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Camera RAW has a series of sliders in the second section of the Basic panel that give you lots of control over the brightness and contrast in a RAW file as you process it. Before we start looking at these sliders, let's take a look at the histogram at the top of the screen. The histogram is a bar chart of the tones in the image, given the current processing settings. The left side of this chart represents the darkest possible tones, and the right side of the chart, the brightest possible tones, with tones of gray in between. This mound represents the actual tones in this image, given the current processing settings.
As I move the sliders in the Basic panel, this mound will change shape, because I'll be redistributing the tones in the image. Although this may look like a mound, it's actually made up of vertical individual bars that are squeezed together. The height of a particular bar represents the relative frequency of the corresponding tone. So you can see that the highest bars here are in the light part of the histogram, and that makes sense, because there are lots of light pixels here in the snow. Notice that there are no bars above the brightest parts of the histogram, and that means that there are no bright whites in this image. That's why the whole image looks kind of dull.
So the first thing I want to do is to push some of the brightest tones in the image over to bright white. To do that, I'll go to the Exposure slider, controls the bright tones in the image. I'll drag the Exposure slider to the right, and as I do that, you can see the histogram moving over to the right. So how do I know how far to go here? Well, there are a couple of ways. One way is that I can hold down the Alt key -- that's the Option key on the Mac -- as I drag this slider. And as I drag to the right, notice that I start to see these areas of color or white on top of the black.
Those are the pixels that are being pushed to pure white, with no detail. Well, I do want to keep detail in most of the bright pixels in the image, so when I see this, I back off to the left until there are just a few pixels of bright white like this. I also can keep my eye on this highlight warning icon in the histogram. When that lights up, it means that I am pushing some pixels off the chart, so that they have no detail. So I can back off a little bit on the Exposure slider like this, until that highlight warning goes away.
You really can't judge the image yet, because I haven't set the black point. To do that, I'm going to move down to the Blacks slider here, and I'm going to drag that to the right. As I do, the left side of the histogram is going off to the left, pushing some of the darkest pixels to pure black. So now I have some pixels that are bright white, some that are dark black, and I've strung out the pixels in between across the histogram, so there are more tones of gray. Let's do a before and after by going up to the Preview checkbox. I'll turn that off to see how the image was when I started, and here's how it is now.
The next thing I want to do is come down and move the Brightness slider, which affects the overall brightness of the image. If I were to move the Brightness slider to the right, the whole image would get brighter. I think in this case, I want to move the Brightness slider to the left, to make the image a little darker, so that I can start to see some of the grays in the snow, because I don't want all of the snow to be plain white. There's also a Contrast slider that I'll sometimes use. Moving the Contrast slider to the right increases the contrast. In this case, that's making me lose some detail in the squirrel, so I'm going to move the Contrast slider the other way, bringing it down so that I see more different tones of gray in the squirrel, and in the snow.
And I always can go back and tweak a slider. So at this point, I might decide, gee, I want more brightness in the image, so I'll move the Brightness slider over to the right. I'm pretty happy with that. I'll do one more before and after, going up to the Preview box, and unchecking it. So that's where I started, and that's how the image is with the sliders that I've moved in the Basic panel. There are some other sliders that I probably would move with this image, like the Recovery slider, the Fill Light slider, the Clarity slider, and the Vibrance slider, but I have some other examples to show you those sliders.
So I'm going to move on, and open a different image in the document window; one that I have open over here in the column on the left. And I'd like to see the entire image on the screen, so I'm going to double-click the Hand tool in the toolbar. This image has some very bright areas in the clouds, and some pretty dark areas in the foreground. So let's see if we can bring back some detail in both the highlights, and the shadows in this image. The Recovery slider here in the second section of the Basic panel can sometimes bring back detail in highlights, like these in the clouds that are blown out.
In other words, that appear to be pure white, with no detail. By the way, this is something you can't do in a JPEG, so it's another advantage of shooting RAW. In the histogram, there is a spike on the right, and that spike represents the blown out pixels. So I'm going to keep my eye on that spike, as I go down and drag the Recovery slider to the right. And as I do this, I can see that I'm bringing back detail in the clouds. I'll do the same thing with the fill light to bring back some detail in the shadows, dragging the Fill Light slider slightly over to the right.
Now, I don't want to get too aggressive with the fill light, like this, because it can give you kind of a strange muted look in the gray tones, like this, so I usually just move the fill light slider a little bit. Now let's take a look at how the image was a moment ago, before moving these two sliders, by unchecking Preview. So that's where I started; a very contrasty image, with very little detail in the clouds, and dark shadows, and here's where I ended up, with detail in the highlights, and in the shadows.
So that covers all the sliders in the Lighting section of the Basic panel. As you can see, they have a huge effect on how the processed image looks. They really are the basic darkroom for a digital RAW file, and they let you be the artist. To recap, the Exposure slider sets a white point, and brightens light tones. The Blacks slider sets a black point, and darkens dark tones. The Brightness slider brightens or darkens the image overall. The Contrast slider increases or decreases the range of grays; the contrast.
And Recovery can bring back blown out highlights in some cases, which is a big benefit of working with a RAW file over a JPEG, while the Fill Light can bring back blocked up shadows.
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