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Developing a Kick-Ass RAW Workflow: Part 1

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Read Time: 18 mins

One of the most important aspects of digital photography is post-processing; it is just as important as the photo shoot itself. Think of your post-processing workflow as your own personal dark room; how you go about it will determine the quality and production value of your photographs.

In this article we will go over a complete workflow, from the point at which you upload your pictures to your computer all the way to the finished product. Before we get into post-processing, however, I will go over a few pointers and tips on how to keep your photos organized using Bridge. I will be explaining the practices and techniques I have learned and adopted as my own. Feel free to mimic them in your own work, or if you have better ways of doing the same steps please make sure to offer your own advice to me and others reading this article.

Final Image Preview

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Equipment and Software Used

Canon EOS 500D (Rebel T1i)

I'd personally recommend this camera to anyone thinking about taking photography as a serious hobby (or any camera from the Digital Rebel line, for that matter). Any DSLR would do, but I chose Canon over the rest simply because that is the brand I learned with, and is the brand I have begun to build my small collection of accessories around.

I will provide the images you need for this tutorial, but if in the future you want to apply these techniques to your pictures I would recommend you strongly listen to what everyone else will tell you: consider buying a DSLR, and shoot in RAW if you can.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 w/ Bridge CS4

No program will satisfy all your photo retouching and manipulation needs like Photoshop. It is definitely not the cheapest program available but it is probably the best one out there. Finally, as far as giving you the most power and control over your pictures, a Bridge, Camera RAW, Photoshop workflow is probably as good as any other out there.

Step 1

Keep your source files organized, and separate them from works in progress

This is very important. Keeping your digital negatives organized will allow you to go back to them if at any time you wish to start anew. Nothing is more frustrating than messing up in the middle of a work in progress and then finding out that you lost the original files. Also, once you get better at post-processing, it will allow you to revisit old images again and improve the end result.

Here's an overview of my photography folder and its file structure:

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  • Gallery - I keep all my finished products in here, organized into folders by general categories or by event.
  • Prints - Use this folder to list down all of my print ready items. I usually keep a running tab (0001.jpg, etc) and establish something about the size and dimensions (5x7, 15x20, etc.) in the filename
  • PSD - aka "works in progress"; keep all my *.psd files for future reference
    and or use.
  • Source - This is where I keep all my original *.cr2 files, organized by date.

The main idea is to establish a system and stick to it. You can, for example, use the settings in your camera to have it organize your shots by date, and then it's only a simply copy-paste action into your source folder. Organizing all your photos in the same way will make it a lot easier for you to go back to old pictures, find specific events or projects, and make your life easier.

Step 2

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Once you have your system in place, jump into your source folder where you have all your event's photos in Bridge. I will assume a certain familiarity with Bridge, so if you are new to all of this, I recommend going over this article to familiarize yourself with the program and its potential.

Bridge has many features to help you rate, sort, and browse images, but the one I use the most is the Review Mode, or carousel as I call it. To activate it, open up the folder you want to browse through and press Ctrl/Cmd + B.

The carousel is a really simple but incredibly useful feature. Simply use the left and right arrow keys to navigate through pictures and look for those shots you like. If you don't like an image, press on the down key to remove it from the carousel. Once you are done, you can press Esc to quit Review Mode, or click the X in the bottom corner.

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Bridge has now selected the images which remained remained in the carousel. You could invert selection and erase the bad ones, but it is much more useful to do the following:

Instead of quitting the carousel right out, click on the New Collection icon right next to the X (it looks like a window with a small plus sign). This will create a collection with all the pictures that remained in the carousel. This way, you have saved a collection from which you can instantly access all the images in your project for post-production.

Another great way to browse pictures is to use the Slideshow viewing mode. To activate, press Ctrl/Cmd + L. By default it will automatically cycle through your images every 5 seconds. To change the default slideshow settings press Ctrl+Alt/Cmd+Option + L and select your desired settings in the dialog box.

Step 3

Stepping into the wonderful world of camera RAW

To open up Camera RAW, simply double click on a RAW file within Bridge and Photoshop will automatically open up the image within the RAW application. Other file types will not default to Camera RAW however, but there are several workarounds. To open almost any image in Camera RAW within Bridge, select and image and press Ctrl/Cmd + R. This is especially helpful if you want to edit several pictures at once in RAW (or if you want to edit them with Camera RAW but aren't ready to jump into Photoshop right away).

Once you do make the jump to Camera RAW, you'll be greeted with by this daunting screen:

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To toggle Full Screen Mode, press the F key.

Step 4

First things first: take a look at your composition and white balance

Usually the first thing I would do is to to play with the Crop Tool(C) and the Straighten Tool(A) to clear out any uninteresting parts of the picture or correct unintended angles. In this shot, however, I like the original framing, so I will leave it untouched. Let's take a look at our White Balance now.

