Shooting Raw for Maximum Control of Your Digital Photos

By Julie Adair King

In the Raw file-capture format, the digital camera doesn’t apply white balancing or any of the other color, sharpness, or contrast adjustments that are made by the JPEG presets. Instead, you specify these image attributes (and more) when you convert the Raw file to a standard format (such as TIFF) on your computer.

Although Raw capture involves more time behind the computer and has a few other complications, shooting in this format gives you a much finer degree of control over these picture characteristics than you get in JPEG, even if you play with all available capture settings.

Take a look at the screen shown below, which shows one of multiple panels of options found in the Adobe Camera Raw converter tool, which is provided with several Adobe photo programs, including Photoshop and Lightroom. This particular panel is great because it enables you to adjust the hue (basic color), saturation (intensity of color), and luminance (brightness) of individual color ranges. For this image, the sky and sea colors were tweaked separately from skin tones and from the clothing colors.

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Here’s a look at the Adobe Camera Raw file-conversion tool; on this panel, you can manipulate the brightness of individual color ranges separately.

Raw is especially helpful when shooting in mixed lighting sources and can’t find just the right white-balance setting or another adjustment to produce neutral colors. If you shoot JPEG and your photos have a color cast, it’s sometimes difficult to make things right even using a powerful photo-editing program. But with Raw, the color isn’t locked in when the file is created, so you always get a second chance.

Additionally, because the Raw format can retain a slightly greater range of brightness values than the JPEG format, it gives you a bit more latitude if you need to adjust exposure after the shot.

That’s not to say that you should completely ignore white balance and other settings you shoot in the Raw format, however. For one thing, the picture you see during playback on the camera monitor is a JPEG preview of the image as it will appear if you stick with the current white-balance setting.

So, if the color is way off, judging the overall result of the picture is a little difficult. It’s hard to tell whether a red flower is properly exposed, for example, if the entire image has a blue color cast. And when you open the picture file in a Raw converter, the software initially translates the picture data according to the recorded white-balance setting. Getting as close as possible from the get-go can thus save you some time tweaking colors during the conversion stage.