The Digital Eye: New Camera Raw

If you Google Camera Raw on the web, you’ll find way too much technical information about the Adobe file converter that non-destructively performs color corrections and a multitude of other miraculous digital pyrotechnics. This article will help to translate all that "techno-eese" into plain English so that you can more easily see the benefits of using Camera Raw and understand its purpose and features.

Camera Raw images are captured by many leading professional and midrange digital cameras. These "digital negatives" provide greater control and flexibility in a non-destructive workflow. The Adobe Camera Raw plug-in became state-of-the-art tool for professional photographers when it was released in February 2003. Over the years it has been frequently updated to support more cameras and includes more features that virtually any user can benefit from.

JPEG and TIFF vs. Camera Raw

Digital cameras typically produce three types of files; JPEGs, TIFFs and RAW files. Each of these formats has its own pros and cons. The advantage capturing images in JPEG format is that files are small and can be displayed by just about any program. The smaller file sizes are the result of a “lossy” compression scheme; some of the data is lost when the file is created, however the small file size and universality of JPEG format makes them very convenient.

When they are compressed, TIFF files also have smaller file sizes but don’t contain as much tonal information as RAW files. The advantage of TIFFs is that unlike JPEGs they do not deteriorate if they are saved multiple times because of their “lossless” compression scheme.

But there’s a hitch. When an image is captured in JPEG or TIFF format, the camera's conversion process acts like a miniature digital darkroom, developing the image according to pre-programmed algorithms. In other words, it processes the image with no input from you. Furthermore, some of the image information captured by the camera's sensor is actually discarded. What you end up with is a fully developed picture but with no way to control color or tonality. It’s like taking your images to Walmart and letting a machine develop them. You have no control over the most critical stage—the final output.

A Camera Raw file, (CRW or DNG) on the other hand, contains every bit of image detail directly from the camera's sensor. Without the processing that the JPEG or TIFF algorithm imposes upon the image, you can develop the image according to how you think it should look.

By working directly in the Camera Raw interface you are presented with an abundance of image data so that detail in the highlights, mid-tones and shadows that may be lost in a JPEG or TIFF image can be accessed and manipulated. The disadvantage is that the file sizes are much larger than JPEG and TIFFs and they have to be created by a proprietary software program specific to each camera and then opened in the Adobe Camera Raw interface. Unprocessed RAW files may appear flat because any color, contrast or sharpening adjustments imposed by the camera’s software have been discarded.

Support Hardware and Software

Camera Raw is not a stand-alone program. It interfaces with other Adobe products. Software applications that support Adobe Camera Raw include Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, After Effects, and Bridge. Additionally, Adobe Lightroom is built upon the same raw image processing technology that powers Adobe Camera Raw.

In the early releases only professional digital cameras supported Camera Raw. Nowadays, however, numerous cameras and even some smart phones support the format. Cameras that capture images in Camera Raw format are manufactured by: Canon, Casio, Contax, DxO, Epson, Fujifilm, Hasselblad, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Leaf, Leica, Mamiya, Nikon, Nokia, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Phase One, Ricoh, Samsung, Sigma, Sony and Yuneec. For a list of individual camera and smart phone models, go to

Opening an Image

Depending on the camera, Camera Raw images will have either a DNG (Digital Negative) or CRW extension. Depending on the settings, the camera’s software sometimes saves both a Camera Raw file and a JPEG. When you click on an image that’s been shot in Camera Raw format, weather Photoshop or any of the other aforementioned software programs is launched, the Camera Raw interface automatically opens and displays the image (see Figure 1).

The Basic interface displays sliders for Whitepoint, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation. There are other controls and tools displayed as icons at the top of the control panel and image window that that offer even more features designed to enhance color, tonality, sharpness and aspect ratio among other image characteristics.

Processing JPEGs and TIFFS

Although Camera Raw was originally created exclusively for processing RAW files, later versions of Camera Raw software also edit JPEGs and TIFFs. To open a single JPEG or TIFF in the Camera Raw interface, launch Photoshop and under the File menu choose Open, then find the JPEG or TIFF image on your computer that you want to open. Click on it, then from the Format pop-up menu at the bottom of the Open dialog, choose Camera Raw, and click Open (see Figure 2).

