Learning to Process RAW

This week I thought I would cover a topic that generates some hesitation and fear by newer photographers wanting to shoot RAW.


Processing RAW files is really no big deal if you have a RAW Processor.  I am going to cover three super simple workflows here so for those wanting to use RAW can start sooner verses having to learn some huge drawn out process.

Why RAW?

Simply stated, shooting and storing RAW files is equivalent to shooting film and storing the negatives.

With a negative, one can always go get more prints, enlargements, ect.  It’s the same for the RAW file, except its even better as RAW files allow some adjustments to be made after the exposure is taken sometimes giving you the photographer a second chance to get things right!   I’ll briefly touch on that topic as we move forward.

What do I need?

You need a computer and RAW conversion software for the purposes of this tutorial.  Tablets and other mobile devices are rapidly evolving to also be able to process RAW files, these will be ignored in this small tutorial.

What RAW conversion software?

With the Nikon cameras you usually get RAW conversion software in the box or one can download Nikon Capture NX-D which will work for basic processing.  Its not the greatest option though, however, I will briefly cover it since its free and in the absence of other commercial tools it’s a great place to start.

You can look at Adobe’s offerings, these are hugely popular and for good reason as they are extremely easy to use in my humble opinion.  A great tandem is the Lightroom/Photoshop program combo which would provide most photographers with everything they might need to explore photography as a hobby and also work as a part of a professional’s toolkit.  This duo can now be rented month to month from Adobe for $10 US a month.  I will quickly cover two options using these in my tutorial.

There are then several other great options, Capture One and Apple’s Aperture are probably two of the more common ones followed by several others.  I won’t really cover these in this tutorial, so if you’re interested in them you will need to explore further on your own.  I will note that some basic concepts taught in this tutorial will apply to other RAW image processing tools.  Of possible note is that apple is in theory ending support for Aperture, so you may not want to spend money on their offering unless that is clear and acceptable to you.  Software updates though are critical as technology advances, so one should keep that in mind when choosing RAW software, or any other software for that matter.

Camera Setup

You’ll need to set your camera to RAW for Image Quality.  I get asked about sRAW, just don’t use it, it defeats the purpose of shooting RAW to create a Digital Negative by reducing the quality of your archival image.  Its certainly not a good place to start for a beginner.


You should know that for Nikon Cameras some of your settings may not apply to RAW files and for JPEG only, these are things like D-lighting, ect.  You’re not really loosing anything here as you can apply those options in post processing your RAW if you want.  Read your cameras manual for specifics!
Shooting RAW will require more space on your Flash Card and also on your Hard Drive, especially if you’re used to shooting smaller jpegs.  RAW is smaller than shooting TIF.  Depending on the size of your flash cards you may need to get new faster large cards to accommodate your shooting needs.


RAW Safety

If one is really serious about creating archival digital negatives, I highly suggest you copy your RAW files to your computer and then back up the untouched originals in the event one has an accident.  Archiving can be done to a backup drive or some sort of fixed media like a DVD or Blue-Ray disk.

This said, I screen my pictures first and only copy files I am most interested in as to keep from cluttering my HD and reducing the overall number of files I keep to those I keep verses all of them.

One can then copy them to a working drive and folder so that its faster to work with them in software like RAW Converters and photo editing software.


What do I mean by screening files, by that I simply get rid of misfires, test shots, ect.  I don’t need them burning up hard drive and archival space.

Nikon Capture NX-D

Let’s start with the free software.  Nikon’s NX-D (referred to here after as NXD) can be downloaded for free from Nikon’s website.


This tutorial will cover the RAW essentials (pun intended) of making fast adjustments to your picture and exporting them as a .tff file for further editing in other software or as a .jpg for basic usage.

The Photoshop conversions will cover a few more details and therefore may be worth reading as well if you’re wanting to get a full basic primer on RAW Conversion.

Launch NXD.

