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Adobe Camera Raw in product image editing

Adobe Camera Raw is the best tool used by numerous retouchers all over the world. Not as bulky as Lightroom, it's extremely versatile and useful in product image editing.

I’d like to mention that it’s not a tutorial for those who have never seen or experienced Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). I won’t go into great detail on how everything works and which sliders do what, so if you never worked with a raw file converter, helpx.adobe.com has some great tutorials that explain all the features. Or you can just sit and play around with all the tools and sliders to learn by yourself.

My goal is not to teach you how to use it, but to separate the tools useful in catalogue retouching from the rest of them. There are hundreds of different tools, filters, features and commands in both Photoshop and Camera Raw, but not everything comes in handy. I'll give you an overview of the most useful ACR features, and if you feel like you don’t really understand what I said or did, it’s a good moment to stop and check the official Adobe Help Center. I do it all the time when I’m not sure how something works and that’s why I don’t give a detailed explanation of how everything works – because they did already, and the information is free. For this course, I mostly used the Adobe Camera Raw version 10.4. Experience in other versions might be a bit different, but ACR is ACR nonetheless.

When we work with images, we usually get them in batches, each coming from one of the photography stations. A photography station is basically a place in the studio, set in such a way that it’s possible to shoot images there: it’s a stand with a fixed backdrop, light sources, special props like mannequins etc. It means that every image in the batch is similar to the rest of them because it was taken with the same camera with the same settings, in the same environment. So we can color correct them by applying the same changes to all the images at once to save time. To do so, we need a raw images processing program, like Adobe Lightroom, which, I think, is very popular among photographers. But I prefer Adobe Camera Raw, which is light and simple, as Lightroom has many features that are not needed for the process of catalogue retouching.

When I say Adobe Camera Raw or ACR, I don’t mean that we can only work with the raw format. The deal is that you can process any images, no matter if they are raw or compressed. In big online stores shooting in raw is not reasonable, as it is slow and space consuming compared with jpeg. The raw format offers a lot of flexibility for retouchers, but as we don’t change the images in a drastic way, it is absolutely not necessary. Jpegs are pretty much okay for product image retouching, and there’s only one important thing they miss: white balance correction capacity.

If you shoot in raw and your white balance is seriously messed up, it’s not a problem. You can set it in ACR without losing image quality. But jpeg is different. If the white balance is not exactly right, but the color shift is not significant, you can fix it, but any drastic color shifts will ruin your image. So if you shoot in jpeg you have to be really attentive to white balance settings. Same, of course, is true about overexposure and underexposure of the images. If you lose information in highlights or shadows you can get it back in raw and you can’t in jpeg. But black shadows and highlights blown out are easier to notice than color shifts.

Photography setup should be correct in any way, of course, but if they mess it up and they shoot in raw, you can fix it (to some extent), and if it’s jpeg, they have to shoot it all once again. The raw format gives you flexibility and saves you from reshooting, and jpeg saves you time and disk space. Choose wisely between the two. Well, choose if you can, because most of the time it’s a decision that someone else makes. The answer to the question: “Can I shoot in jpeg instead of raw?” is “Yes, if you make sure the setup is okay”. There won’t be a second chance to fix the white balance or pitch black shadows.

If photographers shoot in jpeg, they should also make sure that the camera is not increasing contrast or sharpening the resulting images too much. If it does, you might have some problems on the retouching stage. Because contrast is something that is easy to increase, by if the process is uncontrolled, the result might be disappointing. As for the sharpening, when a camera does it, it might cause serious moire problems and it also might decrease the overall image quality. Same as with contrast – it's easy to add some sharpness, but if it's too much, you're in trouble. There's no way to fix an image that was oversharpened or made too contrasted by a camera processor. That's why I insist that all the in-camera sharpening and contrast should be set to zero. As for the raw vs jpeg situation, personally, I prefer jpeg at all time, because photographers are aware that if they mess up they are going to reshoot, so they take it more seriously, they pay more attention to the setup and to the shooting process, which is good.

You can open any kinds of images in Adobe Camera Raw, be it JPEG or raw, but there’s a slight difference in how the program handles these images.

