Now that I’ve explained pretty much everything you need to know about Camera Raw, let’s see a few real-life examples of how you can use it to prepare images for retouching in Photoshop. Make sure all the images you are going to open come from the same shooting, otherwise, you won’t be able to apply the same preset to them all.
I have a few images from a catalogue model photo shoot. It had much more images, but it doesn’t really matter, you can do a few or a few hundred in exactly the same way. The first thing you have to do is open them all in Camera Raw. There’s no point in opening them all at once, if you have more than a hundred, especially if they are raw images. In case there are many images, it's reasonable to work in batches, opening 50 to 100 images at the same time. If you try to open much more than that, it will probably slow down your computer. But the most important reason is that if your machine or Photoshop crashes, all the changes you’ve made will be lost forever. To avoid that, I prefer opening about 40 at a time. Don't get me wrong, crashes do not occur often, but it's always very annoying if that happens.
As I said, first we fix any issues, and then we enhance and make all the images look approximately the same if there are any irregularities. Issue number one to check for is the white balance. To do so, I’ll move the Saturation slider to its far right position. The background didn’t change much, and the model’s skin turned bright orange. This is a good thing, it means white balance was set correctly and we don’t have to fix it. The background is about neutral, and skin is not greenish or pinkish. Every photo shoot is unique, but there are some things you normally know about the conditions. I know that I can rely on background, as it’s more or less neutral in real life. There are other backgrounds, which are not neutral, but you still can use them for white balance issue detection. How? For example, if a background is bluish in real life, it should be always bluish if white balance is correct, and if it’s greenish or yellowish, it means there’s something wrong with white balance. I prefer neutral backgrounds because you can use them to set the white balance if it’s off. To do so, simply choose a place, that is not too close neither to the model nor to the edges of the image, and click on it with the White Balance tool. If I try it on this particular shooting, it won’t change much, because it’s already correct. But if it was off, this would fix it. Don’t forget to select all the images so that the changes will be applied to them all.
I’ll zoom the image to 100% and check if it’s in focus, as well as a few other images. It seems ok. There are no problems with this shooting, and this is how it should be. A steady retouching flow is not possible if all you do is making things right because other people can’t do it right. It’s about being able to produce a lot of images with good quality, and fast.
Now let’s enhance it. These images are supposed to be isolated on white, so there’s a lot of light involved. It makes images less contrasted, and this is what we’re going to enhance. This particular client's demands are as follows: they like a lot of contrast, they also love saturated colors, this is how they want their images to look. It’s not a must-do for all the catalogue images. I know a lot of online stores that seem to like a more high-key approach: less contrast, less saturation, more light. There’s no such thing as one rule on how you should do it. But in general, people prefer more contrast and more saturation. I’ll apply a basic preset that increases saturation and contrast, globally and locally by accessing the Presets tab. You can apply any preset you saved by clicking on its name.
I’ll check a few images to see if everything is fine or not. The black coat looks a bit too dark, just under 20-20-20 if I measure it with the Eyedropper. So it would only be reasonable to set the Blacks slider back to zero. In fact, I can set it to zero on all the images, as it’s not the Blacks slider that affects contrast, but the Clarity. If I set that to zero, that would bring contrast down, so I won’t do that. Every shooting is a bit different one from another, so it’s really okay, just watch what’s going on every time as your basic preset might be too much in some cases. If I see the same thing on the next few shooting, I’ll just change the basic preset, but for now, setting the Blacks to zero is enough.
A few words about the Clarity. It’s a very popular slider as it increases contrast locally and makes images instantly look better. Just beware, that you should watch it on your model images and never set it to anything more than 20. Objects can be 30 with no side effects, but more than that and you’ll be getting weird halos, and your images will probably look unnatural.
