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Image correction in ACR

Let’s now see how we can use ACR in the retouching workflow. The great advantage of the Camera Raw plugin is that it’s able to affect multiple images at the same time. It hits the spot for product image editors because we always work with batches of images.

It's not some miracle tool though and it can't replace Photoshop, but it has some features that are absolutely necessary for what we do. It can be used to do whatever you want with the tonal range. It can also rotate and crop images, fix white balance issues, deal with uneven lighting issues and chromatic aberrations, correct perspective, remove moire and noise, and there are many other things you’ll find useful. Most of the time it will fix all your images at once, which is just awesome. But there are some things that are necessary for all the images you’re going to retouch, and some things are optional and you should only use them in case something’s wrong.

Let’s see the standard procedure first and then I’ll tell you the rest of the ACR features. When you work with images from the same source, like, for example, a particular online store, there’s always a process, a workflow you should follow. In some cases retouchers get images that have been color and tone corrected already. Sometimes photographers do it, sometimes color correctors do it. If it’s like that, you don’t need ACR at all. Because whatever is wrong with the images, it’s not your responsibility. Someone who is responsible for this part of the work has to fix any issues, and you just open the images in Photoshop and start retouching straight away. But most of the time it’s our job, and I prefer it that way. The fewer people involved in the process of image handling, the better the result. And when there's something wrong with the final image, there's only one person responsible, the retoucher. Not a couple – the retoucher and the color corrector, and who knows whose fault it is.

In catalogue retouching, there are two possible situations. Number one is when you have a single batch of images coming from a single photo stand, and you adjust them all at once. Number two is when there’s a mixed batch of images from different stands, and you have to match them among each other, like when you have the same items shot on both a model and a mannequin. Your task at hand is not just color correction, you also have to make sure all the images look the same.

A well-organized photography process doesn’t require you to make any significant changes to the images that come from photographers. It’s only natural. In a well maintained and smoothly running production, images do not require much twiddling with them, as they should already be correct in terms of overall lighting, exposure, contrast, sharpness and things like that. Items shot on model stands should not look much different from object or mannequin stands, if they do it means the setup is wrong. Spending time on serious color and tone correction is a waste because it’s possible to fix all the issues at once by setting things up right.

Personally, I prefer not to work with productions if they are not able to produce good-looking images at the photography stage. Poor lighting and messy images are not really my piece of cake. But I’ll show you the whole ACR functionality in case you deal with images that require a lot of work on your side because it happens even in the best studios.

When you have many items from one stand, it means that you don’t have to match them to each other and you can apply the same settings to all the images at once. It doesn’t mean that you should just apply them and press OK, it doesn’t work like that. Even the same items can look a bit different on different images, and you have to make sure that doesn’t happen. There’s normally a preset that you apply to all the images – like a bit of Clarity to make them look better, some Saturation or Contrast – this is something that you usually do not get to decide on your own. As the head of a retouching team, I normally set all the presets for all the images myself, and all the retouchers have to apply them to all the images. Any preset is about enhancing images, and the rest of the work is fixing the issues if there are any.

A basic preset

If you work in an online store, and if the work of the photographers is properly organized, you won't have to spend so much time on color correction. Most of the time you will be getting similar images every day, and if they are similar, it means that you can use similar settings when you color correct them.

Instead of color correcting every image batch you from scratch, you can make a basic preset and use it on all the images before you even start thinking. For example, when you're supposed to isolate model images on white, they often use strong light sources to shine on the background – that is to ease the process of isolation. It helps, but at the same time, it lowers the overall contrast of images rather significantly. So you can add a contrast increasing curve or just move some sliders in the Basic tab, save the settings and load them every time you get a new batch of images presuming they all have the same contrast issue. And not just that. The idea of basic presets is there to save us time, even if it's a few seconds because these seconds add up to hours and days in the long run. So if you can save some time here and there, just do it.

