File Under: Multimedia

Use Camera RAW in Photoshop

This year, camera raw is the new black.

Everyone and their grandmother are shooting digital images. A lot of professional film photographers are leading the pack by taking the leap to the camera raw format. Even some mid-range, consumer-level digital cameras offer a raw format setting these days.

So what’s all the hype about? In terms of dimensions, digital photos shot in the camera raw format aren’t any larger than the highest JPEG setting on a camera, but the files themselves are over twice the size. What’s taking up all that space? The easiest way to explain it is to examine the differences between JPEG and raw.

When you take a picture that is saved in JPEG format, your camera is automatically making adjustments to your image and compressing the data down on the fly. Ever wonder what all those fancy settings on your camera really do? When you spin the little dial on your camera to access portrait, action shot, night scene or macro settings, you are unwittingly changing your ISO setting, picking a white point and applying certain exposure settings. Your camera then squishes all this information down into a compressed JPEG file. The original image that was captured by your camera’s sensors has been manipulated and adjusted; the original data ends up being lost forever in a jumble of settings and compression algorithms. The sad thing about this is that you have probably lost information within your image, especially in the highlight and shadow areas, and you’ll never get it back.

What makes the camera raw format so spectacularly awesome is that it saves exactly what the camera’s sensors captured. Working within this format gives you the power to edit your image non-destructively, leaving the original (raw) image data intact. The settings for exposure, white point, sharpening and so on are saved in a metafile called a sidecar that can be removed or changed without ever altering the original image. There is also zero compression applied to the file. It is very much like a negative from a film camera, hence the name “digital negative.” It’s this friendly term that gives the camera raw format its common file extension of .DNG.

With the release of Adobe Creative Suite 2 last spring, Adobe expanded Photoshop’s Camera Raw plug-in. The company also continues to frantically update its software to accommodate all the hip, new digital cameras flooding the market.

If you are lucky enough to be the happy new owner of a digital camera with raw capabilities, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll introduce you to the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop CS2 and fill you in on all the juicy little tidbits you’ve been dying to know.

A rose by any other name…

Most camera manufacturers are using their own proprietary camera raw file formats. Nikon uses .NEF, Cannon uses .CRW, Minolta uses .MRW, and Olympus uses .ORF. All these files are raw files just like any other .DNG file. Manufacturers often use their own file formats to apply default camera specific settings that tend to look good with their camera’s output. The default settings can be removed or edited just like any other.

As with any new technology, there are kinks to be worked out. Adobe has been diligent about keeping the Camera Raw plug-in up to date so it can recognize all of these new formats. Check the last page in this article for a link to the Adobe Downloads page to check for the latest plug-in updates.


  1. From Bridge to Camera Raw
  2. Bright lights, small adjustments
  3. Save and apply
  4. Everyone loves buttons
  5. Troubleshooting

From Bridge to Camera Raw

We’re going to be using Adobe Bridge and the Camera Raw plug-in in tandem throughout the rest of this tutorial. Adobe Bridge is part of Creative Suite 2, and it also ships with the individual applications within the suite if you purchased them separately. It’s based on the File Browser that was part of Photoshop 7.

Creative Suite 2 is available direct from Adobe. You can also get the latest version of the Camera Raw plug-in from Adobe’s site.

The first thing you’ll want to do is launch Adobe Bridge and navigate to a folder that has raw files in it. If you don’t have a raw file handy, you can download my sample file. You can launch Adobe Bridge either through Photoshop by selecting File -> Browser or the old fashioned way by finding it in your Application folder or Program Files folder and double-clicking it.


Once you’ve navigated to a folder with raw files, you should see thumbnails of your raw images like you see in the screen shot example above. If you aren’t seeing thumbnails, or if you get an error message when you double-click on the files, skip to the last section of this tutorial and read through the troubleshooting section. We’ll be waiting right here for you when you get back.

You’ve got a whole array of raw options in Adobe Bridge. Right-clicking on any raw file (Control-clicking on a Mac) will bring up a drop-down list of options for that file. You can open your raw image in the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in, clear any existing settings, or apply previously saved settings. I’ll show you how to add your own saved settings to this list later on.

From the drop-down list, choose “Open in Camera Raw.” Bridge will launch the Camera Raw plug-in with a preview of the image you right-clicked on.


The Camera Raw plug-in for Creative Suite 2 now has five different settings panels for modifying your image. You’ll probably find that most of your work will be done in the Adjust settings panel so that’s where we’ll spend most of our time together.

The plug-in window is made up of these sections:

  1. Tools:Hover your mouse over each tool to reveal the tool tip.
  2. Image preview: Right-click on the preview to bring up a handy zoom-level, drop-down list.
  3. Workflow options: Set options for color space, bit depth, image dimension and resolution.
  4. Histogram: See a histogram nicely separated out into red, green, blue and luminance.
  5. Settings Presets: Add your own custom settings by clicking the little black arrow to the right of the settings drop-down list.
  6. Settings Panels: Adjust white balance, exposure, Lens abnormalities, sharpening, curve adjustment (similar to the one in Photoshop) and an advanced feature for adding custom calibration to the images from your camera.

