A Simple Workflow for RAW Processing

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In a previous article I discussed 7 reasons to shoot RAW. If you are looking for the most flexibility and the best image quality you can squeeze from your camera, RAW is the way to go. In this post I’m going to discuss a simple workflow for RAW that will produce a nice final result. You can adapt this workflow to suit your own style.

RAW

The Basic Recipe

Camera => RAW => 16 bits TIFF => JPG

The RAW file is processed by your favorite RAW developer, producing as the result a 16 bit TIFF file, that is the master-file that will be processed/edited and saved with the final result. From the master TIFF file you can then extract JPGs for the web or for printing resizing and sharpening as needed.

Choosing a RAW Developer
There are a lot of good options for good software out there to process RAW files. As a basic start, if you are new to RAW shooting, RAW Therapee is free and quite capable. I shoot Canon and my favourite RAW developer is DXO optics. DPP free from Canon is also good. I evaluate RAW developers only by image quality, I don’t really care about features as they are all very similar I just want the best result possible. Everyone has their own preference.

RAW Workflow

What to do with the RAW file
When you process the RAW file the following are recommended:

  • Choose the White Balance
  • Adjust Exposure (a must if you expose to the right to avoid noise)
  • Apply noise reduction
  • Correct Lens defects such as chromatic aberration, distortion and softness
  • Adjust saturation
  • Fix dust spots (optional)
RAW Workflow

The following processes are NOT recommended:

  • Sharpness and unsharp mask
  • Contrast
  • Cropping
  • Resizing

You must avoid the temptation to apply sharpness besides correcting the lens softness. Sometimes the result of a RAW developer looks better than a 2nd program but only because the first piece of software is applying some aggressive sharpening. That’s cheating. Sharpening is always the final step before publishing or printing your file as it depends on the size of your file.

The most important adjustments are exposure, white balance and saturation. By definition most RAW files are uncontrasted and unsaturated so unless in special cases there’s always a need to boost the saturation.

After applying these adjustments save the result as a 16 bit TIFF file using Adobe RGB as the color space. This is to make sure you don’t lose information and you have all the room you need to edit the file as needed.

RAW Workflow

Editing the Master TIFF file
Once you develop your RAW file you get a 16 bit TIFF. From here you can do whatever you want with your photo, that’s part of your processing.

What to edit in the TIFF file

  • 2nd noise reduction (if needed)
  • contrast & curves
  • fix dust spots
  • cloning & patching
  • cropping to taste
  • selective editing, layers, etc
  • dodge & burning

In short: Do whatever you need to do with your photo except resizing and sharpening.

RAW Workflow

What NOT to edit in the TIFF file

  • Resizing
  • Sharpening

The final step: creating a JPG output

From your saved edited master TIFF file you will create the JPGs you need to publish and/or print your photo. The process is simple:

  • Convert the color space to sRGB
  • Resize (use a good interpolator)
  • Apply sharpening to taste
  • Save as JPG

There are a zillion variations to this workflow, I tried to keep it simple and flexible. The editing process with the master Tiff file can involve layers, plugins, tools and many different things depending on how you process your files. Once again, this is my process and you can take what you want from this article.

I hope this will help you get started with RAW, it can be very simple or very complex depending on your needs but it will produce better results than shooting JPGs from the camera. At least until the camera software gets smarter than us!

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  • Comments
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  1. summer montoya

    Thank you for the article…it was very simple to follow. My question is, is there a benefit to going from raw to tiff to jpeg over raw to jpeg? Thanks!

    • Reply
    • John Jacob Junior Heimerschmidt

      Working on a TIFF file doesn’t degrade the file if you work on it, which is why he suggests not doing sharpening or sizing until the JPEG end. Each time you save a JPEG it loses information.

      • Reply
  2. Raden Adams

    great tutorial! I am still learning but have been shooting RAW for a little over a year now mostly because I read all the reasons that you should and I did notice marked improvement after learning a little bit more and mostly playing around with Nikon’s View NX and then into Lightroom 3 but just now learned from you what to do when and what not to do until later and I actually understand “why”. It all makes since now. I was using ViewNX for most all editing and then converting them to JPEG before Lightroom for some finishing touches and I don’t really know how I came about doing it that way but I really truly understand your workflow advice and will start today with your suggestions. It just sort of clicked with me and your workflow makes absolute since.

    • Reply
  3. Alex Abrahams

    Hi, can you explain what this process gives you, over taking your Raw images straight into lightroom, using that to get the images how you like them, then exporting to jpg?

    Many Thanks

    • Reply
  4. Srihari

    Excellent Resource. I am a bit confused as to why contrast or cropping is discouraged. Or, are you suggesting those processes should also wait till the end?

    • Reply
  5. Ken Enochs

    Thanks very much for your post, which does indeed spell out an easy to follow approach.

    I am relatively new to RAW file conversion and have only used iPhoto and Aperture for my post processing. Both programs seem to be designed to do most of your corrections in RAW, then converting to jpeg. I too am not sure why converting to a TIFF file is necessary.

    Thanks to you or anyone else who wishes to comment.

    Ken

    • Reply
  6. Marisa

    Can you tell me why my photos are out of focus when shooting in RAW but look sharp in the view finder, I have a Nikon D3000 and use Adobe ps elements 10. Is it normal for RAW pictures to look unsharp when loaded onto the computer?…

    • Reply
  7. Tejas

    hi, is it possible to process .NEF with raw therapee.???
    if no, then how to process .NEF as good as raw therapee.?????

    • Reply
  8. Fox

    I’d totally work with 16 bit TIFF – if GIMP could actually read it …

    • Reply

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