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Camera Raw is a plugin or a mini application that comes with Photoshop Elements. Its job is to take the raw data that's captured by your camera's sensor when you shoot raw photos, and convert that raw data into pixels that can be viewed on your computer monitor. That conversion is done in the Camera Raw workspace. I'll open that workspace now by going to the File menu, choosing Open, and navigating to a raw file on my computer, and then clicking Open. You can see the Camera Raw workspace open separately from Elements Editor.
This workspace comes with intuitive sliders that give you maximum control over the appearance of the photos that you process here. In this chapter, we'll look at this Camera Raw workspace in detail. But first, let's get a handle on what a raw file is and whether you should be shooting raw files as opposed to JPEGs. A raw file is the unprocessed image data captured by your camera's sensor. When you set your camera's controls to shoot raw files, the camera doesn't apply image adjustments to that data, it just records it as is. By contrast, when you shoot JPEG, a number of adjustments are applied to the image inside your camera before you even get it into Elements.
The camera bakes in the white balance settings, it may adjust color saturation and tonal values, and it sharpens the photo. If the camera captured more than 8 bits of color data, the additional data is discarded when the camera compresses the image into the JPEG format using a lossy compression scheme. So, while a JPEG is already heavily processed when you get it, a raw file is more like a negative, a vehicle to deliver just what the camera captured. That brings me to one of the biggest benefits of shooting raw over JPEG, which is that with a raw image, you retain artistic control.
A raw file isn't processed until you work with it directly in Camera Raw, where you can interpret the image data to your liking, rather than ceding much of that function to your camera, as you do with a JPEG. That's an important creative reason to shoot raw. There are some technical reasons too. The possibility of highlight recovery is one technical reason to shoot raw. If you overexpose a photo when you're shooting, the highlights will be too bright and lacking in detail. If you shot raw, you have a much better chance of recovering highlight detail using Camera Raw's processing controls than if you shot JPEG.
Another technical advantage of raw is that when you shoot a raw photo, you can set its color balance to whatever you like during processing using the Temperature and Tint controls in Camera Raw. This gives you the flexibility to change the color of a photo after shooting. By contrast, when you shoot JPEG, the camera's White Balance Settings are baked into the photo, giving you less flexibility to fix an unwanted color cast or to reinterpret the photo's color. And bit depth is another technical reason that photographers favor raw over JPEG.
When you shoot raw, your camera captures more color information, 12, 14, or sometimes 16 bits of color data per channel, depending on the camera. And that's more than can be saved in the JPEG format, which is limited to 8 bits of color data per channel. You probably won't notice the difference due to bit depth when you're editing most photos. But, if you're trying to adjust an area made up of a gradient of color, like a bright blue sky, and you make an extreme adjustment to the photo, you might notice some color banding in that area of gradient.
You're less likely to get unwanted banding if you have more color information to work with in the first place. So, you'll have more editing latitude if you start with a high bit depth raw file over an 8-bit JPEG. Nondestructive editing is an advantage of working in Camera Raw over any of the workspaces in Elements Editor. In Camera Raw, none of the adjustments that you make directly change the original file. The adjustments are just instructions that affect the preview in Camera Raw and that are actually applied to the photo only when you output a copy of a raw file from Camera Raw.
That means that you can reopen a raw file into Camera Raw at any time, and tweak a setting or reprocess the whole file in a completely different way. There are other advantages to working in Camera Raw too, like the ease of making adjustments using its intuitive sliders, and the ease of applying the same adjustments to multiple photos, as I'll show you how to do later in this chapter. All that I've just said in praise of raw files doesn't mean that you have to abandon shooting JPEGs. There are some advantages to JPEGs over raw files too, and you should weigh those in your decision about what kind of photos you want to shoot.
For one thing, as I said, JPEGs are already processed in the camera, so a JPEG will often look better right out of the camera than a raw file, and that means you won't have to spend as much time processing it. For another, JPEGs are smaller in file size. So they take up less storage space on your drives. Another advantage of JPEG is that you don't need Camera Raw to process a JPEG, and that means you don't have to bother keeping your Camera Raw plugin up to date. If you are going to use Camera Raw and you want to have access to all its newest features, and its support for the latest cameras, you will need to keep an eye on updating it from time to time, either from the Adobe website directly or by using the Update command in the Help Menu in Elements Editor.
If all that has you convinced to give raw files a try, or even if you want to take advantage of Camera Raw's intuitive controls to adjust your JEPGs, which I'll show you how to do shortly, stay tuned for the rest of this chapter, where we're going to dive deep into the Camera Raw workspace.
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