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Learning Lab






The Ideal Digital Photographer's Workflow, Part 3

Steps for Working Optimally with the RAW Format

by Ken Milburn, author of the upcoming Digital Photography: Expert Techniques
02/24/2004

If you're the proud owner of one of the many new digital cameras just introduced at PMA 2004 that carry a "pro" designation, you'll quickly discover that you have vastly greater control over the quality of the images produced by your new camera if you shoot them in RAW format. It's a double blessing if you also happen to have Photoshop CS, with its updated and much-enhanced new RAW file converter.

The downside is that, marvelous as the new RAW image converter in Photoshop CS is, it can still take an inordinate amount of time to convert RAW images into something that your image-editing program can use. The process gets especially tedious when you need to RAW-process dozens or perhaps hundreds of images from the shoot you just completed in order to decide which images you want to keep, print, or deliver. In this article I will show you several steps you can take to save hours of work after every shoot.

1. Download Images from a Fast Reader

If you've been downloading your images through a USB 1.1 cable, the 5MB-plus RAW files are going to take seemingly forever to download. If you've just bought a pro or prosumer camera, chances are you have either a USB 2.0 connection, a Firewire connection, or both, on the camera. That means you can use your camera as the card reader at several times the transfer rate of your USB 1.1 card reader. All you need to do is plug the camera into the computer with the cables that came with it. Your computer will simply think the camera is an external drive and you can simply create a new job folder in the RAW folder and drag-and-drop the files into it. If you don't have a fast connection on your camera, you'll find it's worth your while to spend about $50 on a newer model card reader that lets you hook up to either of the higher speed ports.

Note: If you have an older computer that's fastest connection isn't state of the art (again, USB 2.0 or Firewire), you can get a bus card, plug it into your computer, and it will adapt to those ports. Laptop users may have to upgrade their laptops to get these ports, but I have heard that new adapters are being brought to market that will work in PMCIA slots.

2. Prep the First Image in Each Series of Similar Photos

RAW images are so called because they (theoretically, at least) contain all the image information that the cameras sensor was capable of recording, which is typically billions of shades of color, rather than millions. From this data, one can extract exactly the visible range of colors (brightness range) and color balance that we want the viewer to see. Theoretically, one can do that by using image-editing commands on a JPEG file, but when the camera stores that JPEG file you have to work with a much more limited range of information. So you end up having to work with what's left, rather than what you started out with. That's why, after using the Levels or Curves commands, displaying the Histogram shows a "comb" effect. The gaps in the Histogram on the right represent missing data.

First, for those who aren't yet familiar with the Photoshop RAW image converter, I'll give you a brief familiarization. Of course, if you're already familiar, you can skip over this next section. The balance of the article will organize your RAW photo processing into efficient workflow routines for most of the operations you're likely to encounter. It will also, incidentally, introduce you to the power of Photoshop CS' new scripting capabilities by utilizing one of Russell Brown's (Adobe's head Photoshop tipster) scripts for automatically processing RAW images.

Screenshot.
Figure 1: The Histogram representing the distribution of pixel information in a file before and after using the Levels command to redistribute the brightness information in that file.

Few all-purpose image-processing programs are capable of processing RAW files, because each camera manufacturer has different file specifications for RAW images. However, Adobe has created this new built-in version of the original Photoshop Camera RAW plug-in so it can read RAW images from all the most popular pro and prosumer digital cameras and then open them directly into Photoshop. This makes it much easier to accept files directly from a variety of photographers who might be using different cameras.

Also, the Photoshop CS RAW file interpreter is significantly more powerful than the software bundled with most cameras (though you should take a look at your own software and make that judgment for yourself -- nothing in this industry is static).

Having said all that, check Figure 2 to see what the RAW image processor dialog looks like.

Screenshot.
Figure 2: The Photoshop CS Camera RAW image processor dialog.

Although the settings you can make in the new RAW file converter are greatly expanded over the older plug-in (no longer available), the settings essential to getting an acceptable-looking Photoshop file are the same:

  1. Choose Adobe RGB as the color space to be assigned to the image.

  2. Set the image depth at 16 bits per channel (the actual image depth will be that at which your camera records RAW files).

  3. Set the image size at the native image size for your camera. If you have a camera whose native software would interpolate the image to a given resolution, then choose that image size (e.g. The Fuji Super CCD cameras). For most of the 6 MP pro cameras, the resolution would be 3024 by 2024.