Raw and JPEG in ACR. Comparison

There are two ways how you can open images via Camera Raw. If you work with Adobe Bridge, you can select all the images you need there, press the right mouse button and then click on the “Open in Camera Raw”. There was a major installation issue for some users that made this option grayed out, so it was not possible to open files in Camera Raw like that. I think It has been long fixed by the Adobe team, but if that’s what happens to you, or if you don’t have Bridge at all, there’s another way, through Photoshop.

When in Photoshop, press Shift-K to access the Preferences window and go to the File Handling tab. Click on the Camera Raw Preferences, and you’ll be able to set up Jpeg and TIFF file format handling, whether all jpegs should be opened in Camera Raw or just those with the settings (when a sidecar .xmp file is present for each jpeg), or none at all. If there’s no other way for you to open files in Camera Raw, choose “Automatically open all supported jpegs”. To open a bunch of jpegs at once, select them all and then drag into the Photoshop window. If there is an image already opened in Photoshop, just make you don't drag your images on that image, as instead of opening them it will just try to place them into this image, one by one. Instead of that, drag and drop them on the menu or some place like that. They will be opened in Camera Raw.

If you work with raw images, you don’t have to do all that, because they all will be inevitably opened in Camera Raw by default, as the raw format has to be processed first. Now let’s get acquainted with ACR and its numerous tabs and tools.

When you work with images, you can choose a camera profile. In the older versions of ACR, you had to access the Camera Calibration tab – by pressing the button with a camera. Now it's no longer there, all the profile selection moved to the Basic tab. It's not a change for the good, as the Basic panel became bulkier. It has an embedded profile, which is Color by default, and that’s it. You can pick either Color or Monochrome.

The raw format has many profiles, but it’s not really that important. Normally I tell my team to leave this tab alone. The reason is that some people might forget to set things right and the resulting images will differ depending on the camera profile. If you work in a team, do as others do. The default profile is the Adobe Color, and it's good enough. Camera profiles change how ACR renders images, so make sure you don't pick a random profile from the list.

You can also make your own profile for a particular camera by using special equipment. They claim it will give you an unprecedented color match between the real-life colors and what your camera captures. It works the same way as calibrating a monitor. You take a picture of a colored piece of plastic, and then special software compares the image from your camera with the original image measurements from the manufacturer. When that's done, the software creates a camera profile which is intended to fix any color shifts that your camera has. It sounds very cool and I did it a couple of times, but I don’t think it’s necessary for catalogue images production for quite a few reasons.

First, it costs money, as this particular piece of colored plastic is quite pricey. Second, you have to always shoot raw images, as you can't use a camera profile on jpegs. Raw images processing requires a lot of disk space and machine power. Third, sometimes it’s just not worth the effort. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly you set things up on your side if your customers are not going to see what you see on their monitors anyway. I don’t have anything personal against camera calibration, but again – if you do it and retouchers forget to use the correct camera profile it will be pointless anyway, and you can’t imagine how often it happens even with the fact that you only have to set it once. But let's get back to ACR and its jpeg and raw handling comparison.

There’s another difference in the main tab, and it’s about the white balance. In both cases, raw or jpeg you can move sliders to adjust color temperature. But when you have raw images, what you do here is set the temperature and tint to any number you want. With jpeg, you do the same, but your image quality will worsen depending on how far you go from the default settings. It’s easier to demonstrate than to explain.

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This one is a raw image with the wrong white balance settings, and this one is a jpeg I saved from the raw image with the wrong white balance settings. With raw image, when I choose As Shot from the dropout menu, it gets back to normal. If it was shot in a wrong way, I can adjust the sliders until I get it right, or click on the background with the White Balance Tool assuming it’s neutral gray, and it will fix my image. But watch what happens with jpeg: the wrong white balance is set as As Shot, and when I set it to Auto it doesn’t work well. Manual adjustments do not seem to work either, and if I click on the background with the White Balance Tool it does no good, too. Compare this with the original and you’ll see that the image is completely ruined, you can’t fix it.

Now let’s see what happens when you alter the tonal range of images. I said that the raw format gives you more freedom, but it’s only crucial when it comes to lost information in shadows or highlights. If a pixel is white or black, jpeg is powerless, and raw can bring you some information instead of blown out pixels. But when there’s no clipping involved, jpeg is better than you might think. Look at these two images. First one is raw, the other one is jpeg, they are basically the same image, which is considerably underexposed. I’ll grab the Shadows slider and move it to the far right on both images. If you look closely, you can see that jpeg is a bit noisier, but it doesn’t look much worse than the raw image. And when you set Shadows to something like 50, which is enough in this case, it doesn’t even look any worse. Not bad for a file that weighs four times less, right? This is why I prefer jpegs for catalogue retouching. As long as the white balance is okay and there’s no clipping, you’re fine.

