You've probably heard enough photographers talk about RAW that you realize it’s a pretty powerful tool in the digital photographer's tool bag. The power of shooting RAW is unleashed when you get to the digital darkroom, and for most of us, that means using Lightroom (LR) or Photoshop (PS). Editing can be a lot of fun, but having a solid workflow can help that process stay fun, instead of becoming a burden. Shooting in RAW is an assumption that you will do some work in post, so, should you use Lightroom, Photoshop, both? Hopefully this article will help you utilize the power of RAW and develop a workflow that will manage the photo editing process smoothly. As a general rule, I do the majority of my work on RAW files in Lightroom. I generally only go into using ACR in Photoshop if I need to do something that is overly complex and requires me to be able to work on individual parts of a photo very precisely. To be clear, the camera raw engine is not better or different in one or the other. Photoshop will provide you with some further tools you can use after the fact, but in many cases this won't be necessary.
RAW in Lightroom
Let's start with a discussion about LR. The fantastic thing about LR is its ability to do non-destructive editing without having to worry about layers. Any changes you make in LR are not written onto the original photo. You can come back to a photo 2 years from now and start all over in just one click (The Reset button). This also protects hard drive space because you aren't writing a new file or adding layers when you edit in LR. For this reason, and many others, I always start by importing my files (RAW or jpg) into LR.
While Photoshop can be utilized for many different reasons, LR is designed for photo editing and management, and it does a fantastic job! For the majority of my RAW photos, I do all of my editing in LR and only go into Photoshop for minor work. If you haven't edited a RAW file in LR before, you will notice some differences. Your numbers next to your temperature slider now display Kelvin and give you much better control over White Balance. Similarly, your ability to recover areas that are blown out or too dark is much better with a RAW photo. This is just the tip of the iceberg as there is a lot more image information retained in a RAW file. Lightroom may be all you need to edit the photo to your liking. Let me put in one caveat to that statement. I am not a fan of the spot removal tool in LR. It works well to remove spots out of a flat sky, but in many cases I have found it does a poor job on anything with detail. It seems I find myself in PS when I have to remove anything complex.
Now let's consider a scenario where you will be using PS. Maybe you want to utilize some of the more powerful editing tools in PS. For my work, a good sign I'll be working PS is when I plan on using layer masks. If you utilize the process I outline below, you will find it protects and catalogs your original photo and also allows you to utilize all the powerful tools in PS.
RAW in Photoshop
Step 1: Import the photo into Lightroom as you normally would
This insures you have the original photo protected on the computer. Any changes you make after this will be non-destructive. If you change your mind about how you edit the photo, at least you can always start over. If you really want to change the exposure in LR, you can, but in reality this can be done once we take the photo over to PS.
Step 2: Open the photo in Photoshop the RIGHT WAY
Yes, I said the right way. From Lightroom, you want to right click> edit in> open as a smart object in Photoshop (if you have a version before CC, you may have to choose edit in Photoshop). This not only opens the photo in PS, it also ensures that when you save your final edit in PS, you will get a new file in your LR catalog reflecting your PS edits. The original photo is unaffected and remains as a separate file in the LR catalog. Opening it as a smart object gives you the freedom to edit in Camera Raw and then go back into Camera Raw later if you need to. Side note: If you don't have CC, check out Adobe CC for photographers, it's a great deal at $9.99/mo.
Step 3: Edit in Adobe Camera Raw from PS
If you are using Photoshop CC, Camera Raw is now available as a Filter (in older versions you can click File> open in Adobe Camera Raw). You still want to protect your photo, so you should create a copy of the original layer before working with Camera Raw if you aren't working with your file as a smart object.
Next, open the RAW filter from the filter drop down menu. You will see the familiar sliders on the right, but some of the other items from LR are found across the top (like the targeted adjustment tool). When you are finished with the camera raw filter, click Open Image. You can complete other edits as you like from here.
When you are completely done, you can click x to close the file. PS will ask you if you want to save. Speaking from experience, you probably want to do that. Once you save, you will be returned to LR. Notice that you now have the PS edited photo and the original photo available (your personal LR settings regarding stacking can change how visible this is).
Which One to Choose?
When I first started working with LR, I felt a little frustration that every photo seemingly needed to run through LR. I came to accept this when I realized that LR is designed to organize my photos and to protect the original photo from destructive editing. After I suffered a recent loss of my primary hard drive, I was able to be back up in LR on a new computer in a remarkably short time with all of my photos and edits intact. It was as if nothing had ever happened. Beyond the safety of using LR, you harness all of the data captured in camera when you shoot RAW. Make sure you continue to protect that information when you edit RAW files in Photoshop. This means always making changes on a layer.
Which method you choose really depends on your personal preference, and how comfortable you are in each program. Personally, I do the majority of my work in Lightroom, and then move to more complex work in Photoshop. Complex work means I need to have a greater level of control than Lightroom offers such as adjustment layers, masks, and blending modes. For many images this is not necessary. Ultimately you will have to decide what you are most comfortable with, but having both options is nice.
Along those lines, I'm planning a series of video tutorials showing my work from capture through post processing, so you can keep an eye out for those in the coming weeks.