Bright lights, small adjustments

The Adjust panel is the place where you’ll be making changes to the lighting and exposure settings of your raw camera images. Let’s take a closer look.

Setting your white balance

The white balance setting adjusts the type of lighting in your photo. The white balance drop-down list has several common lighting situations to choose from. I tend to start with one of these settings, then manually adjust the temperature and tint sliders to fine-tune things. The Temperature slider adjusts how “warm” or “cool” your light is. Move the slider towards the right to get a more orangey glow or to the left for a bluish mood lighting. The Tint slider lets you tweak the tint of the light to give your photo a greenish or purple glow.

If you don’t run with the pack, you can use the White Point tool to set your white balance. Choose the tool from the top right of the Camera Raw plug-in; it’s just to the right of the hand tool. Click in one of the off-white areas of your image. You don’t want to select a pure highlight, but a more neutral, light gray area. You can try clicking in a couple different areas until you like what you see. Finish up with a few tweaks to the Temperature and Tint sliders.

Shadow/Highlight Clipping warnings

You might have been wondering what those wacky blue and red areas in your image preview were all about. Don’t worry, they aren’t part of your image. They are just handy clipping warnings. Here’s how you how to turn them on and off.


The Shadow and Highlight checkboxes on the top of your plug-in window show you dark or light areas in your image that might be getting clipped. A clipping highlight shows parts of the image that are beyond the whitest white or purest black. When your shadows and highlights become clipped, it means that you are losing some detail in the brightest and darkest areas of your image. The red highlight color shows clipping in the light areas of your image and the blue highlights show the clipping in the dark areas of your image.

A little clipping won’t hurt anyone, but keeping these checkboxes checked will ensure you don’t go overboard with your image adjustments. I clipped the bajeezus out of the image of Clarence the crow just to give you an idea of what the clipping warnings look like.

While we’re on the subject of checkboxes, I should mention a little something about the first one in the list. The Preview checkbox gives you a preview of your settings. Turning this checkbox on and off is a good way to gauge how your adjustments are coming along compared to the default settings.


The Exposure, Shadows, Brightness, Contrast, and Saturation sliders are very similar to the ones you find in Photoshop. You are a big kid, so I won’t dally on them too much. One nifty feature I should alert you to is the ability to set your own Auto settings. Those Auto checkboxes are originally set by Adobe based on what it thinks works best for your camera. If you find yourself tweaking these settings fairly consistently from image to image, you can save your tweaks as your own Auto settings. Just get the settings where you want them, then click on that little black arrow on the tippy-top of the settings area. Select “Save New Camera Raw Defaults.” Now the plug-in will automatically default to your chosen settings. You can always go back to the Adobe defaults by choosing “Reset Camera Raw Defaults” from the very same drop-down list.

Save and apply

Now that you’ve tweaked your settings, you’ve got some options for applying them to other images. The first step is to save your settings. Click the little black arrow on the top of the settings area once again and choose “Save Settings.” Give your setting a name and save it right where Adobe wants you to. It’s important to save it in the Settings folder so that the plug-in can find the settings whenever it launches. I’ve got a few saved settings for different lighting situations. This concept works well if you tend to take photos under similar lighting situations. I’ve saved one group of settings for indoor flash photos and one for my studio setup.

Having saved your settings, let’s try applying it to multiple files at once. You’ll need to return to Adobe Bridge first. If you are still in the Camera Raw plug-in, click the Done or Cancel button to return to Adobe Bridge.

Then, follow these steps:

  1. Select several images within Bridge by right-clicking (or command-clicking) on them to select one at a time, or by clicking the first in a series and shift-clicking the last one.
  2. Right-click on one of the selected bunch and choose your newly saved setting from the drop-down list.

Caution: I noticed Bridge can be a little stubborn about updating the drop-down list. Try refreshing Bridge by choosing Bridge -> Refresh (or press the F5 key).

Gee, that was easy! Want more fun? Now let’s open multiple files in the Camera Raw plug-in and try out the Synchronize feature.

Follow these steps to apply settings to multiple files within the plug-in:

  1. Select multiple raw files in Bridge.
  2. Right-click on one of the selected files and choose Open in the Camera Raw plug-in. You should see an additional thumbnail list on the left-hand side of the plug-in window.
  3. Click on any of the thumbnails to preview them and make adjustments.
  4. You can either apply your previously saved settings by choosing them from the Settings drop-down list or make new adjustments.
  5. Click the Select All button on the top of the thumbnail list.
  6. Click the Synchronize button on the top of the thumbnail list.