Let’s now crop the images. To do so, I’ll select them all and use the Crop Tool to create a crop box with the right proportions somewhere where it will be on most images. In this case – just below the nose and shoes. Now I’ll click on the first image preview to remove the selection of them all, as I’ll be cropping them individually from now on. To check if the crop looks good, if the model is standing straight and not leaning anywhere, I can press C and look at just the crop box contents. When cropping close-ups, I usually pay attention to focus areas. There’s no point in showing blurry textures. So, all this cropping thing is about pressing down to switch to the next image, moving the box around, rotating, checking if it’s okay and moving on.
The black coat still looks a bit black to me, but I won’t be doing anything in Camera Raw about it, as I won’t sacrifice the overall contrast to fix just the coat. There’s no way to fix just the coat in Camera Raw, all the slider I might use for that will affect the whole image. I don’t want that to happen. In terms of exposure, the shooting seems perfect. It happens a lot that close-ups are darker than the rest of the images, but in this case, I don’t even have to adjust the exposure. It’s good. Now I can just select all the images again and open them in Photoshop.
It’s not always this smooth. Let’s have a look at another situation. This is another client, different images, different demands. In this case, the task is to match images from different photography stations. Model images are not supposed to be color corrected except for the exposure, and object images should look like model images. And this particular production was a bit lax in terms of setup, so photographers could produce seriously overexposed or underexposed objects or mannequins, while models were generally fine. I have a bunch of images here and they all come from different stations. There’s no reason to use a common preset as there’s nothing in common about these images.
The first thing to do is to check if the white balance is correct. But here’s it’s not an easy task. All the stations are different, and there’s no such thing as a gray background, there’s no gray card either and there’s nothing else I can use. But as we’re going to match images in sets, I can hope that when I match an object and a model, I’ll see the difference if the white balance of either one of them is off. The pair of shoes looks very dark on the model and they are definitely overexposed on the object images. Model images can be dark because there’s not enough light on the stage to expose them correctly. But is that so? I’ll check if the background near the feet is much darker than near the face. In fact, it’s not. It means that model images are exposed correctly, so I can leave them alone and concentrate on the objects, that are mostly overexposed. The mannequin is fine. The problem is that what I got here is a mix of images, all from different photo shoots. It’s not possible to work properly in a situation like this, so the only thing I’ll do is match the images of models and objects to each other, and that’s it.
Let’s start with the first item, which is a pair of shoes. Model is fine because the client says so and because it looks more or less decent, I just don’t really enjoy working with high contrast images like these. Black things look too dark and it’s a pain to fix because I can’t do it in Camera Raw without sacrificing the overall contrast. I’ll select all the object images and set Exposure to -1.00. This is quite a lot, so in cases like this I would tell the head of photographers about this issue, this is a serious overexposure problem. Overexposed items lack contrast, so as I’ve expected, lowering exposure is not enough. Black shoes look gray. Look at the histogram: there’s a huge gap where the deep shadows should be and there’s no black point.
When I want to increase contrast in the shadows, Blacks is the slider to move. Other sliders will stretch the whole histogram, and this one will do what I need without making the whole thing much darker. I’ll set it to -53. But it doesn't seem enough, so I’ll also move the Shadows slider and set it to -20. Some people advise pulling the sliders until you get clipping in the shadows, which means you set the black point and reach the full tonal range. But in my opinion this is usually too much for catalogue images, so normally I pull until I see a black point and then push a little bit back. Actually, when we’re talking about the black point, it means there’s something black in the image. Either the object itself is black, or it has some deep shadows. Otherwise, you can’t stretch the histogram so much. Same is true for the white point, but in catalog retouching, we don’t get to see it very often. Why? Because most images we work with are supposed to be isolated, and a typical background is usually bright white to ease the process. If I switch the Highlight Clipping Warning on, you’ll see that the whole background is totally white. As for the white point on objects, it might hide in glares. Models are easier: the white point is usually in the eyes, it’s the reflection of studio light sources. But not in this particular case – because there are no faces in the images. Let’s get back to our shoes then.
