RAW Conversion Workflow Basics

by Ethan G. Salwen

Ethan G. Salwen

Opening a RAW file in Photoshop launches Adobe Camera Raw, a powerful RAW processing engine. This is done by clicking “Open Image,” which converts the RAW file into a Photoshop file that opens into Photoshop, making it ready for further editing.

January 01, 2011 — “What is the best way for me to get my RAW (Canon) files converted to TIFFs?” One of the magazine’s faithful readers, Mike P., sent us this great, basic question. I e-mailed Mike some basic advice explaining, in part, that: “There are any number of ways to go from Canon RAW files (CR2s) to TIFFs, depending on one’s individual workflow. Since I don’t know your workflow, I’ll assume that you are looking for the most basic solution and so I will recommend using Lightroom 3 for the entire process.”

In this column I will answer Mike’s question more fully. It’s a great question because it’s so basic, and basic information is the most important information. After all, if we haven’t mastered the basics we get stuck and frustrated as we try to deal with nuances. As Mike wrote: “I’m having a heck of a time deciphering the RAW dilemma. Too much info out there and some of it is conflicting.”

Because Mike asked about the mechanics of making TIFF files from RAW files (and not about specific processing controls), I assume that his “RAW dilemma” might best be summed up by this question: “What is the basic process of converting RAW files to other, more usable file formats?”

RAW Files Require Special Processing
RAW image files are unusable as captured in-camera. Therefore, at its most fundamental, RAW processing is the act of converting RAW files into other usable types of image files. RAW files can be converted into Photoshop files for further editing. They can be converted into TIFF files for publication or delivery to clients. And RAW files can be converted to JPEGs of various sizes and quality for printing, sharing and use in Web galleries.

RAW files are the capture format of choice for today’s photographers because, quite simply, they contain far, far more visual data than the other available capture format: JPEG. It took a few years for all serious photographers to fall in love with RAW files because, unlike JPEG files, RAW files require an extra step of processing. Luckily, with programs like Lightroom this processing has become easier and quicker. Ironically, because of Lightroom’s robust, intuitive nature, this extra processing step has almost become invisible. And so it can be difficult to see exactly what is taking place in the RAW processing workflow.

In fact if you work with RAW files in Lightroom you might not even realize that you are constantly converting RAW files to other formats. For example, you import a day’s worth of RAW images into Lightroom, sort and output a Web gallery. When Lightroom makes the gallery it has to push every RAW image through the program’s raw processing “engine.” This same engine can be used to very easily make TIFF files from RAW files.

I’m going to tell you how to do so in a moment, but first I’m going to explain what makes a RAW file so special—from a workflow point of view. And then I’m going to tell you how to convert one RAW file into one TIFF file using Photoshop. This might seem like overkill, but this will help you understand the fundamentals of the RAW processing workflow—a workflow at the heart of modern photography that can be easy to lose track of within Lightroom.

A RAW is Always a RAW
As Gertrude Stein once wrote, “A RAW file is a RAW file is a RAW file.” Okay, as you well know, she really wrote about a rose, but the sentiment might even be truer for a RAW file. When it comes to the RAW workflow, what you need to understand is that once you create a RAW file (during in-camera capture) you can never, ever alter the raw image data in that RAW file. In other words, a RAW file is a read-only image format. You couldn’t write over or alter the image data in a RAW file if you wanted to. Don’t let the DNG file format get you confused. Yes, you can covert proprietary RAW file formats, such as Nikon NEF and Canon CR2 files into to DNG files. However, the DNG is still a RAW file and it contains exactly the same raw image data as the file from which it was generated.

Because you cannot alter the raw image data in a RAW file, all RAW processing requires you to create new files from the original RAW file. The files you generate from a RAW file are called “derivative files.” You can make countless derivative files from a single RAW file. Before the all-in-one solution of programs like Lightroom came along, the typical RAW workflow involved converting a RAW into a Photoshop file (PSD) and then converting that into TIFFs and JPEGs. Lightroom will now convert RAW files directly into any kind of file you need, bypassing the initial conversion into a PSD file.