Starting on the left you’ll need to navigate to your SD card and or Folder where you have copied your files.  In this example I am working directly off the card, however, if you plan on using NXD full time, I highly recommend setting up folders and copying your card contents to those folders and then pointing NXD there to work on them.

The graphics accompanying this tutorial have been marked up with RED boxes outlining the focus points for the tutorial and don’t actually appear in the software.


On the top left you’ll see the file navigation window, this is where you point the software to either your flash card or directory where you have copied your files. Above that you can change the main screen view to help you better navigate and see thumbnail versions of your files.  See the RED box top left?  Clicking on that will give you a thumbnail view of the folder you have selected from the file navigation pane.  Slight below that and to the right is a yellow box around a slider, this allows you to adjust the size of the thumbnails for easier viewing.

The next yellow box is around the file I am choosing to work with for this tutorial.

Let’s move on to working the actual file by double clicking on it, this will open up a larger view in develop mode.



On the top Right side below the histogram you will see a series of drop downs, these let you set the picture controls and other features for the RAW conversion.

Of these, only three are available to pull down at this point of processing.


Using the  -0.0ev pull-down you can set a negative or positive EV after the fact.  This can be helpful if you blew out your highlights or underexposed and the photo is too dark.  A negative EV will preserve highlights and a positive EV will lift shadows.  Of course it increases and decreases everything so if you lift shadows with a positive EV you will also lift and potentially then blow your highlights as well.  In reverse applying negative EV may make your photo too dark in saving the highlights.

What’s the point?  I usually preserve for the highlights I want and then lift the shadows in Photoshop to eat both my pie and cake.

In the next RED box about midway you see a manual exposure compensation that will allow you to raise or lower the Exposure Value in smaller increments to gain precision.

You can also adjust the WB Balance after the fact.  Let’s say the picture looks a little cold, you can select a warmer WB and see if that appeals to you more.  Clicking on each little button to the left of the pull-down will offer up more detailed controls for the settings.


You can grab the slider moving left and right to adjust the white balance or select a preset from the pull down, or both thus adjusting the preset to exactly your preference.

Below WB you can find Picture control.  This will allow you to change the cameras picture control for specifically the picture you’re working on.  Perhaps you shot the picture in standard and now want to see what Vivid would have looked like, just access it from the pull down.

I should now cover an important aspect of RAW processing and image processing in general.  Sometimes controls fight each other.  For example, if you adjusted the white balance and then opt to change your picture control afterwards, it may totally change the color of the picture and thus supersede your WB or not properly reflect what changing to Vivid would have done on its own.  For that reason I recommend that you make tweaking iterative rather than think in terms of touching each control just one time.  Once you learn and see their effects on a regular basis you will intuitively know what you want to change to achieve your goals.

The reasons some of the pull-downs don’t offer options is that they reveal more specific controls instead when you click on their button to the left.  I am merely scratching the surface here so feel free to explore more on your own.  My goal is to help kickstart you into the world of RAW processing.

You could opt to sharpen your image in NX-D, however, I really only recommend sharpening as one of your final steps in imaging processing as it tends to be very destructive to images if misapplied.  One only need to zoom in on a overly sharpened image to see halos around edges of objects and added noise and artifacts.  Find a good tutorial on sharpening before you begin to apply it to your images.  Especially if you ever want to print them large where such details will become much more noticeable.  In particular what may look great zoomed out may look absolutely horrible zoomed in.  Your screen is only a facsimile of the actual image when working at scales greater or lesser than 1:1.   Be sure to zoom in on major changes to make sure your getting what you expect.

Next you are ready to convert the file to a working format such as .TIFF or JPEG.  I highly recommend .TIFF in this case as it will give you much better control in Photoshop or your editor of choice and preserve the detail and color depth of the image.08

You can right Click on the photo, select convert Files as shown above and then save your file to your working directory as shown below.  Be sure to use .Tiff and select 16bit verses 8 bit to have the best file to take into your photo editor.



It’s that simple, you can now go into your photo editing software and open your converted image to make additional adjustments.

