How-To: Edit RAW Photos on a Budget (or for Free!)

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Why Shoot in RAW Mode?

RAW mode, a feature of virtually all digital SLR cameras and an increasing number of high-end point-and-shoot cameras, enables your camera to capture all of the image data in your photographs in full quality without distortion caused by JPEG data compression. RAW files enable you to repair white balance and color temperature problems, solve exposure problems, and adjust color intensity and other settings far better than you can with JPEG files. Unfortunately, you must use software that supports RAW files to optimize your picture and export it to a format you can use for other purposes, such as JPEG or TIFF.

Thankfully, you don't need to spend a fortune on software to edit RAW images. In this article, we'll put three popular solutions to the test:

  • Canon Professional Digital Photo
  • Google Picasa 3.5
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements with Adobe Camera Raw

Professional Digital Photo and Google Picasa are free, while Adobe Photoshop Elements v8 runs around $80-100. Can you get by with a freebie, or should you cough up some bucks? To answer this question, we turned all three of our contenders loose on discolored, underexposed and overexposed Canon RAW (.CR2) photos taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XTi camera.

Google Picasa 3.5

Google Picasa is easy to download and uses the same interface for editing RAW images as for editing other supported image types (JPEG, TIFF, and so on). Picasa supports most digital camera RAW codecs (see this reference ) and is updated frequently as new digital camera RAW file types are introduced.

Locating RAW Images in Picasa

RAW images are displayed in Picasa's image library window the same way as JPEG images. To determine the image type, click the image, and the file extension, size, and other basic properties are shown in the blue bar between the image browser and the action buttons.

Picasa and Automatic Photo Repairs

As soon as Picasa locates photos, including RAW images, it automatically applies fixes to those photos. This is very handy if you don't want to worry about making a lot of changes yourself, but if you don't agree with Picasa's changes, it can be frustrating, since you can't undo automatic fixes.

Fixing Color and Exposure Problems with Basic Fixes

To make manual changes, double-click the photo in the Picasa image library window. Picasa uses three tabs in its editing space. The Basic Fixes tab opens by default. For a quick automatic repair, click I'm Feeling Lucky. Sometimes you're lucky, but in this example, we've traded dark poor color for lighter poor color.  Thankfully, you can undo changes made on this tab by clicking the Undo button

Using the Tuning Menu

For greater control over the image, click the Tuning tab. The Tuning tab enables you to use sliders to adjust Fill Light, Highlights, Shadows, and Color Temperature (the third tab, Effects, provides a dozen special effects). By using the Tuning tab, we achieved better color and exposure.

Once you make changes to a RAW file, the changes are stored in Picasa, but the RAW file itself is not changed.

Applying Changes to Multiple RAW Files

If you have a number of RAW images that have the same color temperature (white balance) or exposure problems, or if you want to apply the same special effects to a group of photos, you may want to make the same edits to each photo. Here's how Picasa does it.

1. Select the fixes desired from the Basic Fixes, Tuning, and Effects tab.

2. Click Edit, Copy All Effects.

3. Click Back to Library.

4. Use Shift-click or Ctrl-Click to select similar photos.

5. Click Edit, Paste All Effects.

Unfortunately, because you pasted the effects to the files, the sliders used to adjust exposure, color temperature, and effects do not show the actual settings on the target files.

Saving a JPEG File in Picasa

To create a JPEG file (which can be used for printing, emailing, websites, and so on) from your edited RAW file, click File, Save As, and select JPEG from the pull-down options. Unfortunately, Picasa does not provide options for file size/quality.

Picasa matches the image quality of the original photo, and uses a quality level of 85% when it cannot determine the quality level.

Saving Other File Types

If you need to convert a RAW file into a file type other than JPEG, current versions of Picasa can't do it (this feature was available in earlier versions).

Picasa 3.5 Summary

Pros: Free, supports most cameras that shoot RAW images, easy to use interface

Cons: Automatically makes changes to photos that can't be undone, more limited controls than others, can only export photos in JPEG, can't control JPEG quality levels.

Our take: Use Picasa 3.5 if it's all you have, but you'll probably be happier with your camera vendor's RAW image editor, or with Adobe Photoshop Elements with Camera RAW.

Canon Digital Photo Professional

Canon actually provides two ways to edit RAW files: ZoomBrowser EX and Digital Photo Professional. ZoomBrowser EX is clumsy, provides very limited editing features of RAW files only through an additional Canon-provided program called RAW Image Task, and is excruciatingly difficult to update. Our advice, after trying both: use Digital Photo Professional instead. You can install it from the CD packaged with your Canon camera, or download it from the Canon website.

Using Digital Photo Professional to Edit RAW Files

Digital Photo Professional (DPP) bears a striking resemblance to Adobe Lightroom. And, you can consider it a sort of "junior Lightroom" for Canon RAW files. Here's how to get started:

1. Open DPP

2. Select a RAW image created by a Canon camera (.CR2 or .CRW).

3. Click Tool to open the Tool palette.

4. From the RAW tab, use sliders to adjust brightness, white balance, picture style, contrast, color tone, saturation, and sharpness.

6. Use the RGB tab to adjust tone curves for RGB or separate channels, brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, and sharpness.

7. Use the NR tab to adjust noise reduction.

8. Click Tool to close the Tool palette.

Note: If you prefer to work with full-screen images, double-click the image in Step 2.