  4. Set resolution as either the native resolution for your printer (Epson = 240 dpi) or for the 300 dpi usually requested for pre-press.

  5. White Balance should usually be As Shot, but if you don't like what you see, pick another light source and/or adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders.

  6. Press the Opt/Alt key and then drag the Exposure slider until you start to see specks in the now black image preview that indicate some pixels will be pure white.

  7. Press the Opt/Alt key and then drag the Shadows slider until you start to see specks in the now black image preview that indicate some pixels will be pure white.

  8. Adjust the Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation sliders to your liking (unless you haven't calibrated your monitor properly, in which case you may be better off to adjust those settings in Photoshop after seeing a proper printed proof).

  9. There are numerous Advanced Settings. If you're in doubt about these, leave them alone. You can always make further corrections in Photoshop. Hopefully, we'll be able to get an article online soon that will thoroughly cover the advanced settings in the Photoshop CS Camera RAW dialog.

  10. Now that the basics are covered, press OK. Your image will open in Photoshop.

3. Automate the RAW Processing for All Photos Shot of Identical Subject and Lighting Conditions

If you've learned the most important lesson in what it takes to become a good photographer, you'll take lots of photos of any given situation so that you give yourself (and your client, if it's a commercial job) the best chance at capturing the most meaningful moment, composition, and camera angle. Now, here's the problem with that plan: If you're shooting RAW, it can take a lot of time to do the settings for each of those similar images. The answer is to do the settings for one of the photos and then automate the application of those same settings to all the other photos. Photoshop CS makes this operation very fast and easy. Here's the 1,2,3 of it:

  1. Flag the files you know you don't want to keep.

  2. Display all the files you just flagged and select them all, then press Delete/Backspace. The files you didn't want are instantly gone for good.

  3. Flag the files you know you want to work with.

  4. Double-click the most representative image in the first series of similar pictures. The image will open the Photoshop CD Camera RAW dialog that you saw in Figure 1, above. The image will appear in the Preview Window. Follow the instructions in the previous section for processing the image.

  5. Optional: There may be instances where you got ahead of this process and have already processed one or two of the images. If that is the case, instead of redoing the processing, make any minor changes you might want to make and then simply press the Opt/Alt key and place the cursor over the OK button. It will change to the Update button. When it does, click. Now, the rest of these steps will apply the updated setting to all the other images.

  6. In the Camera RAW dialog, the image you just adjusted (or updated) should be highlighted. If not, click to highlight it. Then Shift - Click or Cmd/Ctrl - Click to simultaneously highlight all the other images in that same series of nearly identical photos.

  7. From the Camera RAW dialog's Automate menu, choose Apply Camera RAW Settings. The Camera RAW dialog appears, showing the chosen file. Normally, you don't want to change any of these settings (though you can, if you want to create a set of multiple interpretative versions of the same file). If you do change the settings, press Opt/Alt and click the Apply button. Then, let the screen hypnotize you as the settings for the first file are now automatically applied to each of the other highlighted files.

Related Reading

Digital Photography: Expert Techniques
Professional Tips for Using Photoshop & Related Tools to Enhance Your Digital Photographs
By Ken Milburn

Holy Smoke! Batman!! We got the power!! Repeat the above seven steps for each different series of images shown in the File Browser immediately after a download, until your whole assignment has been properly adjusted.

If you need to confirm all the files with your client before you make any settings, then you may want to reverse the order of doing this procedure and the next one. Just remember that, otherwise, you'll save time by keeping them in this order.

4. Automate Converting Your RAW Files to the Commonly Needed Formats

Don't wait a single second before you go on to this next stage. Now that you have the settings converted to the intended best resolution, interpretation(s), and size, you want to convert the file into all the formats required for all the various purposes you're likely to need these files for in the immediate future.

Before Russell Brown, Adobe's Creative Director, turned this into a simple process by writing a script for it, this was one of the world's most tedious (and often overlooked) processes. You can buy a whole CD of these scripts by journeying to www.russellbrown.com for less that $30, so I'd strongly suggest doing it unless you just like to waste your time. If you're too cheap to do even that, you may be able to download this particular script for free -- provided you don't wait too long. From time to time, Brown posts new Photoshop scripts as free downloads, partly as a means of "teasing" you into buying the whole thing.

For the purposes of completing this workflow stage in the most efficient possible manner, the script you want is entitled "Dr. Brown's Image Processor." The name is a bit misleading, because it doesn't automate all image processing tasks -- just a few that you'll find yourself needing over and over, and over and over...

