adobe Lightroom (Adobe’s photo retouching and processing software). These tools are more suited to making the adjustments that bring out the best in your photographs, such as contrast, exposure, and noise reduction:

A Proper Camera Raw Workflow

Generally it makes the most sense to tackle the largest overall problem with the image first. This will usually be something obvious and visually unappealing or distracting about the image. After that you can get into whatever you feel is “technically” flawed about it, but dealing with the first thing to bother your naked eye is for the best. Too often, photographers attempt to make an image technically correct rather than making sure it “feels right” to a casual observer. 

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One of the most obvious issues you will immediately notice in a photograph is the exposure. If a photo is largely over- or under-exposed it will be very clear the moment you look at it. In other words, it will either be far too dark or far too bright. In either case you will know it’s too much if you have lost some details of the image, for example the highlights in hair or creases in a white dress. Using exposure controls when editing your RAW files can allow you to recover these details and improve the overall image.

Color Adjustment

Sometimes a photo fails to capture the color we see naturally with our eye. This could be due to any number of reasons such as improper white balancing, external lighting or flash etc. By adjusting the temperature in post processing you can recreate the scene as you remember it, or even create a stylized look that better tells the story or sets the mood.

Black and White Points

These are fairly straightforward. The black and white points often referred to as levels, establish where in the photo the image is pure black and pure white. Setting these correctly will help balance the overall color range of the image and correct amount of detail.


Sometimes called the tonal curve, contrast in images determines the value of tones. In short it can allow you to make something light even lighter and something dark even darker. This helps images to pop and grab your attention rather than feeling flat or dull, particularly if they are black and white photographs.

Saturation and Vibrancy

Adjusting the vibrancy and saturation of an image is a matter of strengthening or weakening the colors. You can use this to create a specific look, style, or mood in an image. By lowering the overall saturation of an image you can make it more subdued. In contrast by increasing the saturation and vibrancy you can make colors more pronounced and “make the image pop.”  Using selective color saturation can help you make the important elements standout without overdoing things.

Retouching and Blemish Removal

Making minor corrections such as removing blemishes or red eye is truly overkill for a program like Photoshop. Most lightweight image editing programs (including Adobe Lightroom) can handle these task in seconds, non-destructively. When retouching it’s best to consider altering the physical appearance as little as possible. Instead concentrate only removing things that would go away under different circumstance or if a week were to pass, such as acne or a minor scratch or scar. Avoid removing distinct features such as birthmarks or freckles.

Sharpening and Noise Reduction

Taking tack-sharp photographs is extremely important, especially when you are capturing once in a lifetime moments. Sometimes when shooting at lower apertures you may want to add just a bit more detail when editing in post to really help your subject stand out, or create a signature look. When you introduce sharpening in post processing, you often get noise or grain. When using processing applications like Adobe Lightroom or Noise Reduction Plugins from other applications you can usually create a balance between sharpening and noise that allows you to bring out the best in your photographs. 


The right crop can change a flat and boring image into one that truly captures a moment or intrigues us. When cropping you should seek to eliminate unnecessary or unflattering elements from the frame. Many photographers are purist and refuse to crop their images. In truth it is a matter of personal preference, but I would suggest telling the most compelling story you can, and if that means cropping it in post after giving it a second look, then so be it.

  • Lee Alexander says:

    Great article. My workflow starts with Lightroom 5, and when needed I export my image into PS CS6. I am trying to get members of our photo club to use LR as their initial image processing application. Thanks again for highlighting the need to use the RAW image over JPEG.

  • Mark Davis says:

    Hi Blake, These are great tips. No doubt! In my humble opinion, the most important tip here is to shoot in RAW. When it comes to colors and lighting, you can pull almost anything off quickly in post-production if the color data is there. RAW gives you that extra boost in color data that you might need when you get back to your desk and are working in your photo editor of choice.

  • Adam says:

    Really great article. Thanks for taking the time to explain things in such great detail in a way that is easy to understand.

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