This is the first guest post on the website and it comes from Mike Ricca, a photographer from the New York Metro Area. I’ve been a bit weary in the past about allowing guest contributors on the website, but the quality of writing presented here, speaks for itself really – this is a ‘must read‘ tutorial in my books.
Every now and then a friend asks me why I only shoot RAW, and my response always tends to be the same textbook blurb you can find in pretty much any photography book or site. “RAW captures don’t just record an image of the scene,” I’d tell them, “they record all the raw data (hence the name) and give you a lot more leeway when working on the photos later on.”
Of course, while it’s a correct answer, it’s not much of an illuminating one. It’s like being told that ice cream is “a sweet flavored frozen food containing cream or butterfat and usually eggs.” That’s all well and good, but it isn’t until you go out and go out on a hot day and get yourself a chocolate-vanilla swirl soft-serve that you really know what ice cream is.
To that end, I’ve put together a little demonstration to show just what you can accomplish with a RAW image that you could never even dream of doing to a JPG or an uncompressed TIFF.
Above is a quick snap I took while on a road trip not long ago. Not much to look at, but it makes for a good starting point for today’s exercise, which is to turn it into this:
Not too shabby. In a perfect world I would have had an nd grad and a tripod for the shot, but you make do with what you have and it’s nice to know that by shooting RAW, you still have the option to salvage an otherwise-unusable shot. So let’s get started.
NOTE: For the purposes of this article I will be using Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw, but I’ll try to keep the steps as software-agnostic as possible.
Step 1. Figure out what you want to do
The most important aspect to post-production is having an idea of where you want to end up. Just as you wouldn’t randomly throw ingredients into a pot and turn on the stove and hope for the best, you don’t wanna fire up Lightroom/Aperture/et al without first having an idea of what you want to do. You don’t need to have the final image mapped out in your mind, you just want a hint. With this image, for example, I know I want to lighten the near-black ground and bring out a little more color the sky. That will give it a more even exposure throughout and make it look a little better.
So now that I know what I want, I have to figure out how to do it. I know I want to be able to lighten the ground without having the sky wind up too bright to use, and for that I’ll need to mask the image (more on that later). Beyond that there really isn’t much to do other than tweak the sky to pop the colors a bit.
Step 2. Lighten the ground
The final image will ultimately be a composite of two images, one where the ground is properly exposed and one where the sky is properly exposed. So let’s start with the ground.
Dropping the RAW file into Photoshop brings up the Adobe Camera Raw dialogue. This is where I’ll be doing the bulk of the work. The three main components to lightening an image are Exposure, Brightness, and Fill Light. And while Google could find you more technical definitions and differences between the three, my ten-cent definition follows:
Exposure lightens the right side of the histogram, Fill Light lightens the left part of the histogram, and Brightness takes care of the middle. For more info on histograms, click on that link.
So if I had an image that was decently-exposed throughout but had a lot of stuff hidden in the shadows (the left part of the histo), I’d crank the Fill Light to bring out detail. But if I had an image where everything was pretty dark, I’d crank the Exposure.
For this image, as you can imagine, I’ll need all three. As is obvious, much of the image is hidden in shadow, so let’s brighten that up with a Fill Light push to start. Dragging the slider, I can see the details fill out a little better so I stop at 50. Since all of these changes are non-destructive, I can play as much as I want and Fill Light 50 is a good start.
From here, I’ll tweak the Exposure next, dragging it right and paying attention only to the ground and ignoring the sky completely. By the time I hit +2.00, things are starting to look good. The sky is completely blown out, but we don’t care about that.
Now let’s play with the Brightness a bit and see if we can even things out a little. We don’t wanna brighten it too much, just a little. +60 looks pretty nice. The ground looks a little brownish and flat, though, so let’s tweak the Saturation and Vibrance a little, +25 and -10, respectively. This gives the color a little punch without looking too garish. In the end, this is what we’re left with:
Not too bad, considering where we started, and about as good as we’re gonna get it. Remember, the original photo was incredibly underexposed and there’s only so much we can do with it. Now that we’re happy with what we have, hit “Open Image” to open it in Photoshop (you could also open it as a smart layer but that’s another conversation for another time). Save your image (as a PSD or TIFF, something that preserves layers) and let’s move on to the sky.
Step 3. Tweak the sky
Go ahead and drag the RAW file back into Photoshop to launch ACR. You’ll notice that it kept all the changes you just made. Since RAW files are read-only, any adjustments you make are saved to an .XML file so that you don’t lose all that hard work.
Now let’s reset it and lose all that hard work (remember, this time around we’re just looking to work on the sky, so we wanna start over). Close ACR, then go to the folder you saved the RAW file and delete the new XML file you see there. When you reopen the file, it’ll be brand new again.
The first thing we’re gonna wanna do is clean out my sensor spots. Changing lenses in the desert is always risky business, and I paid the price. Luckily, the Spot Removal Tool is there to save the day. Hit B to select the tool. Make the radius big enough to fit the spots inside (8 is a decent size) and just click the sensor spots to make them go away. Once that’s done, hit H to go back to the hand tool. Truth be told, there isn’t much that needs to be done to the sky. Maybe a quick +25 to the Saturation to jolt the colors and a minor -0.15 Exposure to deepen it a little, and that’s it. Hit “Open Image” to open it in Photoshop.
Step 4. Put it all together
Once it’s open, Select All (Ctrl/Command-A) and Copy (Ctrl/Command-C) and Page (Ctrl/Command-V) it into the other image so that you wind up with one image with two layers, one with a pretty sky, and one with a pretty ground (with the pretty sky layer on top of the pretty ground layer). Now comes the fun part: Masking.
Masking is basically a way to “hide” one part of a layer so that the layer beneath it shows through. To see what I mean, select the top layer (with the pretty sky) and click the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers palette.
You should now see a white square beside the layer thumbnail. Click it once to make sure it’s highlighted (you’ll see a small selection box around it) and press B to switch to the brush tool. Since our image is pretty big, give yourself a big brush. 800px should suffice. Make sure your foreground color is Black, and paint the ground in the image. As you paint, you’ll see the top layer dissolve away and reveal the layer beneath.
You may find yourself wondering why we’re going through all this trouble instead of just using the Eraser tool. To see why, hit D (to reset your palette and make the foreground color White) and paint over the area you just painted. As you can see, it ‘covers’ the hole and brings back the top layer. This is the beauty of masking: much like the rest of our work, it’s non-destructive. You’re not actually deleting parts of the image, you’re just choosing to show or hide them. Black hides, White shows. So if you ever make a mistake, or realize you missed a spot, or go over a line, you can easily remedy it. Erasing, meanwhile, is final. While you can undo your last step, if you realize you messed up fifteen steps ago, good luck.
The other beauty of masks is that since a mask is really just an image painted with black and white, you can paint that black and white any way you want. Use the marquee tool to select a square and hit delete or alt/option-delete to fill it with black or white. Use a brush, or a gradient, or a pattern-fill. It’s entirely up to you. For our purposes, though, a brush will give us the best control. Play with brush sizes and hardnesses, and eventually you’ll wind up with something like this:
And that’s about it! Careful scrutiny will reveal that I still have a long way to go when it comes to deft masking, but hopefully this little write-up has shed some light on just how much you can salvage a RAW image with a little elbow grease.
But remember: just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. It’s always best to get it right in-camera the first time around, but if you find yourself stuck with a horribly under- (or over-) exposed image that you absolutely positively must save, if you shot it in RAW there’s still hope.