Since we are using a RAW file, we have a much broader range to alter the white balance settings than we would with other formats. I usually skip the presets, however, and go for a trial and error approach. Take a look at the following settings for our image:

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1. As Shot - This is the default white balance setting that came from the camera. Usually it is not really interesting, so I rarely leave it at that; even if I only make slight modifications.

2. Auto - I always try Camera RAW's automatic preset to see what it gives me. Many times it is close to what I end up with. On other occasions, it's way off the mark. In this case it is very close to my final choice (#4) but I still think it lacks enough punch and warmth.

3. White Balance Tool - Most of the time this is the best way to go. To activate the tool press the I key. Then simply click around the image in parts that you consider should be white to see the effect it gives. For number three I clicked on the tiled floor as an example. Try clicking around the image to see how it affects the white balance differently.

Like I mentioned before, however, for this particular image we are looking for a setting which will give us that extra punch and warmth. To achieve that, I ended up using 14,000 for Temperature and +32 for the Tint. Obviously we're going for a certain type of effect with this photo - you may want something a little more subtle!

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4. Final Choice - Without knowing where we are heading, this choice of settings will look too hot and overdone. But don't fret. It is always easier (provided you don't push it beyond a certain limit) to tone down color than it is to create it. So trust that these settings will work for us as we will further boost saturation beforemoving on to Photoshop.

Step 5

Bringing in the clarity

Now that we have our White Balance set, lets take a look at the sharpness of our image. Coming straight out of the camera, images are almost always a little too soft or blurred out. This is not necessarily bad, it all depends on what you want out of your photos.

For this one, we not only want to bump contrast, but also bring its sharpness up a lot. The first setting I like to play with to get more apparent sharpness out of my images is Clarity. This very useful slider is located towards the bottom of the first tab, grouped with Saturation and Vibrance. I always begin by bumping it all the way up to a 100. Once I do that, I use undo Ctrl/Cmd + Z to toggle one step backward and forward to see what the bump in clarity is doing for us.

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In this case, you can very easily see how the bump in clarity has seemingly brought up detail and sharpness around the water bubbles on our model's back. I say it seemingly creates sharpness because that is not really what it does.

If you look closely at the shadow detail you can see that it is also creating darkness on his legs and a very ugly shadowing on the tops of the trees in the background. This is because the clarity setting actually controls what is referred to as local contrast. It increases the contrast and therefore creates halos around edges with big contrast in images (like the edge of the sky in our image). You'll usually get the best results by taking this setting as high as it will go without creating any halos.

Even though the clarity slider is a great tool it has some issues with certain images. For this particular photo, I ended up choosing a clarity level of +28. Play around with the slider and see what you like.

Step 6

Before we move on the sharpening we need to cover all the bases here on the Basic tab. The reason this is so, is that here we will be editing values that affect how much noise is visible in our image, and we want to have these settings down before moving on.

I've tried to group this into pairs that make sense to me; this is also usually the way in which I work through them, but not the only way to do it. The first two control the extremes in our images. Recovery attempts to bring back detail in highlights, and Fill Light does the same for the underexposed areas. Take a look at these extreme examples:

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You can easily see how Fill Light has affected the darkest regions of the image. What Recovery is doing in the second image might not be so obvious. This is due to the fact that most of the overexposed areas in our image are completely overblown. If you look closely, however, you can see how Recovery has reduced contrast, brought up some cloud detail in the upper left corner, and lessened the value of the highlights in this image.

Go ahead and play around with the sliders to get a feel for them. In most cases pushing these sliders all the way to 100 will look ugly, but it all depends on the image. I decided on leaving Recovery at 68, and Fill Light at 38.

Step 7

Now that we have brought back the detail from the overblown areas of our image, we need to make sure that we have not lost important details, such as the strength of our blacks. While Fill Light is a great tool, it always takes away from the black regions of our images, so we will need to bring this slider up to make up for it.

Not surprisingly, we use the Blacks slider to control this. Play around with it to get a feel for how it darkens your image, creates contrast, and brings up saturation a bit. This slider is usually very sensitive, so most of the time you should use a relatively small value. I used 15 for Blacks.

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But we are not going to stop there. Like we have mentioned before, for this image I was really looking to boost contrast. We also don't want to darken out the detail out of our image, so use these settings carefully. Higher contrast heightens the difference between colors and brightness levels of your image. Like the Blacks slider, it tends to darken your image as well, while adding a certain degree of edginess. I decided upon +60 for the contrast amount:

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It might be hard to notice the difference between the two images, but if you make the comparison within Camera RAW you will notice how the added contrast has brought in value to the saturation and dark areas of the image.

Step 8

And before we forget about them...

We are missing the last two pieces of the puzzle: Exposure and Brightness. These two settings are almost identical twins. They both affect the, you guessed it, brightness of the image. The only real difference is that exposure tends to focus on the bright areas and brightens those even more. Brightness, on the other hand, works all around and is focused more towards the midtones.