After you've downloaded the file, use your file browsing system to move a copy to the following folder (matters not whether you're Mac or PC): Drive/Photoshop CS/Presets/Scripts//Dr Brown's Image Processor... Close and then restart Photoshop CS.

Now, here's what we want to use Dr. Brown's Image Processor for right now: We're going to convert each of the series of files we processed into the file formats we're going to need in order to: (1) Make a contact sheet and collect images that can be transmitted to the client by resizing and converting all the images to TIFF format and placing them all in the TIFF sub-folder of this job folder, (2) Create all sorts of onscreen presentations -- including a "feedback" web gallery for communicating with the client, by converting and resizing all the same images to JPEG format and placing them into the JPEG folder for this format, and (3) convert (without resizing) all the images to PSD (Photoshop native file format) and place them into the PSD folder that is used to store "works-in-progress."

Here's the routine to follow next:

  1. Go to the Job Title RAW folder, open it, and create a new folder called Processed Images.

  2. Drag your Job Title RAW folder to the File Browser icon. When the thumbnails appear, highlight (or Flag) all the images you want to process.

  3. From Photoshop CS' main menu, choose File > Scripts > Dr. Brown's Image Processor. You will see the dialog shown in Figure 3.

  4. Screenshot.
    Figure 3: Dr. Brown's Image Processor dialog.

  5. In the Dr. Brown's Image Processor dialog, go to the Source field. A browser dialog appears and asks you to pick a source folder. Choose the Job Title RAW folder and click the Choose button.

  6. Back in the Dr. Brown's Image Processor dialog, go to the Destination field. Click the Browse button and navigate to the Processed Images sub-folder that you created in Step 1.

  7. In the File Type area, click JPEG. Now you can enter the parameters that you want this set of JPEG images to have. If you want to create several sets of images with the same file type, you can repeat this script on the same files and, each time you do, a new sequential number will be added to the file name so that when that file is written to the folder it won't overwrite previous versions. Dr. Brown really thought this through. Anyway, you can set the Quality level for this round of JPEGs to be anywhere between 1-10. As a general rule, I'd start with a high number, say between 8 and 10. You can always use the Image Processor script to re-process these files later a different setting for different purposes—but for now, let's stay in this workflow.

  8. Click to check the Resize JPEG box. When you do (either now or later) the area below will ask you to enter the pixel dimensions that you want the file to fit within. You'll usually want to enter the same number of pixels for width as for height, as the images will retain their original cropping proportions. By entering the same width as height, you insure that images will be exactly the same size, whether they're shown in portrait or landscape orientation. Screen resolution is usually about 72dpi, so a screen size around 500 pixels high and wide will give you an on-screen image of 7-inches at the longest dimension.

  9. Most of the time, you will want to keep your PSD images (usually the ones that you're using for works-in-progress) at their original settings. However, you can change the size in this operation the same way as you would for TIFF or JPEG. This is sometimes useful if you want to run them all through a Photoshop process or filter which requires more memory than your current system can provide.

  10. Click to check the Resize TIFF box. TIFF is the best format in which to transmit files to a client or pre-press house for publication because you can use LZW lossless compression. Also, you usually don't want to provide the layers that would give the end user to make drastic changes in the image's quality or appearance. Furthermore, the client generally has very strict sizing requirements that must be followed.

  11. Click to check the LZW compression check box.

  12. Be sure to enter a number in the Size Fields that's large enough to cover the client's file size requirements.

  13. If you want to give yourself a bit of additional protection from having your images used without payment or permission, enter your copyright (e.g. copyright 2004 Ken Milburn) information into the Copyright field. This information then becomes a permanent part of the metadata attached to that file.

  14. Click Run and play your favorite computer game or check your email. All the files will have been converted and placed into the properly designated sub-folders for all three image file formats.

You just saved yourself many hours of tedious, step-by-step work. You also just made a major positive impression on your client because of your ability to speedily communicate and deliver your work. Don't forget to thank Russell Brown.

Ken Milburn has been a photographer, both full- and part-time, for nearly five decades. In addition to countless articles, Ken has written 17 books on web design, Flash, Photoshop, and digital photography. His latest book, for O'Reilly, Digital Photography: Expert Techniques, was released in March 2004.


O'Reilly & Associates will soon release (March 2004) the Digital Photography: Expert Techniques.

  • For more information, or to order the book, click here.

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