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Here we have a batch of model images, all from the same photo stand. Let’s say there’s a common preset you have to use all the time. Images like these are supposed to be isolated on a white background. There’s a lot of light involved and it leads to a contrast decrease. The images are not faulty, it’s inevitable when you use a lot of light. Contrast drops and saturation follows, but we can bring them back easily. In cases like this, a basic preset can be Clarity +15, Saturation +15, and Blacks -15. Not a big deal, but why not. You don’t have to do anything else at this stage. Any changes you make in Camera Raw can be saved in the form of a preset, a special kind of file that can be used to apply the same changes to any other images. To save a preset, click on the upper right corner of any tab, then click on the Save Settings command in the menu that appears. This will bring you to the Save Settings window, where you have to choose what exactly you want to save. What we just did to the images is located in the Basic subset, so pick it and press Save, and then just think of some name for it. Now when you open any new images, you can Load the preset you’ve saved before the same way, by clicking on the Load Settings command. Or you can go to the Presets tab, which is second to the last, and choose it from the list of User Presets. When you open images, make sure you select them all by pressing Ctrl-A, otherwise the changes will only be applied to the first image.

When you work with images in Camera Raw, make sure you switch Shadow Clipping and Highlight clipping warning to “on” by pressing O and U or by clicking the triangles above the histogram. Black pixels will turn blue and white pixels will turn red to become noticeable. Depending on where you see them, you might want to fix that. Bear in mind, that clipping does not just occur with white. It’s enough if just one channel hits its maximum value. It means that you can experience a lot of highlight clipping without a reason to panic. This skirt, for instance, is not white, but pink. But its red channel is very bright, so if you increase exposure it will hit 255 very soon and you’ll get a clipping warning. It doesn’t mean you have to avoid clipping at all costs. When your white or black items get clipped it’s bad, but for the rest of things, it depends on the particular items and situations. If you try to avoid clipping without paying attention to why it's even there, you’ll end up with gloomy low contrast images for absolutely no reason. But that only happens with the highlights clipping, so if you see the shadows clipping you can be pretty sure you have to fix that.

Bear in mind that you’re free to increase contrast as much as you want in Camera Raw, but you can’t do the opposite, at least not so much. Let’s have a look at the images that are the opposite of what we’ve seen before. This lighting scheme gives us high contrast images, especially in the shadows. Black items look very dark even when the overall exposure is correct. If you try to fix it by moving the Blacks slider to the right, it will not help much, and at the same time, it will also affect the whole image. It will make the model look brighter and it will decrease the overall contrast, not just in the shadows. This is a huge flaw of Camera Raw – the fact that you’re not able to fix the deepest shadows without overexposing the rest of the image. But it’s not a big deal. In cases like this, set the Blacks slider to something that helps a little bit and make sure it’s not too much so that the overall contrast doesn’t get ruined. We’ll be dealing with black stuff later, in Photoshop. It's faster than moving all the sliders back and forth to find the solution.

Open

No matter what kind of images you get, it's always a good idea to use a basic enhancing preset on the whole batch, and if something is wrong, set the correct exposure and fix white balance, add contrast if that's necessary. Then just click through all the images one by one and if there are any inconsistencies between them, fix that, too. That’s it.

Our whole idea of color correcting product images for the web is all revolving around exposure, contrast and white balance. If you can do these 3 things, you can do it all.

Now, how to set the correct exposure and contrast (and white balance)? It sounded pretty easy when I said that, but in fact, I don't know so many catalogue retouchers that are highly skilled when it comes to bulk image correction. The problem is that even if there's some problem with exposure and contrast, they don't seem to notice that. And when they apply a basic preset, they don't see if it's appropriate or not. Well, it really requires some skill to do this properly, but there are some tricks that you might find helpful. I will show you a few real-life examples of correction, just after we've learned all the Camera Raw features.

