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Book Review: "Photoshop CS3 RAW," by Mikkel Aaland

Essential information for the working photographer

By Ron Eggers

There are more than 100 graphic file formats, but none as important to professional photographers as the RAW format. It's in a class by itself. Unlike the other image file formats, RAW files comprise pure captured digital data that has not been manipulated, optimized, processed or modified. Almost all high-end commercial work is done in RAW format.

“Photoshop CS3 RAW” By Mikkel Aaland explains and simplifies working with the RAW file format. RAW captures are a combination of the camera’s sensor data and the camera settings data needed to decode the sensor data into actual color images. With RAW, most of the settings and adjustments that are essential—such as white balance, color space, contrast and sharpening—are applied after the image is captured.

As Aaland points out, "RAW is often described as a digital negative. The negative in traditional photography is considered the underlying source from which any number of prints (or interpretations) can be produced." All the optimization and modification options available in the darkroom are possible with most image file formats, but the optimization of a digital image for print is limited by the quality and characteristics of the JPEG or TIFF file, just as it would be with a poor quality negative.

More precisely, the RAW file format is comparable to a latent image captured on unprocessed film—the image is there on the film, but until the film is properly processed with chemicals, there's nothing you can do with the image. Likewise, with RAW the captured image is there, but there's not much you can do with it until you apply digital processing to it to bring it out.

It’s like having the exact same latent image on a variety of films of different types and color temperatures, and then being able to process those files with different developers, at different temperatures and for different lengths of time. If the results weren't desirable, you could reprocesses the film again and again. That's exactly what the RAW file format allows you to do, go back to the latent digital image and reprocess it in any number of ways to get very different results. As Aaland notes, the quality of the images that can be generated from RAW files can actually be improved long after capture, as RAW conversion software continues to improve with updates.

Aaland’s book details the importance of shooting RAW, working in Adobe Photoshop Camera RAW, and the steps required to optimize and convert RAW images to a various file types and format. While much of the information is applicable for any software application that supports the RAW file format, Aaland focuses on Photoshop CS3. Before you do anything, he recommends that you download the latest update of Camera RAW.

Unlike many professional photographers who profess to shoot only RAW, Aaland doesn't try to convince you that RAW’s the only way to shoot. He includes a handy little breakdown of situations where it would be best to shoot RAW and situations where shooting JPEG would be best. Throughout, Aaland includes URLs for pictures he features in the book, so readers can download the images and try applying his recommended settings and experiment with settings of their own.

The whole process starts with making sure that the camera you’re using is set correctly. The book notes three fundamental menu settings for RAW shooting, file format (RAW, obviously), exposure and ISO. Aaland mentions the possibility of shooting RAW and JPEG simultaneously, yet he misses the opportunity to suggest capturing both file formats and comparing the processed RAW file and the embedded JPEG file.

Aaland stresses that, in spite of the fact that you have more exposure latitude with RAW, you still have to make sure that your exposure is as good as possible to come up with highest quality final images. And higher ISO's will degrade images, regardless of what file format they're captured in. To ensure accurate color, he recommends including a color target or at the least a gray card in a representative image.

Once images are captured, the best way to transfer them to the computer is through Adobe Photo Downloader, says Aaland. He covers all the standard transfer options, such as source and destination, as well as custom batch options such as converting the files to the proprietary Adobe DNG format, and importing, modifying and adding metadata.

Until Photoshop Creative Suite (CS) was released, one of the complaints about Photoshop was its limited asset management capabilities. The CS series adds that capability with Bridge and its custom workspaces and conversions. The book goes into considerable detail about using Bridge, including how to generate thumbnails, work with previews, use customized Bridge workspaces, and input metadata.

Then Aaland covers the complete set of Camera RAW tools, including those for navigation, zooming, color sampling, cropping and retouching. While every aspect of Camera RAW is important, the heart of the program is the Basic Tab Controls, which set fundamental image characteristics, such as white balance, sharpness, color temperature, contrast, brightness and saturation. Tonal Curve Tab controls are used to set tonal range. Histograms, tone curves and other analytical controls simplify the process.

Aaland explains every tool and analytical device in detail. While some points could have been stressed a little more, there’s lots to recommend this book, including how easy it is to read and follow. Aaland is particularly good at providing detailed information without losing the reader in technical jargon.