When I work with contrast, I usually switch the highlights clipping off, because it’s easy to get distracted by it. I switch to other angles of the same shoe and increase the Blacks a little bit because they are darker and get clipped. You might ask: “How do I know how much contrast is enough?”. The skill to determine when to stop is mostly experience based. It means that if you are a beginner, you won’t be able to see it so easily. But I know a trick that might help. For the objects that are dark or at least normal, I mean, those where you can set the black point, you can open an image in Photoshop after correction and use the Auto Contrast command. It’s easy to do if you press Shift-Ctrl-Alt-L. If it changes the overall contrast a little bit or doesn’t change it at all, you did well. If you see a drastic change, you’ve messed it up. Look at my pair of shoes: it’s more or less the same when I switch between the before and the after images. But let’s see what happens if I open the image with just the Exposure slider adjusted and use the Auto Contrast. The change is drastic. It means there’s not enough contrast at all. But please, pay attention that this trick can only be used on black and dark things, it will not work on white items and items that should not have a black or white point.
Let’s get back to our shoes. Now when you look at the object and model images, they are not much different anymore, which means we’re done with them. Now I can just crop them if I want to and move on to the next item.
Pay attention to the fact that I am not trying to get a match between the model and the object images by measuring them with the Eyedropper. It’s not possible, because they do not come from the same photography station, and even if it did, it would be pointless. The idea is not to make them the same by adjusting the numbers, the idea is to get the impression of the same shoes when you look at the different images. The object images are still a bit lighter than the model images, but the shoes do not look different when you switch between the images. This is quite sufficient, you don’t need to waste your time by trying to get the exact match.
The other set of images is different from what we’ve seen so far. The deal is that the mannequin image does not look much different from the model images, which is just great. It’s just a bit darker, so I’ll set Exposure to +0.35 and crop the images. Now we are ready to open them all in Photoshop and retouch.
Let’s deal with another batch of images and repeat the things I’ve told you already about exposure and contrast adjustment. Look at these shoes. There is no model to compare with, but I can immediately see that they are significantly overexposed. How do I know? First of all, we are dealing with the shoes that are dark red and black. I know the sole must be black, because there’s a deep shadow right here, and it should be black anyway, but it’s not, it looks gray. There’s also a lot of white clipping around the object, which means there was a lot of light involved. All that tells me the image is overexposed and low contrast because of that. If I open an image like and try to use the Auto Contrast on it, it will become much darker, because the algorithm will stretch the left part of the tonal range until the black point is set. But I don’t trust the Auto Contrast so much and I’m going to color correct on my own. In this case, setting Exposure to -1.0 and Blacks to -28 will be enough to fix all the images at once. The more images you work on, the quicker you’ll be able to determine if something is wrong with them. Especially if you work in one place. So if you feel unsure about the whole situation, just practice, and skill will come with experience.
And the last batch of images for today will be a bunch of object photos. Once again, they all are from the same photo shoot, which a good thing. As you can see, there's a lot of light involved, because the white background is heavily clipped, so that means we've probably lost some contrast due to the overall overexposure. But how about the white balance? How can we determine if it's okay or not? In this case, it's not so easy. We don't have any models, just objects. We don't have a gray card either, so the only thing we can use here is our own skills. When I look at the images, I get the impression that the white balance is a bit off. Not much, but still off. To see if I'm right, I'll set the Saturation to +100 and the Exposure to about -3.00. You can now see that most of the background is totally neutral, but there are bluish areas right below the object and around the edges. It might happen with the backgrounds made of plastic, like this one, that they catch parasitic tints from the environment, be it colored walls behind the station or a photographer's colored t-shirt. The white balance was set correctly, otherwise the most of the background would have been tinted. This particular production uses neutral gray backgrounds for all the photo shoots. But the bluish tint is there and it's reflecting in the toe area of the shoe. To make sure I'm not wrong, I'll do the same on the next image as well, and yes, the tint is still present. It's not critical and I could just leave it as it is, but I'll do a good thing and set the Temperature to +5, shifting the white balance toward the yellow color range, which is the opposite of the blue. It's not enough to make anything yellow, but the tint is less visible