Converting RAW to TIFF a la Photoshop
This is how you convert a RAW file into a TIFF file, first by processing the RAW file into a Photoshop file using Adobe Camera Raw. Even if you never plan on doing this, you will find it helpful to understand the process.

1. Open a RAW file up in Photoshop. This action automatically launches Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), a “plug-in” application that is the powerful RAW processing engine that is part of Photoshop.

2. Click “Open Image.” This compels ACR to process your RAW file, converting it into a PSD file, which opens in Photoshop.

3. Select “Save As.”

4. Select “TIFF” under “Format.”

5. Click Save.

This is remains a valid way to make TIFFs from RAWs, but there are quicker, more automated ways to do so in Lightroom alone. The real point is to note that to open a RAW file into Photoshop takes processing with Adobe Camera Raw.

Noted that we did make adjustments to the RAW image in Adobe Camera Raw, which is important to get the best conversion going into Photoshop. We also did not further adjust the image in Photoshop, where we could have refined editing, resized and performed output sharpening. Those are all important steps, but our focus here is to understand overarching concepts in the RAW workflow. Unless you really need to get into Photoshop, I suggest you handle the various aspects of RAW conversion in Lightroom. It’s faster. However, I also suggest you realize that, in the background, Lightroom is basically going through these same steps

Two Keys to Lightroom RAW
When working with RAW files in Lightroom, it is helpful to know two things:

• The RAW processing engine used by Lightroom is exactly the same as Adobe Camera Raw—at least in function. The form might appear a little different, but the engine under the hood is identical, and the same controls affect your RAW processing exactly the same.

• When you adjust the controls in the Lightroom Develop module you are not altering the original RAW file. As noted, this is impossible, but this fact might seem confusing because as you work, you will see your image preview change drastically. This is called “parametric editing” or “nondestructive editing.” What you are doing is writing instructions to the Lightroom database to indicate how you want your RAW file processed when you actually get around to processing it.

RAWs to TIFFs in Lightroom
You now know how to use Photoshop (in conjunction with Adobe Camera Raw) to convert a RAW to a TIFF. You also know that Lightroom (via the Develop module interface) is also using the power of the same RAW processing engine in Adobe Camera Raw. Adding some image editing (of the nondestructive kind), let’s now take a look at a RAW to TIFF workflow in Lightroom.

1. Import your RAW files into Lightroom. This will not actually move or copy the files (unless you ask the program to), but rather “creates a link” between the file and the program.

2. Use the Library module to sort and select the files you want to convert.

3. Use the Develop module to adjust the RAW images you have selected.

4. Use the “Export” function to export selected RAW files as TIFFs.

Lightroom’s “Export” function is incredibly versatile, and it gives you a lot of power in converting RAW files into all critical image formats. This is probably the single most efficient way to make derivative files from RAWs. For example, when converting to TIFFs you can select color space, bit depth and resizing options. Besides file type, you can control a number of other factors such as where files are saved, how they are named, what degree of sharpening to apply and if you want to add a watermark.

Have RAW Fun in Lightroom
Lightroom is fantastic for working with RAW files because the robust RAW processing engine works in the background for so many jobs—invisibly and seamlessly. While it was once necessary to take RAW files through Adobe Camera Raw into Photoshop, we can now basically cut out the middleman. In Lightroom, RAW processing has become so seamless it’s easy not to realize that it’s taking place. This is pretty cool, but it’s even cooler to realize what’s taking place, to appreciate it, and use our knowledge to fuel our image-making efforts.

Ethan G. Salwen is a journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His passion is recording Latin American culture, and he also covers a wide variety of topics for professional photographers, including profiles, techniques and industry trends. Salwen studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. Visit his blog at www.aftercapture.com.

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