The Sleeping Giant's Sea Lion

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I have two post-processing choices for the RAW (.NEF) files:

  1. After the RAW file opens in CameraRaw, make the adjustments to the image and open it as an Object in Adobe Photoshop, so that I can go back to CameraRaw to make adjustments later.
  2. After the RAW file opens in CameraRaw, don't make any adjustments and Open the image as Object into Photoshop and make all changes in Photoshop.

Advantages of choice 2 is that all changes can be made with their respective Adjustment Layers giving higher level of flexibility and can be modified at any point later. Masks can be added with ease.

What I am trying to understand is, does making adjustments (like exposure compensation) in CameraRaw give any better results than doing the same adjustment in Adobe Photoshop? Am I going to loose any power of RAW file by not making any adjustments in CameraRaw but postponing it to Photoshop?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The principal difference is that some adjustments in Camera Raw are applied before demosaicing / conversion to destination colourspace & bitdepth. Such adjustments can't be replicated readily in Photoshop.

Additionally the range and behaviour of adjustments is different between Camera Raw and Photoshop, some have migrated across (e.g. fill light) but there's no Photoshop adjustment that behaves exactly like the exposure slider, for example.

If you prefer to use Photoshop, then the approach I would recommend is to make whatever adjustments are necessary in Camera Raw to get to a "neutral" image (e.g. correct the white balance, correct for over/under exposure, correct for vignetting) and then apply your creative adjustments in Photoshop. This method gets you to a good starting point where you know you're not "baking in" any image defects like you do when shooting JPEG.

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If you keep it in 16bit mode, it is only those functions that affect the bayer conversion you need to worry about, as you can do the tonemapping in your editor. I believe exposure compensation is done after bayer, but vignetting (as it affects each 4 in the 2x2 quad differently), noise reduction, and WB is best done before. Once those are done, you might as well open it linearly and do gamma, contrast/brightness "curves" afterwards. I think this requires the full photoshop, though, as Essential versions are 8bit. Or make your own 16bit editor like I did :) –  Michael Nielsen Feb 8 '13 at 11:49
    
Thank you all. Its much clearer now. Now that I have got Lightroom, I am going through it for basic edits before opening in PS as SmartObject for final edits. I hope the adjustments Lightroom does to the RAW files is similar to CameraRAW (as lightroom probably uses the same CameraRAW plugin). –  Pradeep Feb 9 '13 at 7:48

I don't know about NEF, but I know with CR2, I have the ability to adjust how the RAW file is imported, but after import, you are working with a standard raster graphic in Photoshop and a lot of information for use with color correction and exposure control is lost. This is also the reason why Adobe Lightroom exists as a product. In general, the best results will come from doing whatever non-destructive work you can do in a tool for working with the RAW file and then exporting it to Photoshop when it is ready for more specific touch up work (such as any painted work, layering work or composition). I generally do exposure, color grading and any related gradient filters in Lightroom prior to exporting to make sure I have the best possible image prior to moving to Photoshop.

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Since CR5 (or maybe CR4) you can open as a smart object from Camera Raw into Photoshop, and then return to ACR to make corrections. You can even duplicate those smart object layers and make Camera Raw adjustments to each of them independently. –  MikeW Feb 6 '13 at 18:24
    
@MikeW - good to know. I will have to update my workflow to make use of that. Do you know if they have a similar integration with Lightroom available? I'd figure there must be some way to do it since Adobe is more or less king of interoperability between their products. –  AJ Henderson Feb 6 '13 at 18:35
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Yes, in Lightroom, from "Edit In" choose "Open as Smart Object in Photoshop". Then in Photoshop, double-click on the later and it will open in ACR, which is equivalent to Develop module. I don't know what versions this will work with, and the Lightroom and PS versions will need to match up so that they are using the same ACR/Develop version. –  MikeW Feb 6 '13 at 18:51
    
AJ Henderson, @MikeW. I second with your workflow, I now have Lightroom doing the non-destructive basic quick edits of raw files and finally opening as SmartObject in Photoshop for finer edits. Prior to Lightroom I would do the edits in CameraRaw and open in PS. Now with the difference known, I make base adjustments to RAW file before opening in PS. Thanks for your responses. –  Pradeep Feb 9 '13 at 7:43

"Am I going to loose any power of RAW file by not making any adjustments in CameraRaw but postponing it to Photoshop?"

Yes.

Wikipedia: "a raw digital image may have a wider dynamic range or color gamut than the eventual final image format" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raw_image_format

Just make a copy of the original file and do a basic exposure test - the difference is clear.

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Are you suggesting Photoshop doesn't support 16bit images? –  Michael Nielsen Feb 8 '13 at 11:41
    
@MichaelNielsen no he (or rather Wikipedia) suggesting the RAW image may have more than 16 bits, which is not too hard to imagine for some hypothetical wide dynamic range sensor (similar to Fuji's SuperCCD SR). –  Matt Grum Feb 8 '13 at 12:02
    
If those smaller photosites are 1/4th of hte big ones it gets them from the typical 14bit to 16bit. Even if tehy expend it further, they might still map that extra real-world dynamic range into 16bits, as long as industry standard is 16bit. Basler cameras have 8 and 12 bit mode, but the firmware changes the gain in the ADC so you get the same saturation point (in terms of real life light energy), it's just the staircase steps that change in that same DR. –  Michael Nielsen Feb 8 '13 at 13:14
    
Let's see Canon, Pentax, and Nikon use all 16bit before everything will get slower by using 12 bytes per pixel combined with too high resolutions that people don't really need. Not to mention that those xtra bits will be noisy, so you might as well just bitshift down to 16bit again and have a swifter bandwidth. End result is still 8bit, so having more than 256 values per end value should suffice. –  Michael Nielsen Feb 8 '13 at 13:15

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