now, while the object is neutral. This is better than bluish, so I'll apply the same setting on all the images and we'll move on to the Exposure setting. When you have a lot of items, you can use the items that are black and white to set the Exposure and Contrast. Why is that so? Because with the black objects, you can work on the leftmost part of the Histogram, and vice versa with the white objects. We know that if an object is black, it will most probably have a black point somewhere in the shadows. So let's start with that. Keeping in mind that the whole photo shoot is very bright because it's supposed to be isolated, I'll lower the Exposure straight away and set it to -0.40. Any more would be harmful for a jpeg, but with this we don't even reduce the highlights clipping. Then I'll use the second shoe, which is the darkest, as a reference, and start moving the Blacks slider to the left. At -30 it gives off a shadow clipping warning, so I stop and push a bit forward, to -27. Now I can apply this setting to all the images. It will make the black objects reach the full tonal range, and the rest of the items will get enough contrast. You don't have to set the black point on all the images individually as they all belong to the same photo shoot. And while the black objects should have a black point somewhere, it's not like that with the light colored objects. If I try and do the same on the white cap, I mean, pulling the Blacks slider to the left till a black point is set, it won't look so good. So while it's okay to use black items to set the black point for the whole photo shoot, it's not okay to use any other objects for the same matter. Now if I wanted to check if there's enough contrast, I could open any black object in Photoshop and apply the Auto Contrast command. Just as I said before: if it changes the contrast drastically, you've messed it up. If the change is not significant, you're fine. In this case, it's more or less fine. I'll set the Shadows slider to -10 and that will be it for the contrast.
Now, on to the Exposure settings. -0.40 seems like a good value for all the shoes and the belt as well, but the yellow bag is different. It looks dark, and there's almost no clipping on the background. Maybe one of the light sources didn't work as intended, but this image is definitely less exposed than the rest of them. So I'll increase the Exposure till I hit +0.20, which seems like a good compromise between too dark and too bright. A couple of images after the bag look normal, but not the white cap. It's too dark. This is because the f-number, which the setting for the camera diaphragm size, is different. It was 10 to 11 on most images, but it's 14 on this particular image. The photographer closed the diaphragm a bit to avoid overexposure of this white object. But that means that the Exposure setting on this image should be higher. I'll set it to 0 because, at this point, the lightest area on the cap doesn't get brighter than 245 on average in every channel. More than that, and it's overexposed.
Once again, let's repeat the necessary steps of the Adobe Camera Raw correction process. Use a basic enhancement preset if you can to make images look nicer straight away. Use the background to set the white balance (if it's neutral, of course), use black or dark items to set the contrast, then make sure the exposure is set correctly on every image. Crop and rotate if you prefer doing it in Camera Raw, which I do. Use the Auto Contrast command in Photoshop if you're unsure about your black items contrast, but don't try to set the black point on light or white items the same way. The logic is simple: if a particular contrast setting is too much for black objects, it's probably too much for other objects as well, you just don't see it so clearly. As for the Exposure settings, it's not as easy. You have to watch for the camera settings, too, because the diaphragm number affects exposure greatly. The bigger the number, the darker the image.
The whole thing might sound extremely complicated, but with experience, you'll be able to color correct images very quickly because you will know how exactly all sorts of different colored items should look on a screen. This is exactly the case where practice makes perfect.
No matter how well the shooting process is maintained, photographers will do a lot of things that will affect images and make your life harder. They will forget about things that have to be done – like setting the white balance properly, and you'll have to fix it on your own (if the head of retouch won't manage to reject the faulty photo shoot). It happens all the time in the industry and it's not because photographers are lazy or stupid. It's normal to forget things and that's the reason why we rely on automation so heavily – that is, not to forget to do important things. And even still, sometimes we fail to do things properly, too. A good team is able to resolve all the issues without resorting to blaming others.
If you're not a retoucher in an online store, but a photographer, you have an advantage that most of us don't have. You can make your photo shoots technically correct and easy for yourself to retouch. And you have a deeper understanding of how to shoot things properly when you retouch your own images. If someone else does it for you, no matter how much feedback they give, it's not the same as spending a few hours instead of minutes on images you've messed up yourself.