You’ll see a dialog box similar to the one you see here. This handy box lets you choose exactly which settings you want to apply to your other files. This is especially handy if you’ve gone in and cropped each image differently. You can apply exposure settings to multiple files without applying the same crop settings.

Everyone loves buttons

Once you are done monkeying around in the Camera Raw plug-in, you’ve got some options on where you go from there. Here’s the scoop on what all those buttons will do for you. You also have a couple options for where Adobe saves your Camera Raw plug-in settings. I’ll go over the difference between using an .XMP sidecar file or saving your settings in a Camera Raw database.

What are all these bleeping buttons for?

Four buttons? Who needs all these buttons? Well, you do. Maybe you want to apply some quick adjustments then continue your editing in Photoshop. Maybe you just want to apply adjustments in the Camera Raw plug-in and be done with it. Maybe you don’t want to write over your originals, or you want to save them in a different format. See, I bet now you are thinking, four is not enough! Give me more!

The many buttons of the Camera Raw plug-in and their uses:

  • Open: Apply the current settings and open the file in Photoshop.
  • Save: Apply your settings and save your file. You’ll have the option of saving it in a plethora of file formats.
  • Done: Apply and save the current settings to the original file.
  • Cancel: Abort! Abort! Cancels any changes and reverts your file back to its default settings.

And here are the two extra sneaky, secret buttons:

  • Reset: Hold down the Option or Alt key to change your cancel button to a reset button so you can start all over without having to close and re-open the current file in the Camera Raw plug-in. (Note:most Photoshop dialog boxes have this feature now).
  • Open Copy: Hold down the Option or Alt key to change the Open button to an Open Copy button. This will keep your original in tact and only apply the current adjustments to a copy of your file.

Sidecar .XMP files versus Camera Raw Database

The Camera Raw plug-in preferences have options for using an .XMP sidecar file or a camera raw database for storing your file settings. Which one’s right for you?

The Database option will store your file’s settings in a single location on your hard drive. Your settings will be maintained even if you move your files around or rename them. This is the best setting if you are not planning on sharing your files with raw settings and plan on working on one machine.

The .XMP sidecar option stores your raw settings in an external file that must be kept in the same location as the raw file. This is the best option if you are planning on passing the file between several users or want to archive your photos.


I’ve collected some common Camera Raw plug-in questions below in case you are having any difficulties with your files. If you’d like a sample raw file, you can download mine. Also, Photoshop usually comes installed with a few sample files. Look in your Photoshop application folder for the “Samples” folder, or search your hard drive for files ending with a .DNG file extension.

Troubleshooting FAQ

Q: Bridge doesn’t seem to recognize my raw files at all. I have no thumbnail and right-clicking on the file doesn’t bring up any options for opening it in the Camera Raw plug-in. What’s up?

You probably need an upgrade. Visit the Photoshop downloads page on the Adobe website for the latest Camera Raw plug-in and DNG converter. Adobe usually bundles the plug-in with the DNG converter.

Go to’s download pages for Macintosh Photoshop Downloads and Windows Photoshop Downloads By the way, if the latest plug-in doesn’t work, you can use the DNG converter to process your camera’s proprietary format into one that Adobe understands.

Q: Double-clicking raw files doesn’t automatically launch the Camera Raw plug-in, but right-clicking and selecting Open In Camera Raw does. Why?

You can tell Bridge to always open raw files in the plug-in.

Try these steps:

  1. Choose Bridge > Preferences to bring up the preferences window.
  2. Click “Advanced” in the left-hand column to display the advanced settings for Bridge.
  3. Check the box labeled, “Double-click edits Camera Raw settings in Bridge.” This will ensure that the Camera Raw plug-in will automatically launch when you double-click any raw file in Bridge.

Q: Bridge is slower than molasses. Anything I can do to speed it up?

Bridge stores cache information about preview thumbnails for your camera raw files. This can slow down Bridge substantially. If Bridge is crawling along at a snail’s pace, try purging your cache in the Camera Raw Preferences.

To purge your cache, choose Bridge > Camera Raw Preferences. Next, click the “Purge Cache” button.

While you are in the Camera Raw Preferences dialog, you might want to try changing the “Apply Sharpening To” drop-down from “All Images” to “Preview Images Only.” This should speed things up a tad.

If you don’t want to spend the extra five seconds it takes to launch the Preferences window, a faster way to purge your cache exists in the standard Bridge menu. Go to Tools > Cache, then choose “Purge Cache for this folder” or “Purge central cache.”

Avoid launching, quitting and relaunching Bridge; it can take forever to load all those thumbnails. You can always minimize it or hide it to get it out of your way.

Those are the basic ins and outs of Adobe Bridge and the Camera Raw plug-in. Have fun editing your raw photos! You may never shoot JPEGs again…