Camera Raw features

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The basic tab is not the only one you can use when making basic presets. You can add pretty much anything, just make sure it can be applied to all the images. There’s the Curve tab, where you can apply a curve – be it parametric or point. People mostly use it to make images more contrasted, as it gives a more predictable result than the sliders in the Basic tab. There’s the Detail tab, where you can sharpen or reduce noise. Normally I don’t sharpen hi-res images because they are going to be reduced in size anyway, and I sharpen them at their final size. But if an image lacks sharpness from the start, pre-sharping it in Camera Raw can be of help. Just make sure you set the scale to 100% before sharpening anything, otherwise, you won't see the effect for real. Noise reduction is not used in catalogue retouching (at least not to reduce noise), as high ISO values, being the main reason of noisy images, are never used during catalogue photo shoots, there’s plenty of light and no noise. There’s the Hue Saturation Luminance tab which is very useful when you retouch models. If something is wrong with the skin tone of a particular model, you can fix it here by moving the Oranges slider in all three tabs. It affects skin without altering the rest of the image unless there’s something else that is orange or beige. There’s the Split Toning tab, but we don’t do that sort of things, so you can just skip it. The next is the Lens Corrections tab, where you can remove Chromatic Aberrations. This is a great way to fix a whole batch of images with Chromatic Aberrations – keep this in mind. Here you can also enable Profile corrections, which is not a big deal in catalogue retouching. The next tab, which is the Effects tab, can Dehaze images, add some Grain and Post Crop Vignetting. All but Grain is useless to us, but in cases when Photoshop Noise filter doesn’t satisfy you, try the Grain tool, it’s more versatile. This is it for the tabs, as I’ve already told you about the next two, and you don’t really need the last one.

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Now let’s see what else you can do with images, or rather what’s reasonable to do in Camera Raw instead of Photoshop. There’s the White Balance Tool that looks like the Eyedropper Tool, but instead of just measuring color it changes the white balance of an image based on where you click. To use it correctly, you have to find something neutral in your image, such as a gray card. Sometimes, if the conditions are right, you can use the background, but only sometimes. Most of the items that look neutral, like black or white things, gray items, are not actually neutral, they have tints. Black items often have a warm tint, and white items are often bluish. Do not click on them as if they are neutral, you might just spoil your images. But if there is a gray card in the place where you work, it’s great.

Photographers have to make a shot of it before they start shooting, and then you get to see this gray card image and check if it appears gray. If it is gray indeed, it means the white balance is correct. Otherwise, you can fix it by clicking on it with the White Balance tool. If the shooting is in raw images, you’ll be doing great. With jpeg – not so much, but there’s still a chance you can make it better if the temperature shift is not very significant. Good news is that you can fix all images at once, just select them all before you use the White Balance tool. You can access it any time by pressing I on your keyboard, and it also works like the Eyedropper tool if you drag it over your image. The RGB values will be shown under the histogram.

I set the White Balance for this image by clicking on the gray card. It worked

There’s also the Color Sampler Tool, but you don’t really need it. Same thing with the Targeted Adjustment Tool. It looks like a great thing at first glance, but usually, you can do all the correction you need with just the basic sliders.

Crop Tool

The next tool is the Crop Tool, and this is an awesome tool. I actually try to crop all the images with it as it’s much faster than the same tool in Photoshop. Some photo shoots have the same cropping defect among all the images, like, for example, a model leans to one side, and you can make a pre-crop by using the tool on all the images at once, and then you just have to switch between images and adjust it.

Also, when you crop away unnecessary parts of images, like the background that has to be removed anyway, you save your computer’s memory, as the resulting images are smaller than the original ones. Photoshop will use less memory when dealing with them. There’s only one huge disadvantage of this tool – by default, it cannot crop anything outside an image. It just doesn’t work like that. When I work in studios, I have to tell photographers every couple of weeks, that they should leave us some space and avoid standing too close to what they are shooting. And apart from that, the Crop Tool is a very good thing.

When I said you couldn’t crop outside image boundaries, I didn’t mean it was impossible. You can do it if you do two things. First, you have to untick the “Constrain to image” command in the Tool Options. You can access them by clicking and holding the left mouse button on the Crop tool icon. This is also where you set the crop ratio by the way. Then, press Shift-T and you’ll get the Transform tab. Downscale the image a bit so that you have some space around and voila, you can crop it just like that. But the deal is that you have to downscale it first, which you wouldn’t need to do if there was enough space left by the photographer.

The next couple of tools are pretty useless in catalogue retouching. The Spot Removal tool is less convenient than the Spot Healing Tool in Photoshop, and the Red Eye Removal tool is worthless as we don’t have red eyes in product images. The reason is that we don't use a portable camera or smartphone with a flash.

The next tool, that is the Adjustment Brush, is absolutely great. You can access it by pressing K. As you can see, there’s a whole lot of sliders. Most of them are from the Basic panel, but some of them are unique. You can move the sliders as you wish, and then just draw on your image with the brush, and you’ll see the effect. Unlike the Basic tab, it only affects the areas where you draw, so it’s a local correction tool. You won’t need most sliders except for the Basic group, but there’s the Moire Reduction slider, which can be used to reduce colored moire on images. Just drag it over the areas covered in moire, and it will go away, at least some of it will. And if it won't, don't worry, there's a separate chapter dedicated to moire reduction (LINK).