Using DPP to Save Changes to a RAW File

1. After editing a RAW file, click File, Save As.

2. Navigate to a different location if desired.

3. If you don't choose a different location and you don't want to overwrite the original file, enter a new name for the file.

4. Click Save.

5. A new RAW file is saved to the specified location.

6. If you have selected multiple files (see "Processing Multiple Files" for details), you will be prompted to save each additional file.

Saving a RAW Image as a Different File Type

1. Click File, Convert and Save.

2. The saved file uses the same name as the original file. Enter a different name if desired.

3. Select the image type (Exif-JPEG is standard; you can also select 8-bit or 16-bit TIFF, with or without JPEG image).

4. If you select an output option that includes JPEG, the image quality defaults to 10 (best).  To decrease file size (and reduce quality), use the slider to select a smaller value (1 is smallest/worst quality).

5. Select the desired resolution.

6. Click Save.

7. The file is converted and saved.

Processing Multiple Files with DPP

To work with multiple files in DPP, you can choose from several methods.

Interactive Processing

1. Click each file you want to process to select it.

2. Click a check mark (check 1, check 2, or check 3).

3. Repeat Steps 1 and 2 until all files you want to process have been marked with the same check mark.

4. Click Edit , Select Check Mark x Images Only (x=1, 2, or 3).

5. Click Tool to open the Tool palette.

6. Make adjustments as needed using the RAW, RGB, and NR tabs.

7. Save or convert each file as desired, using File, Save As or File, Convert and Save.

Create a "Recipe" for File Editing

DPP also enables you to create a "recipe" from an edited file and apply it to other, similar files.

1. Make the changes as desired to the photo.

2. Right-click the photo.

3. Click Save Recipe in File.

4. By default, the name of the photo is used as the name for the recipe (.vrd) file. Enter a different name if desired.

5. Navigate to a different folder if desired (recipes are stored in the same folder as the source photo by default).

6. Click Save to save the recipe.

Applying a Recipe to a Different File

1. Select the file you want to apply a recipe to.

2. Click Edit, Read and Paste Recipe from File.

3. Select the recipe desired.

4. Click Open.

5. The recipe is applied to the selected file.

To apply a recipe to multiple files, select the files first as discussed in "Interactive Processing" earlier in this article.

Digital Photo Professional Summary

Pros : Free, powerful interface, able to save changes to a RAW file, doesn't make any changes for you, enables you to output both JPEG and TIFF files in a single operation, can save recipes to make the same changes to similar files.

Cons : Need to read the manual (available on the Canon camera CD or online) to learn all features; only works with Canon RAW files.

Our take: If you use Canon cameras that work with RAW files, DPP is a bargain – but read the manual to learn everything it can do.

Adobe Photoshop Elements with Camera Raw

Adobe Photoshop Elements can't work with RAW files unless you use Camera Raw to process the files first. However, once you install Photoshop Elements and Camera Raw, you're ready to work with Raw files. Camera Raw is available from the Adobe website at no charge.

For Windows

For MacOS

Cameras supported by latest Camera RAW version

Using Camera Raw to Edit RAW Files

You can open any RAW file recognized by Camera Raw with Photoshop Elements, once you install the appropriate version of Camera Raw. Here's how to get started:

1. Open a RAW image file from File, Open in Photoshop Elements, or drag the file to the Photoshop Elements window.

2. Camera Raw opens.

3. Use the Basic tab to adjust white balance, color temperature, exposure, fill light, contrast, and other settings.

4. Click the Advanced tab if you need to adjust sharpening or noise reduction.

Using Camera Raw to Create a Digital Negative

Adobe's digital negative (DNG) format provides an industry-standard file format that retains all image information, making it a useful replacement for proprietary RAW files. In fact, a few digital cameras store their RAW files as DNG files. Here's how to save a DNG file with Camera RAW.

1. To create a digital negative (DNG) file, click Save Image.

2. Enter the image name and select other options, then click Save.

Saving a RAW Image as a Different File Type with Camera Raw and Adobe Photoshop Elements

1. After making changes with Camera Raw, click Open File.

2. The file opens in Photoshop Elements.

3. Use File, Save as to save the file as a JPEG, TIFF, PSD, or other file type.

4. If you select JPEG, you will be prompted to select the desired image quality (1-lowest, 12-highest).

5. Click Save to save changes.

Processing Multiple Files with Adobe Camera Raw

To apply the same changes to multiple files, you should open the files at the same time:

1. Select the files you want to edit with Camera RAW.

2. Drag the files to the open Photoshop Elements window.

3. Click Select All to select all files.

4. Use the Basic and Advanced tabs to make editing adjustments as needed.

Adobe Camera Raw Summary

Pros : Great preview, makes most changes with a single interface, works with both Photoshop and Photoshop Elements (which provide the most flexible file output options of any program in this roundup, can make the same changes to multiple files, works with virtually all RAW file types.

Cons : Requires you to buy Photoshop Elements (or Photoshop); if you buy a new camera, you might need to upgrade Photoshop Elements/Photoshop, as the newest Camera Raw versions support only current Photoshop Elements/Photoshop, can't save settings for reuse later.

Our take : If you already use Photoshop Elements (or Photoshop), Camera Raw is a no-brainer; it's also the best of the three solutions if you plan to make a lot of additional changes to your photo afterwards. However, if you are looking only for a RAW converter, your camera vendor's software may be satisfactory – and it's usually free!

Mark Edward Soper is the author of The Shot Doctor: The Amateur's Guide to Taking Great Digital Photos.

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