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Developing a Kick-Ass RAW Workflow: Part 2

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Read Time: 19 mins

In the second part of this RAW tutorial, we will continue our post-production workflow to create a stylized final product. We will begin with the the final image of the first part of our tutorial, and jump straight into Photoshop!


Before getting started, it's worth reminding you that this is the second part of our RAW workflow/processing tutorial. It's a good idea to read through the first part before continuing any further!

Once again, here is a preview of our final image:

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Step 1

If you still have Camera RAW open with our image, simply proceed by clicking on the Open Image button. If not, double click on the image from Bridge and Photoshop will open it for you. Then click on the Open Image button and you are good to go.

The first thing we will do now is to take a look at elements within our picture that may be distracting; those that fight for attention with our main subject. Personally, I didn't feel like there were any major problems of this kind on our image, but you may disagree. The girl's face in the background, for example, could pose a problem for us.

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While we could very well clone her out, I feel that is not absolutely necessary in this case. As a better alternative, we can blur out our background to help us decrease our depth of field and attract attention where we want it.

Step 2

Increasing Depth of Field

The simplest approach to increasing depth of field is usually to blur out the background, or other areas of our image, that we want to take focus away from. While this doesn't actually create the same effect that your camera will (especially when dealing with bright lights in night shots), used in moderation it can give that little extra depth to bring in attention on our subject. You may also like to take a look at the screencast we've published for a walk-through Photoshop tutorial on re-creating depth of field.

We don't want to decrease focus on all our image, so we will duplicate our base layer to bring back focus to the image once we apply blur. To duplicate the layer simply press Ctrl/Cmd + J to jump the selected layer into a new one. You can also drag your layer down to the New Layer button on the bottom of the Layers palette, but keyboard shortcuts are usually faster.

Select your duplicated layer and choose the Gaussian Blur option from the filters menu. Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur…

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Once you select Gaussian Blur, you will see a dialog box that contains a preview box and a single slider to modify the effect. Basically, the higher the Radius the stronger the blur effect. We want a relatively soft blur for our background in this case, so I chose 6 as the value for Radius.

Now we have blurred out our entire image; not exactly what we want. To correct this, we will mask away the parts of our image we do not want to blur in the next step.

Step 3

How to wear a mask properly

For those of you who don't know what masking is exactly or how it works, think of the concept as an extra layer within your layers. When you give a layer a mask, what you are adding is essentially an invisible layer that controls the opacity of your base layer.

Photoshop reads the contents of the mask and displays parts of the base layer accordingly. In the mask, opacity will be represented by black, white, and shades in between; black being 0% opacity, white 100%, and gray varying in value. If you are not completely comfortable with this concept, I'd suggest watching this sample clip from the library that explains the concept in detail.

With your blurred layer selected, go down to the bottom of the Layers palette and click on the Add Layer Mask button (it's the gray square with a white circle inside). Alternatively, you could go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All.

You'll see a white box appear beside the layer preview box that contains your masking information. Yours is all white because it is currently revealing all your image; in my example I've already masked away the parts of the layer we don't want (namely the foreground and subject). As you can see, I have masked away our background copy layer by painting black on the layer mask over the points of focus of our image.

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All it takes to mask away then is to grab your Brush Tool and begin painting black over what we want to hide from view. Make sure you select your mask first by clicking on it (you will notice a bounding box around the little preview image that tells you it is currently selected). Just paint black with a soft brush over our subject and the floor and you will see how it hides the layer, allowing the layer beneath it to show.

It doesn't have to be perfect, but make sure you paint over the edges of our model well, especially the hair. After you are done, you can Alt/Option Click the Layer Mask preview image to have it display in large. Paint over any spots you may have missed inside the model and then just click anywhere on the layers palette except on the Layer Mask preview icon.

Turn the layer visibility on and off to see the effect it has on the image. In this case I, thought the Gaussian blur we applied was actually too much, so I bumped down layer visibility to about 50%. Afterwards, I applied a little bit of a blur on the mask itself to help aid the transition of our mask. To do this last step, simply select the layer mask again and then proceed to Filter > Blur > Blur.