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Current process vs 2010

In 2012 Adobe Camera Raw changed its appearance and the logic behind the sliders used for color correction. It did the same thing later, but the sliders remained the same as they were in 2012. In modern versions of the plugin the main sliders are as follows: Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks. But before that, the sliders were different. If you go to the Calibration tab by clicking on the button with a piece of camera film, you'll be able to switch to the old version. In the Process dropout menu, choose 2010 instead of the current version. Now when you switch back to the Basic tab, you'll see that the names of the sliders have changed. Now there are: Exposure, Recovery, Fill Light, Blacks, Brightness, and Contrast. It's not just the names, the whole thing acts differently now. Now please, don't get me wrong. I made this course in 2018, and I'm trying not to give you any information that is obsolete. And I doubt you'll find many people that still use the 2010 Camera Raw process instead of the new one. But personally, I think the old process has many advantages compared with the new one. That's why I feel obliged to explain how it worked back then and why I find the old process more useful than the new one.

In catalogue retouching, our typical color correction tasks are usually revolving around black and white things. Black items that look too dark or not dark enough, and white items that look too bright or not bright enough. At the same time, when we make these dark items lighter, and light items darker, we don't really want to change the appearance of the whole image. We just want to work on these particular areas of the tonal range. When something that is black is not dark enough or something that is white is not light enough, it's not a big deal. You just increase the overall contrast and you're fine. But the opposite is a serious issue. Because when you make the darkest areas lighter, and the brightest areas darker, you lower the contrast, and you don't want it to drop too drastically. And this is exactly the reason why I dislike the new ACR process.

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Let me show you how exactly it happens. This image is very dark, but not because it's underexposed. You can see that the numbers here on the shoulder are pretty normal for human skin, and we're not talking about exposure anyway. Because of the contrasted light scheme, which was used for this particular photo shoot, all the black clothes look very dark. This particular area on the back is about 11-11-11 on average. So, just for an experiment, let's say I need to make this area reach 20-20-20 without changing the rest of the image. How can I do that? In the modern Camera Raw process, there are two sliders responsible for the leftmost part of the Histogram: the Shadows and the Blacks. If I use the Shadows slider, you'll see that it affects the model, too, not just the dress. So let's use the Blacks instead. I'll set the Eyedropper on the upper part of the back and increase the Blacks value until I get 20 in at least one channel. Something between +35 and +40 is all it takes. I'll apply the changes and open the image in Photoshop.

Now let's open the same image in Camera Raw again, set the Blacks back to 0, go to the Calibration tab and change the process to 2010. The image gets darker immediately. That's because the old process adds some contrast by default. First thing you have to do when you switch to it, go to the Tone Curve tab, switch it to the Point Curve and make sure it is set to Linear. The Blacks slider is set to 5 by default, and it also increases contrast in the shadows. So if I want to see the original image, I have to change this value to something about 3. If you don't like this instant contrast increase, you can save the new Camera Raw defaults by going to the menu and clicking on the Save New Camera Raw Defaults command. It doesn't really matter.

As for the Brightness and the Contrast sliders, their initial values are +50 and +25, but they do not really change anything in the image. It's the same as zero on the other sliders, I don't know why Adobe set them to something like that. Recovery, Blacks and Fill Light are all set to 0 and you can't use any negative values there, while Exposure, Brightness, and Contrast can be shifted below zero. It might look like a weird set of sliders with weird values, but don't underestimate the old process. You'll get used to it if you use it long enough.

Let's try to make the darkest areas on the dress lighter. In the older version, the Fill Light slider is responsible for that, not the Blacks. The Blacks can be used to increase contrast in the shadows, while the Fill Light does the opposite. As the old process treats the image in a different way, when I set the Blacks to 3, the dress doesn't appear so dark in the first place. When I move the Eyedropper tool around the shoulder, you can see it's almost 20 on average already. So I just have to move the Fill Light slider a little bit. And it's not +35, about +5 is enough. This is what I like about the old process – the numbers are not big, it's easier to twiddle with the sliders.