I mention these two because they are an important component of Camera RAW, and there is no better adjustment than Exposure to compensate from an over or under exposed shot (within reason). Yet, for this image I like how it is exposed and did not feel like adjusting these sliders. If you feel like it, you may bump up the Exposure slider up a little bit to give our highlights more definition and value.

Take a look at our image so far before we move on to sharpening and noise reduction. You can see the settings I have used so far, but feel free to deviate from them whenever you feel it produces a better end result.

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Step 9

Let's take a look at sharpening our image. I will go through a brief explanation of what each slider does. If you are merely interested in the values I used, take a look ahead or look at the settings in the image of Step 10.

It might be best, however, if you play with the sliders yourself and get a feel for how they change your images. To better see how these sliders work, I recommend holding down the Alt/Option key while you move the sliders up and down.

Overal strength of sharpening being applied to the image.
Controls the size of the radius around which sharpening is applied. In other
words, the larger this slider the bigger the radius around which sharpening will
be applied.
This one is usually pretty useful. It controls how much sharpening will take
place along edges in your photo.
Think of this one as the opposite of Detail. This slider masks away parts
of the image so that Camera RAW does not sharpen those details. Usually it masks
away solid or similar color regions, avoiding edges.

Because we will apply further sharpening with Photoshop, you are looking for values that will not
overdo our image. We do want to sharpen our details however, so we have to look for some sort
of balance. I decided to go high on the Detail and Radius settings to accent the edges of the
image, but kept the Amount slider low. I settled in on 28 for Amount; 2.8 for Radius; 70
for Detail; and 0 for Masking.

Step 10

Taking care of business: noise removal

One of the downsides of sharpening is that it greatly boosts the level of noise found in your image. Depending on the amount of noise your image had to begin with, Camera RAW and Photoshop on their own might not be powerful enough to do the trick (For that you would need plug-ins or stand-alone applications like Topaz DeNoise, Noise Ninja, or Noiseware.

Thankfully, in this image there isn't too much noise that we cannot handle it in Camera RAW. To take a look at your sharpening and noise management settings go to the third tab of settings in Camera RAW called Detail.

The first thing you might notice, is that Camera RAW only allows you to preview how this tab affects your image if you zoom in to 100% or more. Depending on your monitor resolution and image size this may turn out to be a pain, but unfortunately you have to deal with it. Take a look at how the image looks without any noise reduction:

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The first thing you'll want to do is to take down Color Noise reduction down to 0 (Camera RAW defaults to 25). Why you do this is for two reasons:

  1. To find where the most noise is. Color noise is easier to spot, and where there is color noise there is noise in general.
  2. Sometimes 25 might be too much, and you shouldn't apply more noise removal than is necessary.
  3. Since noise is most present in the darker areas of digital photos, I have decided to focus on the face and hair of our model. Play around with the two noise removal sliders to get a feel for them. I settled in on 25 for Luminance and 12 for Color.

    Step 11

    We still need more color!

    Finally, we get to play with the Vibrance and Saturation sliders we ignored before. Normally, we would jump over to the HSL / Grayscale tab as well to alter specific colors differently, but in this image we will be looking into the more specific and detailed color manipulation tools available in Photoshop. We will therefore concentrate our color efforts this time around inside the Basic tab.

    Similar to the Clarity slider, you might want to begin adjusting these settings by bumping Vibrance all the way to 100. This slider controls the saturation of undersaturated colors in your image. As you slide it up the whole image gains saturation, but if you look closely you'll notice how it affects undersaturated colors the most.

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    Don't fret if the image looks too colorful just yet; that is what the Saturation slider is there for. After bumping saturation with Vibrance, lower the Saturation a little to pull back on the colors of the image. I use I have found this technique very useful when preparing photos like this one. Other times, when you want to play down certain colors this might not be the best technique; always remember that what you do to an image depends on what you want from it.

    Now, in this image I kept Vibrance at 100, but often that is too much. I took down Saturation to around -28 in this case.


    So that concludes our tour of Adobe's Camera RAW. As a wrap-up, here are the settings we took a look at, and at the very least, the values I ended up choosing for all of them. But don't stick to what I say word for word, experiment with the great tools you have at your disposal. That is the best way to learn.

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    We still have a long way to go in Photoshop (which we'll delve into during the next part of this tutorial), but for now, take a look at our finished product straight out of Camera RAW:

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    Not bad! Definitely better than the RAW file we began with. In this image we were looking to use color and contrast to create a dramatic effect, and that drove many of the choices we made along the way. There are many different possibilities and alternatives out there, so choose the one you like the best for your own pictures.

    Thank you for reading, and I hope that you were able to learn something from the experience. If you enjoyed it, be sure to stay tuned for Part 2 of this tutorial, where we will be taking this image to the next level and delivering the final product promised at the beginning of this article.

    In the second part of this tutorial we will take a look at selective color manipulation, using adjustment levels to increase and manage contrast, saturation, and color temperature, and different uses of the High-Pass filter and blend modes to further increase tonal contrast and sharpness.

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