The Adjustment Brush, being the main Local Adjustment tool in Camera Raw, is great for local corrections. You can use it to darken, lighten, saturate and desaturate particular areas of an image. This brush might and will come in handy, so make sure you are familiar with its settings. I won’t go into much detail on all the sliders and what they do, as it’s very basic, I’ll just show a couple of examples how it works in general. It’s not something you’re going to use all the time, but sometimes this tool will save your day.

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The Local Adjustment tool is useful when only a small area of an image requires correction. This is how it works. You set up the brush, you choose what kind of correction you want to make and then just paint with it as you would with a normal brush. You can adjust the Size and the Feather, not just with the sliders, but with keyboard shortcuts as well. Square brackets are for the size, and Shift-square brackets are for the feather. The Flow slider defines how much of the chosen effect is applied, and the Density determines how transparent the effect is. I’ll set both Flow and Density to 100 for the strongest effect possible, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. Now let’s see what kind of effects you can apply.

The great thing is that you can use one, two or multiple effects, all at once. For a quick demonstration, I’ll lower the Exposure and decrease the Saturation at the same time. Now everything I paint on gets darker and less saturated. Every time I click the left mouse button, a new area of adjustment appears. But all the areas still belong to a single adjustment. See this red pin icon? I can click on it and drag it, and the areas I painted on will be moved all at once. Even if I change the settings and paint some more, it will still be the same adjustment. Why? Because it’s set this way. There are three settings for this tool: New, Add and Erase. When set to New, it adds a new adjustment and then switches to Add. When it’s set to Add, it adds more areas to the same adjustment, and areas can be moved simultaneously. And there’s also the Erase mode when the brush works like an Eraser. The whole thing looks a bit awkward and counter-intuitive, and that’s why a lot of people tend to stay away from this tool. But it’s actually quite useful, just wait a bit more and you'll see for yourself.

After making an adjustment, you can move any sliders you want, and the changes will affect the adjustment you’ve just made. You can also remove all the adjustments by clicking on the “Clear All” button. There’s no history, but you can undo any step by pressing Ctrl-Z and keep undoing by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Z, just like in Photoshop.

For example, you want to make the background in this image lighter than it is. If you wanted to do it in Photoshop, you would have had to select it first, but here it’s not necessary. If I check the Automask checkbox and then set the Exposure to +2.00 and drag the brush around the background, it will become white, but the rest of the image will remain the same. This is only possible because of the Automask feature and it works only with contrast objects, but works, which is good enough. Try the same without the Automask and you’ll see the difference.

If you installed the latest version of Camera Raw, there's a nice bonus: the Range Mask additional feature of the Auto Mask. It can be used to refine the Auto Mask to your liking. To use it, you have to make a local adjustment first with the Auto Mask enabled. I'll run the brush over the dress with the settings that lower exposure so that you could see the effect straight away. Then I'll click on the Range Mask drop-out menu, where I can choose between Luminance and Color. The Luminance sliders work just like the Blend If in Photoshop. By moving the sliders you're basically telling your adjustment to stop blending if it lies over the areas of a particular tonal range. So if I move the leftmost slider to the right, the dress will stop blending immediately, because it's dark and it's located in the leftmost part of the Histogram. To my opinion, the sliders are a bit awkward and I doubt that you'll be using these Luminance control settings much. So let's switch to the Color option. It brings the Eyedropper Tool, and you have to click on the particular color and tone which you want the adjustment to be affecting. So if I click on the dress, which is black, the hand will not be affected anymore. You can also hold Shift to add more samples to the image. This is a nice thing to be aware of, so make sure you remember that this function exists, as it's not standing out and it's easy to forget about it.

Open

The Adjustment Brush has a neighbor. It’s called the Graduated Filter and it’s a great local corrections tool that can do wonders for you when you work with multiple images. Press G on your keyboard and it will appear. It looks and works exactly like the Adjustment Brush, but there’s one major difference: it’s not a brush, but a gradient. So you click on the image and drag, and it will stretch, and you’ll see that the effect is the strongest at the point where you clicked, but then starts fading – just like any gradient. The Adjustment Brush is useful, but not so much, and you can do most of the things it does in Photoshop. But this baby is a savior when you have a whole batch of images that have partial under- or over-exposure problems.