There's more to it than just numbers. On the image with the dress, the difference between the old and the new process is not so evident. To see it, we have to alter the image more significantly than that. I'll use a jpeg this time. In the new process, it takes +80 in the Blacks to make the surface reach 20 on average. When I switch to the old process, pay attention to the fact that the Blacks is set to 0. It only changes to 5 when you deal with raw images, and we have a jpeg. Contrast and Brightness are 0 as well, which is not as confusing as with the raw format. But anyway, let's move the Fill Light slider to the right. It only takes +20 to reach the same numbers, as with +80 in Blacks in the new version. When I compare both images, you can see that the sweater looks practically the same. But pay attention to the lips! The old version processing has more contrast than the new one. Not losing much contrast is a very good thing.

That's not all. Back to the previous dress. It has some draping on the back, and it would be good if I could make it more visible. If I open the same image again, set the Blacks to 5 and the Fill Light to 18, I can increase contrast in the shadows, revealing the draping. Be careful though, as the Blacks slider can cause shadows clipping, watch it so that the Histogram doesn't get cut from the left side. To achieve the same result in the new process, I would have had to move three sliders instead of two, and the logic behind that is a bit obscure. Why increasing the Exposure if the image didn't get much brighter in the end? What's with the Shadows and the Highlights sliders?

Let's do something with a white item, like these jeans here. You can hardly see anything here because the image is too bright in the highlights. We have to make the brightest areas darker so that the customers would be able to see the details. In the new process, I have to move the Whites to -40 until the numbers under the right pocket reach 235. The brightest areas are not as bright as before, compared with the original. Now you can see what's going on here! To achieve the same result in the old version, I'll set the Recovery slider to 40, so see, this is the same as the Whites slider, just backward. Compared with the previous image, made in the new version, the jeans are standing out a bit more, but the overall difference is not big.

So, if you're used to the new version and if you know your way around all the sliders already, I don't think it's worth changing the process to the old, 2010 version. You can keep using the new one. But if you have difficulties understanding what the new sliders do, you might find the old version better. I find it very logical and easy to use. Every slider is responsible for its respective part of the Histogram. The names are confusing, but once you get it, you're cool. The Exposure slider is not used to make images lighter, as it mostly affects the highlights, located in the rightmost part of the Histogram. Move the slider to the right, and the highlights in the histogram move to the right, becoming even brighter. The Recovery slider does exactly the opposite. Use it to reduce glares and make white items more visible. Recovery and Exposure together can be used to manipulate contrast in the highlights. Same with the Blacks and Fill Light sliders. The Fill Lights lowers contrast in the shadows, while the Blacks slider does the opposite. For overall exposure, use the Brightness slider. For overall contrast, use the Contrast slider. Every slider is useful for typical catalogue retouching issues. You don't have to move all the sliders for a few minutes to get a good result. The process is clear and easy to master.

The new process – well, I can only say it's completely counter-intuitive. Anything you want to do requires you to move sliders back and forth, try many sliders, and still, they don't work as intended. I'll move the Shadows slider to the far right. The background changes from 240 to 244 despite the fact that 240 is located in the rightmost part of the histogram, it's not shadows, it's highlights. If I move the Blacks to the far right, the hands get brighter. Do they look like Blacks to you? Blacks, Whites, Highlights, and Shadows affect the whole histogram, so when you move one slider, you have to move others as well to undo the changes that didn't even have to take place. The same is true about the old process, but not to that extent when you can't do what you want to and just sit there wondering why you have moved all the sliders and the image is still no good.

Open

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to imply that the new process is worse than the old one. It's not true. The old process also has disadvantages. The chromatic aberrations are more severe in the old process, and the new Clarity slider works much better than the old one. The new process is more versatile. When you switch to the old one, you don't just get different sliders, you get the old Camera Raw as a whole. It means you won't be able to use all the nice new features like Moire Reduction slider and the Range Mask. So think twice. All I want to say that when we do catalogue retouching, the old process might be more useful as you'll have to move fewer sliders at the same time and you won't have to move them so significantly.

So I encourage you to play around with both versions and decide for yourself, which is the best. But for the convenience of the majority of people, I will do further explanation using the new process, as it must be more well-known than the old one. Just remember that if you struggle with it, you don't have to use it.

Next: Image correction in ACR

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