One of the most important differences between an amateur and professional photographer—apart from understanding your gear and knowing what to shoot—is taking photos in RAW.
And though RAW format helps you take high-quality photos that look more professional, only about 20% of photographers use it. Earlier we already posted articles about why it’s better to shoot in RAW and how to post-process JPG photos in Lightroom. Today we are going to explain you how to edit RAW images step-by-step and show you that there’s nothing difficult about it at all.
You won’t probably see any differences between JPG and RAW in the image quality if you look at your camera’s LCD after taking a photo in RAW. However, the differences will become obvious as soon as you have copied the photos to your PC or laptop.
Firstly, the photos will be in NEF format, which you won’t be able to open using common image viewer software. You will need to use either Photoshop or Lightroom to view the files and edit them. We prefer using the latter because it’s much more user-friendly.
Secondly, the unedited RAW photo in Lightroom will look very different from what it looked on your camera’s LCD. It will look bleak, washed-out, lacking in contrast, and probably wrong in colors. There’s nothing wrong with that as it’ll change completely after we’ve finished with post-processing. Let’s get started.
This photo has been taken on a nice sunny day with Nikon D7000, 18mm focal length, f/5.6 for avoiding vignetting, chromatic aberrations, and diffraction, and 1/500 shutter speed. And though all settings are right, the photo looks horrible. The colors are completely wrong and it doesn’t look sharp.
The first thing that we should change is temperature. Let’s increase it up to 6800 to make it look more natural and get rid of this metal-like blue color. Looks better, doesn’t it?
Exposure and Contrast
Now let’s decrease the exposure because the photo looks too bright. Also, we will increase the contrast. RAW photos usually lack in contrast and that’s why you can increase it up to about 50 depending on the photo.
Highlights/Shadows and Whites/Blacks
The colors seem right, but the photo is too dark now. This is really easy to fix by adjusting Highlights and Shadows. The majority of photos will need Highlights decreased to -80 or -100, but it’s a bit different with Shadows. This photo looks better with Shadows increased to +100, but other photos may only need them to be increased up +30 or less.
We’re also tweaking Whites and Blacks to about the same amount. +17 and -17 looks good enough. Let’s continue.
Clarity and Vibrance
Clarity is very important when it comes to editing RAW photos because they usually lack in it. Contrary to editing JPG images where it’s advisable not to increase Clarity over +20, RAW photos may need it increased up to +40.
Apart from it, we’re increasing Vibrance up to +20 in order to make the colors pop. +20 is enough because we don’t want the colors to look too acid. Due to the same reason, we prefer not to touch Saturation and leave it at 0.
We like to tweak colors too. Sky looks important on this photo to us and that’s why we will make it more eye-catching. Let’s increase Saturation to +30 and decrease Luminance to -40 in blue colors to make it look darker and deeper.
The last thing we should do is either add sharpness or artificial vignetting. And though this photo is already sharp enough, we will still increase Sharpening to +60. This is a merely personal thing and you may leave the parameter as it is.
As you can see, the edited photo looks warm, balanced, natural, and simply beautiful, which we can’t say about the original image.
Usually, the post-processing of RAW photos doesn’t take longer than five minutes and it lets you turn the way your images look upside down. The next time you’re going to set out on a photohunt or another photoshoot for your clients, try taking your shots and RAW. Then simply use this guide to edit them and you’ll see that it’s not really difficult and brings you awesome results.
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