Step 4

Tip: For organizational purposes it is always a good idea to give contextual names to your layers. It is not completely necessary, but extremely useful.

Now that we have taken care of some basic compositional elements of our image, let's take a look at how we are going to manipulate color to make it more interesting and effective.

Throughout part 1 we took a look at increasing contrast and sharpness in our image. We will continue to do so in Photoshop, but we will also manipulate the colors within our image to create a more interesting composition. I chose to focus in on the stripes of our model's board shorts.

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Currently, the stripes are not particularly interesting at all. With a little push in saturation though, we can easily make them a stronger part of the composition. We are going to use more masks and Hue/Saturation Layers to push the color of the stripes like so:

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I've also added the masks I used for each stripe. If you notice the red one (top) is the only one that actually follows the edges of its stripe precisely. The green (middle) actually goes over into the yellow stripes as well, and in the blue (bottom) I didn't actually take much care about the edges of the stripe at all. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but for our adjustment levels our masking will not need to be perfect.

Step 5

First off is the blue stripe, which is also the simplest one. We start by creating a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer. Open up the adjustment panel and select the appropriate adjustment, or you can use the drop-down menu in the bottom of the Layers palette (the half-white, half-black circle) and select Hue/Saturation. Take a look at the first items in the following illustration if you need help finding the adjustment layer palette or drop-down menu.

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Once you have found it, you will be greeted by an adjustment panel like the one above on the right. The first selection box contains a number of different presets that aren't particularly helpful, so we will ignore them. The second one, which right now displays Master, dictates which colors the adjustment layer will affect. Since we are beginning with our blue stripe, go ahead a select Blues from the drop-down menu. Immediately you will see that the color bar at the bottom of the panel lights up and displays the currently selected color range. Leave it as it is.

So now we finally get to work on the color of the stripes, and we will adjust the three sliders of the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to do so. If you have come across these sliders, jump ahead. If not, here is a simple explanation of each: Hue will change the coloring of your image, pushing it to where you move the slider; easy enough. Even simpler, saturation boosts the intensity of the colors in your image. Lastly, lightness makes it brighter, or darker. Simple, but very powerful. Just follow the values in the picture if you want to follow what I am doing, or feel free to do your own thing. I settled in on +10 for Hue, +52 for Saturation, and +17 for Lightness.

Now that we have created our adjustment layer, you will notice that it is also affecting the blue umbrellas in the background and making the pool look unusual. Fixing this requires a simple mask that limits our adjustment layer to only the blue stripe. So select the mask on your adjustment layer (it gets created automatically), invert it (Ctrl/Cmd + I) to make it black, and paint white over the stripe. You can look at the previous step to get an idea of how I masked this layer (it's the bottom mask on the picture).

Step 6

'Til we found the sea of green

It's a very similar process for our green stripe, so create a new Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and select Greens from the drop-down menu. What's that you say? There is no Green option? Don't worry because you will be making one yourself. For now, select Yellows from the menu, which is close enough. To properly select the greens in our image we will need to use a new tool.

So, with your Yellows selected, press on the Eyedropper from the bottom of the adjustment panel and click around the green stripe in the image to get a good selection of the greens. It's a little bit of a hit and miss and it doesn't need to be perfect, so don't fret. Take a look at my selection below and just get something similar. You can always adjust the selection manually by moving the handles. Think of it as the reverse of a mask, with the outer handles showing the colors our adjustment layer will reach, and the inner darker gray showing where it will focus on.

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And after that it's just a simple matter of bumping up the sliders like so: +27 for Hue, +20 for Saturation, and +15 for Lightness.

Like in the previous adjustment layer, we have a problem with other areas in our image getting affected. So lets mask them out and reveal only the green stripe. It will require a little more precision this time, but nothing you can't handle with a soft brush. I didn't stop there, however. Because I felt that the yellow stripes needed more vibrance I masked them into the layer mask to let them share in on the effects of our adjustments. Although we selected the Greens earlier, the adjustment layer still affects the yellows in our image. As you've probably guessed, because green and yellow are close together in the color range we also partially selected some of the yellows in our image.

