Raw File Post Processing

Bringing Out the Hidden Beauty in Your RAW File

Guest Post from Michael Kormos, a boutique portrait photographer based in NYC and San Diego. Working together with his wife, Michael has a fun and fresh approach to family photography. He has two beautiful children who keep him very busy and constantly inspired. Like him on Facebook and follow his blog to continue being inspired by his beautiful work.

We’ve all seen those amazing before-and-after edits, right? Some have been digitally altered to a point where the original photo is but a ghost image, and others which strike a different balance between real and surreal altogether. But they all start with the same blueprint — the almighty RAW file.

There are countless resources available online that discuss the benefits of shooting RAW, so I’ll omit those from this article. But if you’re shooting JPG, you’re missing out. Simply put, your camera’s sensor has to “dumb-down” every picture with respect to tonality, dynamic range, color, sharpness, and the list goes on…

Some of today’s dSLRs — like the Nikon D800 — can record an unheard-of 14.4 stops of light. And it’s all in the RAW file, just waiting to be brought out. So today I’d like to talk about how I apply tasteful adjustments to my RAW files. No actions, no presets.

We’re going to be tackling a beach image, a setting which generally presents us with challenging lighting.


This is the SOOC (straight-out-of-camera) RAW file with no adjustments. If you were shooting JPG, this is what you’d get, with little wiggle room to apply adjustments. Now, before we get started with some of the more advanced RAW adjustments, let’s take care of the obvious:


1) Highlights: This image is a bit underexposed, but well within the range. As you can see, the red area highlights the parts that are “blown out”. Most RAW editing software (such as Lightroom, Aperture, etc.) has the ability to recover some of these blown highlights. However, you can only recover whatever information exists in the RAW file. In this instance, some of the clouds were too bright. Let’s see if we can bring back some of the detail.


And there you have it, plenty of detail left in those clouds. Look for the highlight (or exposure) recovery slider in your RAW editing software.

2) Exposure: While exposure is often a matter of personal preference, I feel that this image is a bit too dark. Especially since it portrays young girls playing on the beach. A brighter tone would reflect the mood more appropriately. When adjusting exposure in portraits, try to pay attention to the face of your subject (we can worry about the background and foreground later).


Doesn’t this look better?

3) White-Balance: Like exposure, white-balance is often adjusted at the discretion of the photographer. Some types of photography (such as clothing and product photography) rely on accurate color representation. In this case, however, we can exercise a bit more freedom since the end-use of the image is solely for ourselves.

I generally gravitate more toward warm tones, so I’m going to move my white-balance slider to the right. Here, I think this looks much better:


As with exposure, I’m only looking at the face of the girl in the middle. Keep this in mind when adjusting white-balance in images where a strong color surrounds your subject’s face (such as a subject sitting in a field of grass). This can distort your perception of the color on subject’s face. A neat little trick: use your hands to “mask” the subject’s face from their surroundings while adjusting the white-balance. You may also tinker with the hue slider, and shift it more toward the purple end, since grass has a tendency of adding an unpleasant green cast.

4) Bring attention to where it’s needed: When someone looks at this image, I want their eye to be guided to the girls, playing ring around the rosie and the general feeling of fun and spontaneity of childhood. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. The easiest way to draw attention to a certain part of the image is by adding a vignette. This image was taken with a 35mm lens, wide open at f/1.4, so there is already plenty of natural vignette. Thus, instead of adding dark contrast around the girls, let’s bring down the abundant white space in the top half – the sky.

The best way to do this is by using the highlight recovery, and brushing this adjustment in. Take extra care not to create a halo around your subjects when doing this.


And there you have it! Look for a Highlights & Shadows slider in your software.

5) Special Needs: I’m a big fan of panoramas (and I’ve yet to own a panoramic camera). I’m also a big fan of white space. I think it isolates your subject and gives an image a good deal of breathing room. So there is one last thing I’ll do to this image. This step falls outside of RAW editing, so we’ll take it into Photoshop.

First, I’ll slightly widen my canvas (Image -> Canvas Size). Then, I’ll use the marquee selection tool to select the edges of the image as seen below.


Finally, I use the transform tool to extend the background (Edit -> Transform -> Scale). Don’t overdo it, or the “stretching” will be obvious. Done!


A beach image, with level horizon such as this one, just begs to be presented in a wide format. By stretching the background, we give our subjects extra breathing room and transform the image into a non-standard format.

And while we’re in Photoshop, we might as well add a dash of turquoise to the water. I do this by adding a new layer, then using a brush with a teal color, and paint over the water. Then I render the layer as Soft Light, and lower the layer opacity as needed. Here I’ll also add magenta to the sky, using the same method. This will accentuate the vanilla tones already present and give the image a surreal glow.

And here is the final edit:


You can see how in less than 5 minutes, we’ve taken a RAW file, adjusted its exposure & white balance, recovered lost highlights, and brought attention to our subjects by lowering the brightness of the sky and widening image canvas.

To see more work from Michael Kormos, like him on Facebook and follow him on Google+, where he regularly shares tips and tricks from shooting to editing and everything in-between.

6 Responses to “Bringing Out the Hidden Beauty in Your RAW File”

  1. Frieda says:

    Please post the final result in full. I feel like I’m looking through a toilet paper tube!

  2. James Pennie says:

    This was a great article. I enjoyed reading it.

  3. MpixPro says:

    Thank you James!

  4. Jholub says:

    “The best way to do this is by using the highlight recovery, and brushing this adjustment in. Take extra care not to create a halo around your subjects when doing this.”

    Can you clarify “brushing this adjustment in”? Brush in RAW?

  5. Thank you for your comments guys! Frieda, I believe the blog format here doesn’t allow larger images to be embedded, however, you may view a larger version of the final edit in our gallery here: http://www.michaelkormos.com/_bigones (it’s the third image)

    Jholub, since I use Aperture for my RAW editing, many adjustments can be applied, and then brushed-in. That is, instead of applying the adjustment to the image as a whole, you instead use a brush to “paint” areas where you’d like it applied. I believe Lightroom has a similar option. You may alternatively do this in Photoshop by creating a duplicate layer (Command + J), then bringing up the highlight/shadow dialog by going to Image -> Adjustments -> Shadows/Highlights. After applying the desired adjustment, you can mask the layer as desired to different parts of the image.

    I hope this helps!

  6. Jholub says:

    Thank you! I use ACR for RAW files; will switch to LR soon 🙂