Remember, always save sharpening as your last adjustment and apply curves and other adjustments first with the full .tff file in 16bits for best results.  Photo Filters and Sharpening are what we call destructive processing and so you want to apply those last and on a saved copy of your working image as to be able to move backwards if one wants.  I’ll toss that into the tutorial near the end.


Adobe Photoshop RAW conversion.

Using Photoshop we can also open and convert RAW Files.  This also works with Adobe Photoshop Elements if you want to buy it rather than rent Photoshop.  Truthfully, Elements is usually more than enough for most amateur photographers pursuing it as a hobby.  That said, you can also buy Lightrom for a reasonable price, however, if you believe you’ll upgrade often then renting will get you the full version of Photoshop and Lightroom.



You’ll need to open a file to covert and work!  Above you can see that after clicking on open you are presented with standard windows file navigation where you can find your file and open it.


Once you have clicked to open the file you will be presented with the RAW converter pictured above.

If you read the NXD tutorial above you can see we are presented similar controls as well as some new ones.  You can obviously adjust white balance with the temperature controls and adjust the Exposure Value up and down with the Exposure controls.  its important to note that some RAW conversion tools are more generic and therefor may not include all the same controls as you find in your camera’s specific conversion software.  Strategically you’ll need to decide what is most important to you with the understanding that what in this case Nikon is offering is presets that can be replicated using the controls in other software.

Here we will expand and talk about the highlights, shadows and other controls.

Assuming all other facets of your photo look good, the highlight control should be used first if you have blown highlights.  This will help tone the burnt highlights down by sliding to the left (negative value) while sliding to the right will increase them.

Developing a RAW can be an iterative process.  For example, if highlights and shadows are both too dim or under exposed then I might grab the Exposure control and raise it just until the highlights begin to blow.  You’ll also want to be monitoring the shadows levels as well.  If your shadows open up too much you may stop at the mid point between balancing highlight and shadows and then grab the individual shadow and highlight controls to make additional adjustments.



Shadow controls being lifted obviously bring up the darker portions while highlights being dimmed the brightest portions of your photo help recover hot spots.

In this photo above, if you look carefully, portions of the clouds details have gone pure white.  In the photo below I have adjusted a combination of the controls to reclaim the cloud detail, while also adjusting the shadows and lastly, adjusting saturation.  This is a huge powerful aspect of RAW over JPEG as recovery is very very limited in jpegs.

You can see the bottom photo above where in the split view you see the original RAW (bottom) and where the top pane is the reflecting the same RAW after processing.

I will provide two significant warnings about processing shadows and lifting them.  Doing so can expose noise in your photos so the faster the ISO the more of a liability it becomes.  You should zoom in when you can to view the impact and possible destructive consequences.

The second warning is that colors tend to fade when lifting shadows.  To compensate you can use the saturation and vibrancy controls when available to increase them to bring back a reasonable color balance to the photo.  The black and white sliders also can help as well.

I guess at this point it might be worth mentioning that people that suppress highlights and raise shadows are in essence making HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos.  I won’t get into this too much, however, its artificially doing so as the original and then processed file have the same Dynamic Range.  All one is doing with highlight suppression and shadow enhancing is moving the tones around within the existing dynamic range.  Think of it as redistribution of tonal ranges.  This can also be done by applying curves, however, that is a topic for another day!  This is why taking two photos, one to expose for the shadows and the second for the highlights and merging them can yield superior results when creating HDR images as in that scenario you really are getting more Dynamic Range to work with.



Whites and blacks can also help in processing ones image.  For example, sometimes on really hot white clouds turning down the whites can help retrieve highlight detail.  In similar fashion blacks can help darken areas of photos where you have lifted shadows significantly helping restore a vital balance to ones photos.  An example of someone wearing a black shirt where you know its black and has become faded due to shadow lifting can be restored by dialing down the Black Point control.  I use it a lot in landscapes where I have greatly manipulated the shadows and highlights, sometimes a small black point adjustment is just what the doctor ordered.