Now the colors in our image are really beginning the stand out. A little too much right now, but don't worry because we are going to fix this later on!

Step 7

I'll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes

And once more, for our final stripe, we will be using another Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to change the bottom yellow stripe to red. So create a new layer and select the yellows. This time, I chose -45 for Hue, +22 for Saturation, and -10 for Lightness. This time, however, our masking is a little more elaborate:

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As you can see, my mask isn't entirely perfect. It follows the top border of the stripe to the line and does a good job on the bottom, where it matters a little less. Just remember to take it easy, and go along with your brush painting in the red as you mask in the adjustment layer. Once you are satisfied, move on to the next step where we will begin a series of different adjustments to further sharpen the image and tone down saturation, among other things.

Step 8

First up is a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer so find it in the Adjustments Panel (it's the button with a Gradient), or from the drop-down adjustment layers menu, and create a standard Black to White gradient map (black on the left end of the gradient). You're image now looks black and white. Next, keep the blend mode Normal, and tone down the Opacity to about 30%. As you can easily see, this creates an interesting effect on our image, that can't be quite reached by simply reducing saturation, in my opinion.

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Next up is a Levels adjustment to help us darken our tree line and remove a little of the overall reddish tint we are getting on the image so far. To do this, we are going to create a Levels Adjustment Layer. But we are not going to work on the entire image, only on the Red and Green channels. To select them, click on the drop-down menu that currently shows RGB and choose Red like in the image above.

So go ahead and darken up those reds by moving the black handle up to about 14. What this will do, is remove some of the ugly red tint that parts of our image, like the hair of our model, have acquired throughout our post-processing. Repeat this step with the green channel, only this time push it up to about 4 only. This darkens our greens, which is mostly the tree-line in the background, a little bit.

You're image should be looking pretty good right about now, but we still have some more adjustments and finishing touches to make it truly spectacular. Go ahead a see how we have progressed and if you like the changes we are making. Returning to your original image and checking your progress is an important part of post-processing, and a very good test to see if you are pushing your image too much.

Step 9

Contrast, sharpness, and more contrast

The next set of three adjustments is one that I have learned from watching other photographer's techniques and various video tutorials. I have adopted these into my own workflow and use them to some degree in almost all my pictures.

We are going to start by creating a copy of what we have so far. To do this, make sure all layers are visible and select the top layer. Then press Ctrl+Alt+Shift/Cmd+Option+Shift + E to make a new layer that contains a flattened copy of our document so far. We are going to need three copies, so use our trusty jump shortcut (Ctrl/Cmd + J) to create two more copies of this layer. Give them the following names (I will refer to them as such) and you are good to go: "soft-light high pass", "hard-light high pass", and "overlay".

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Let's start with our "overlay" layer, since it's the simplest adjustment. First, make the other two invisible. Then desaturate your layer by pressing Ctrl+Shift/Cmd+Shift U. Then change the blending mode to Overlay, and lower opacity to 40% and viola: you've got an instant and adjustable contrast control over your image. This technique brightens the brights and darkens the darks of your image for a very cool and quick effect.

The next two layers requires a slightly more complicated effect, but they are very good methods for increasing sharpness, tonal contrast, and boosting color in images. To start off, make them visible again and select the "soft-light" one. Next choose the High-Pass filter: Filters > Other > High-Pass. A pop-up menu will appear for the filter containing only one slider, which is radius. For all intents and purposes, this will work similar to how the Clarity slider did in Camera RAW. In other words, because of the blending mode we will later give this layer, the amount of radius we apply will determine how this layer will affect tonal contrast on top of sharpness. Go ahead and select a fairly large value of 20 pixels like in the screenshot below.