It happens a lot with model images when the feet are darker than the rest of the body. There are two main reasons for this: it’s either a long day for a model and all the blood rushed into their lower limbs or the lighting is not sufficient. The deal is that the problem occurs only in a part of an image or a batch of images, so it’s the right time to use local corrections.

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I’ve opened just a couple of images, but I can easily do the same with a hundred. So, you can see, and I can prove it when I measure with an Eyedropper – the skin is much brighter oh the model’s hands than on the feet. It looks as if she’s wearing a brown pantyhose, and it’s because the images are underexposed, but just in the bottom. So I’ll just set the Exposure to something huge like +2.00 and click down there and drag – I don’t need so much Exposure, I just need to see what I’m doing. Then I’ll lower it to something about +0.60 and that’s it, the problem is solved. But the best thing about this whole situation is yet to come. I’ll select all the images, it doesn’t matter if there are two or two hundred, and I’ll click on them with the right mouse button and choose “Sync settings”, and then check the Local Adjustments box. And the same gradient will be applied to all the images at once. This is probably the quickest way to solve problems like this one.

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Normally, when you select a few images, you can alter them all when you use the Basic tab or other tabs, or when you crop. But it won’t work with the Graduated Filter unless you do it through the Sync settings command. It means that you don’t have to drag the same gradient on hundreds of images and it’s a very useful feature.

There’s also the Radial Filter, that does the same thing, but in a circle. But it only affects the outside area by default, which is extremely confusing. To make it affect the insides of your ellipse you have to switch it manually. There's a couple of checkboxes down there, under the Feather slider, and you can choose the Inside instead of the Outside checkbox. I don’t think you’ll find this filter very useful, but it’s there, so why not.

Camera Raw Preferences

This is pretty much all you need to know about Camera Raw. Let’s just check the Preferences so that you know what’s in there. There are two places where you can look if you need the Preferences window. The first one is next to the Radial Filter button, or you can just press Ctrl-K and you’ll be able to access it. There’s nothing very important here, just make sure no auto tone adjustments are applied and the Graphic processor is being used to speed things up. You can also choose how Camera Raw handles jpeg files, whether it opens them all by default, or just those with the settings, which are usually stored in a *.xmp file.

Camera Raw workflow options

There’s also another window, full of settings. When you have an image open in Camera Raw, look just below this image: there's a line of text with the profile info, size, and ppi. If you click on it, you'll get the Workflow Options window, and if you mess it up, you can ruin a lot of images. The problem is when people set something in a hidden window like this, they tend to forget what they did and why. So I really advise against altering anything here, especially the Image Sizing and Sharpening. This is not where you'd want to resize and sharpen your images. These two operations are better done on the images when they are almost finished, and now we're still at the beginning of the process.

Imagine a situation like this: you work for a client, and they send you huge files, much bigger than you need, and your computer is a bit slow. You decide to downsize the images to about 50% and do it here, through Camera Raw. The next client might and will be different, and images you will be doing for the next client might be much bigger. But will you remember to check the settings down here next time? I don’t think so. At least I’ve experienced this many times, not just myself, but within my team, when people messed these settings up and did hundreds of images without realizing they were stretching them in the end instead of reducing the size. So I always make sure that the Resize To Fit checkbox is unchecked, as well as the Sharpen For.

The default profile for Adobe Camera Raw is Adobe RGB. You'd want to switch that to sRGB, as it's our default workspace and we're not going to convert from one to another every time we open an image in Photoshop.

What else? Since Photoshop CS6, you can use Adobe Camera Raw as a Filter and access it from the Photoshop Filter menu. It means that you can do many new things: quickly access and apply any of the Camera Raw’s features to any opened image, you can record this step as a part of an action, and you can use it not just on images, but also on selected areas. These facts give us numerous opportunities that we will discuss later on. For now, just remember that you can press Shift-Ctrl-A in Photoshop to access Camera Raw as a Filter. Whatever you do there will be applied to the image that is currently open and active.

Next: Step by step correction examples

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