Clarity is a form of sharpening and can help make photos that have a watery look to them appear sharper or clearer.  Do not over do this as well or your images will get a really hard over sharpened look to them.  Sometimes one may consider reducing contrast to help offset the hardness clarity can create.

Again, playing to find balance is what all this is about.  Your working an image to produce and end result that may simply not have been possible within the camera and by shooting jpegs alone.

The reason is that RAW files have all your data in its full richness where as JPEGS compress and throw away what the conversion deems and non-essential data.  The end result is that jpegs have far less potential for manipulation without rapidly seeing destruction of the image quality.  Destruction manifests itself in halos, decreased detail, noise, artifacts and other image defects.  Note, some people may want those effects for artistic purposes, so don’t become a critic of others work, just wield this knowledge to your benefit and focus on your own work!

Once you are done playing with the sliders and have your image looking like you want or close to it, you can save the image or proceed to open it in Photoshop where you can perform additional tasks such as curve manipulation, FX Filters, Cropping, Sharpening and other common photo processing features towards making your final images.  There are several awesome plugins you can purchase to extend Photoshop in a multitude of ways that fall far beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Let’s go ahead and give you a nickel tour of what that might do for our image above before wrapping things up!  The reason I am doing this is to demonstrate that one could survive with Photoshop alone if they so desired.

Basics in Photoshop will be covered very very lightly here.  My goal is to give you a minimal workflow to produce a final file.

Depending on your sense of workflow (only you can determine and choose what makes the most sense here, you have a vast and almost unlimited choice of options once your photo is opened in Photoshop.

I’ll focus on cropping because while I recommend doing this as a later step, some people find it easier in their mind to crop first so they are looking at what they plan for the end image.

Let’s look at the image as it first appears in Photoshop.



The bottom right grass is unappealing to me, so I want to crop it away.  I also may have to crop other portions of the image to meet my intentions and create a balanced image.

Note, this image is never one I would even work with, it’s a throw away for the purpose of writing this tutorial.

The large RED outline shows most of the original image and the inner white line shows the proposed crop.


I have opted for a compromise on this image and am going to cheat a bit to give you a sense of just how powerful Photoshop can be.

So below, you can see I have selected the clone tool, set a reasonable brush size and marked in red an area that I do not like in the cropped photo.  I am going to add more water grass to the normal grass area below.  This was the lesser of evils between cropping too much away to be rid of the grass on the right only to have no water grass on the left.




So I am cloning in some grass with the clone tool and also using the crop tool to straighten a photo, I am showing the altered grass and just an example what rotating the file a bit using the crop tool can accomplish.  The cloning tool allows you to right click on an area and then paint that sample into another area of your choosing.  The clone tool as well as many others is accessible via the toolbar on the left side of the program.  There are tools for healing, dodging, blurring and several others.


I have opted not to apply this straighten as doing so would crop more of the image away,  The more you rotate in crop mode to straighten, the more of the image you’ll loose.

So let’s look at an curves next and what they can do for our image.

Under Image you can navigate to curves as shown below. Note, this also provides access to other tools we will use moving forward.


Once you have opened the curve controls you can play with the curves.  I move the curves box to the side so I can see the image and adjust the curves.


Curves can help bring out new qualities in your images.  Playing with the top right impacts highlights by either brightening them if you move a point above the diagonal line or lowering them if you move a point below as I have here.  This can help you create more dramatic clouds.  To adjust a portion of the curve, pick a point on it, click and hold that point and drag the curve to a shape and end result you desire.  You can repeat this several times to manipulate the image and curve to your desired state.

As you may have guessed, playing with the lower left end of the curve controls the darker areas and shadows.  This can help bring contrast to those areas.

Applying S like curves helps improve images sometimes.  Sometimes your image really doesn’t need curves so its not a cure-all for all image woes and or improvements.