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The "hard-light" layer is similar. We will be using the same High-Pass filter. We want to call up the last filter, but need to edit the values. To do this use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Alt/Cmd+Option F and the High-Pass filter dialog box will appear once again (Ctrl/Cmd + F reapplies the last used layer with the same settings). It will default to the last used settings. This time, however, push down the radius to 3 pixels.

Now is when the fun part begins. We get to play with blend modes and opacity levels to choose the best effect. In this case, I've chosen values for you to illustrate the idea, but feel free to experiment and mess around with the values. One thing to note is that like any sharpening technique, this will bring out and create a lot of noise.

With the "hard-light" layer we will focus on bringing in extra sharpness out of our image, so we will use a blending mode of Hard Light. The "soft-light" layer, on the other hand, is all about tonal contrast and making our our color values pop. Choose, you guessed it, a blending mode of Soft Light. After these two changes you will be able to finally see how this technique is affecting our image and how much sharpness it brings. Put bluntly, it is way too much. Don't worry, this is where our friend Opacity comes in; bring both down to about 45% and play around those levels and select what works best for you.

Important: The three techniques we just explored are very powerful. Changes in opacity and blend mode can drastically change how they affect your image. I use them a lot because I feel they can really give an image that final punch I always look for, but maybe you disagree. In any case, make sure you play around with these techniques, and if you like what they bring to the table, adopt them in your own workflow.

Step 10

Finishing touches

Let's take a look at our image so far (click on the image to see larger version):

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We have come a long way from our original RAW image, and now only a few short adjustments are left. First off an Exposure Adjustment Layer to give those highlights a little more brightness, a Curves Layer to increase contrast, and a Photo Filter to cool down the image a little. These adjustments are a self-explanatory, so I will not be going in-depth with them.

Create an Exposure Adjustment Layer and give it the following values: +0.31 for Exposure, -0.0026 for Offset, and leave gamma alone. Keep in mind, these sliders are extremely sensitive, so you almost always end up with diminutive values.

Next up a very simple Curves Adjustment Layer. On the top of the panel select Increase Contrast (RGB) from the drop-down menu. Then lower opacity to 15%. Nothing like giving your image that little final push in contrast.

Finally, create a Photo Filter Adjustment Layer. This is a very subtle, yet powerful, adjustment. It couldn't be simpler; choose a default from the drop-down menu or choose your own color and then decided on the strength of the effect. Remember, here you are always looking for subtle changes to your image. To cool down our image, I chose the Underwater preset, and 20% for density. Also, check the Preserve Luminosity checkbox. It prevents the Photo Filter from altering the color of your highlights and keeps them white. I almost always check this box.


And that's it! We've come a long way, and I hope you have enjoyed learning about various techniques for post-processing RAW images. Thought we were done? Well, for the purposes of this tutorial we are, but there are a number of things this image could benefit from:

  1. Noise Reduction: Depending upon the level of noise you find acceptable, this may be an important step. I'd recommend using a more advanced noise-removal tool than Photoshop's, such as NoiseWare or Noise Ninja.

  2. Detailing: There are still some details and colors not central to our subject that call attention to themselves. Like cutting down the saturation and brightness of the blue sun umbrella above the subject's face.

  3. Bringing out the muscle in our model. If you were to dodge and burn the highlights and shadows of the skin respectively, it would make our model seem more toned and muscular.

Parting thoughts

So that is it, I promise. If you've made it this far with me, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to teach you something about post-processing and Photoshop. Hopefully the experience was as rewarding to you as writing this article was for me.

Lastly, make sure you take any techniques you learn and experiment and play with them as you adopt them into your workflow. Slowly you will come to learn what works for you and develop your own post-processing repertoire. Remember that life is an ongoing learning experience.

P.S. For those of you who noticed, yes I did write half of these two articles in Windows and the other in Mac OS X. I got my new Mac in the middle of writing the article and made the jump from a PC to the dark side. So far, so good. OS X is very well designed. Not completely smooth and painless like Apple would have you believe, but I'm still very much in love with my new laptop!

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