Exposure and Color
Looking at the ACR default window, you will see a histogram at the top of the right hand column. As well as displaying the usual bar graph representation of the pixel values in your picture, there are two small arrows in the top corners of the frame. If you click on these arrows, areas of the picture will light up to show you exactly which parts of your photo are under or over exposed, so you can make a decision as to whether that lost highlight or shadow detail is important to your composition.
Adjusting the color of the picture
Underneath the histogram you'll see a stack of faders divided into three main groups. The top two are for adjusting the color, they are slightly different to the normal (red, green and blue) faders that you have seen before and, once you get used to them, they are a lot more useful. The top one adjusts the color temperature, at the push of a single fader you can make your picture ‘warmer' or ‘cooler', this is the one you will use most. The one below it adjusts the magenta/green ratio, useful for correcting pictures taken under fluorescent light or photos taken with lots of greenery reflecting back into your subject. However, I find that I don't need to use this one nearly as often as the other.
Another way to adjust the color is by selecting the eye dropper at the top of the screen and clicking on an area in the picture that is supposed to be white or gray. This will adjust all the colors in the picture by the same amount that it takes to make that area neutral. This is a good way to attack a picture which has a really pronounced color cast, you can then make fine adjustments with the faders.
Getting the exposure right
Next is the fader marked ‘exposure', the most important in this section. Move this fader while looking at the histogram to spread the pixels along the full length of the graph. This, together with a bit of adjustment of the 'brightness' fader, will sort out 90% of your pictures. These are the two most useful faders in this section and are the ones you should turn to first. The other faders in this section should be used carefully and only when you still can't get what you want, I quite often adjust the ‘blacks' fader to unclog the shadow area of a high contrast photo or to beef up the apparent contrast without interfering with the mid tones. The ‘contrast' fader gets used from time to time but I have never really found an effective use for the ‘recovery' or ‘fill light' faders, which basically reduce the contrast in the highlights and mid-tones respectively.
The bottom contains ‘saturation' and ‘vibrance' faders. The ‘vibrance' control is a rather brilliant filter (pun intended) which adjusts the saturation in such a way that the duller tones are brightened more than the brighter areas. This is usually just what you want so only use the ‘saturation' fader when you can't get enough out of the ‘vibrance' one.
The ‘clarity' fader is not one I use a great deal but it's a fun one to use on a portrait to reduce the amount of detail (wrinkles etc) or for accentuating these if you want to be cruel.
The picture below shows the tools available in ACR. The toolbox sits at the top left of the window. The eye dropper is discussed above in 'adjusting the color'.
Cropping and Straightening
The next most common task in ACR is cropping the picture. To crop the picture just drag the crop tool across the picture and place the bounding box where you want it. Right clicking the crop area reveals a series of set ratios such as 2 by 3 which are very useful if you are making a slideshow or series of pictures that all need to be the same shape. You can also rotate the bounding box by holding the cursor outside the crop area near a corner and dragging clockwise or anti-clockwise.
There is a very useful little tool called the ‘straighten tool' which you can drag along any line in the picture, such as the horizon or the side of a building. This will produce a bounding box tilted to align with your mark. The bounding box will open to the maximum size available taking into account your ratio settings. You can then continue to crop the picture in the normal way.
These are the main tools I find myself using every day, there are plenty of others such as the excellent red-eye remover, different ways of sharpening the picture and so on.
When you have finished your edits, a new file is automatically created that contains only the adjustments you have made, the original RAW file is not changed in any way. That's the real beauty of Adobe Camera Raw the editing is ‘non destructive', which means all your edits are reversible at any time. For a guy like me who can never make up his mind, that's wonderful. It also means that, as new and better software becomes available, you can re-edit your pictures starting from scratch.
See also my series of videos on RAW Editing
Scaling your files.
Balancing those pixels.
Dealing with color casts.
An introduction to Adobe Camera RAW.
Advanced use of Adobe Camera RAW.
Using the unsharp mask.
Masking parts of your picture to edit certain areas.
How to build accurate layer masks.
A must for landscape and building photographers.
Using layers in Photoshop.
How to make a better job of changing images from color to black & white.
Playing with contrast and tones to give a more dramatic effect.
How to shoot and process HDR pictures with Photomatix Pro software.
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