Next we can add some brightness and contrast to recover the negative consequences of our curves.  Be careful not to burn out your highlights by raising the brightness too much.  The same can be said of contrast which intensifies darks or the opposite depenifn which direction one chooses.



We can then determine if Saturation and Vibrancy will further add to enhance our image.  Remember, if curves and brightening has faded your colors, we can re-hydrate them using these controls.  Be careful not to create unreal and thus sometimes undesired colors using saturation and vibrancy.  Sometimes you can create color hues and casts to your images.


And last but not least in our Nickel Tour we will look at Sharpen.

In this example I have deliberately over used all these controls for effect.  You’ll see this next example shows over sharpening and the halos around the edges and if you zoomed in, lots of noise and artifacts.  You want to avoid halos if you can otherwise it can show up negatively in prints unless that’s what you really want.


Not only can you see the halos in the sharpen box, you can see the image has hardened up considerably.  here is a closeup of an over sharpened image.



Usually my taste leans towards a small radius, .2 -.5 and then a larger amount of sharpening, this tends to reduce halos (300%-400%).

So our last step might be one where we reduce the image for web display.  This can be controversial, however I do recommend reduction to something less than 1600 and that you add a copyright to your image to prevent it from being stolen if you’re worried about that sort of thing.



And now, our before and after quick views.


Again, this has been over done for dramatic effect.



So now you have a small taste of Photoshop and you can save your image. Choosing .PSD in Photoshop can provide great flexibility in quality and editing moving forward and is my preferred format.

Again, Photoshop is too large for me to cover so this is a mere appetizer if even that!

While I could cover Adobe Lightroom here as well, I confess I am tired at this point and so I will only briefly discuss it as a part of wrapping this up!

Lightroom allows for easy mass import of ones photos.  It also allows one to perform batch processing.  By that I mean that if you have shot a series of photos in a location, same lighting ect, and you make adjustments to one of the RAWs, with a few clicks you can apply those adjustments to all the RAWs in that series if you like.  This is a powerful time saver!  If nothing else, you can do this and then go tweak each image faster than processing each one by one.

You use the file menu to select Import and point LR to your flashcard or directory, very similar to NXD.


Lightroom allows for easy management of your photos and if you can get away with the basics, including cropping, red eye removal, ect, then Lightroom may be all you need as it can do all those things including curves and sharpening.

Once you import you will see your files in the Library window.


Once you select a file you can move from the Library Tab to the develop Tab where you will get a larger view you can work with your photo.


As with the other RAW convertes you can use the controls to adjust exposure, colors, clarity and in Lightroom you can even Crop and prepare your files for final output.  As I referenced earlier, some photographers will find Lightroom capable of meeting most of their needs.


The best thing you can do with all these software packages is download and play with them yourself.

Don’t be afraid to play because if you keep a copy of your RAWs, you can always retrieve your original photo and start over again!

Finally, you may hear of people speak of workflow.  Workflow is the overall start to finish process one adopts to process their images.  It can start at the camera by the choice of settings and finish on the web or when you hand over a print to a customer or gallery.

A High-level workflow might go something like this:

  • Camera is set for minimal FX, Noise Reduction, D-lighting, Picture Control off SRGB or Adobe RGB as color profile.
  • Pictures are taken to flash cards and then cards are copied to a working drive and an archive drive.
  • Pictures are sorted, and desired set of working images are selected, unchosen files are deleted.
  • Files are imported into Lightroom
  • File(s) WB, Exposure, Colors, Crop, Red Eye, are all adjusted and final images are selected and exported
  • Images are then opened in Photoshoped where additional adjustments, special FX, sizing ect are processed and images resaved in PSD.
  • Images are readied for web or print and final versions are saved to the Archive.

Ones workflow is a matter of personal preference and you can develop your own workflow to fit your needs.

I hope you found this tutorial useful, it is a bit rough on the edges, however, it is free!  Wink!

Until next time!




This entry was posted in Talking Photography.