If you want to make Camera Raw the default for JPEGs and TIFFs go to (Mac ) Photoshop (Win) Edit >Preferences >Camera Raw (see Figure 3). At the bottom of the Preferences dialog, where it says JPEG and TIFF Handling, choose Automatically Open All Supported JPEGs and Automatically Open all Supported TIFFs.

One of the biggest advantages of working in Camera Raw is that files open as 16-bit rather than the 8-bit images. If you have a particularly troublesome image that requires major tonal adjustments a RAW file is the way to go because 16 –bit files have more data and are less susceptible data loss. They can afford to loose some of their information with less deterioration to the overall picture.


What are the differences in editing Raw files vs. JPEG and TIFF? Most of the time you’ll notice no difference at all because all the controls look and operate in similar fashion. However, there are three things that are distinctly different:

  • White Balance presets are not available on JPEG and TIFF images (see Figure 4). When you shoot in JPEG or TIFF mode on your camera, your settings are embedded and therefore “fixed” you can, however adjust these settings manually.
  • Picture Styles are missing. Styles that the camera offers, such as monochrome, sepia, high contrast, etc., are eliminated in Camera Raw. They too can be reapplied manually with much more precision.
  • Color Profiles like sRGB or Adobe 1998 are ignored by the Camera Raw interface on JPEG and TIFF files.

Camera Raw / Photoshop Workflow

Some of the features in Camera Raw look a heck of a lot like features in Photoshop. So what’s the difference and which program should you use? The most important consideration is that Camera Raw develops images. As if you were developing film in a chemical bath to produce a high quality negative. Photoshop edits images—sort of like making a fine print in a traditional darkroom.

All primary processes like adjusting the overall white balance, the contrast, the exposure and color saturation, a bit of initial sharpening and noise reduction, is performed in Camera Raw. These manipulations are more global and affect the entire image. Camera Raw is used to assure that the overall image looks good.

Photoshop can perform more specific types of editing like compositing, layering, opacity, dodging and burning, special effects, 3D, frame animation, video among too many others to name. Photoshop also has many capabilities that affect the global image too and one can’t argue that there is a great deal of overlap between the two programs. I suppose the primary difference and the one that affects your choice is ease of operation. Photoshop a ginormous program with hundreds of features that can sometimes be confusing.

A case could be made that Photoshop is too complex because it does so much, not because it can't do everything but because it does a whole lot more than is needed.


So what are the actual advantages to working in Camera Raw? Even though Camera Raw is a Photoshop plug-in, it looks like a completely separate program dedicated and streamlined for editing color and tonality. All of its features are logically presented in a way that makes you aware of what they do and where they are. It displays tools and panels presented in logical, user friendly layout (see Figure 5). And unlike Photoshop, Camera Raw isn't cluttered with extraneous features you may never use. So, if all you want to do is make your image look better, Camera Raw is a good choice.

Furthermore, Camera Raw is completely non-destructive. Whereas Photoshop edits pixels, which can be destructive because it alters original pixel information, Camera Raw is parametric or non-destructive. It embeds metadata into the image that instructs the software how to display the image on the screen (see Figure 6). As the image is altered in Camera Raw, the software creates a live preview of how the image looks based on the instructions. No changes are ever applied to the original file regardless of how radically the image is altered.

Of course, Photoshop can be non-destructive too, with Layers, Smart Objects, History, etc., but Camera Raw is non-destructive from the get-go. Not until the image is opened in Photoshop for additional editing, or saved in a different format is the metadata is applied to the pixels.

Multiple Images

The third advantage of Camera Raw is that it can simultaneously edit multiple images, which can’t be done in Photoshop. If you've taken similar exposures of the same subject under similar lighting conditions, the images can be selected in Adobe Bridge and simultaneously opened in Camera Raw. After you’ve altered one of the images you can sync the settings to multiple images, saving a lot of time and effort (see Figure 7).

These advantages are hard to ignore when streamlining your workflow. Speed, ease of use, non-destructive editing and the ability to apply settings to multiple images make Camera Raw an intelligent choice that can help you make your pictures look great.