preview image showing processed RAW file
Harry Guinness / How-To Geek

Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw is Adobe’s RAW image-processing engine. It’s what allows you to convert the RAW image files shot by your camera into widely supported, shareable, usable JPGs. If that’s just a load of jargon to you, let me explain.

RAW Photos Redux

iphone example raw file
Even iPhones can now capture both RAW and JPG files.

When you take a photo with a digital camera, it doesn’t see the world as a JPG. Instead, the sensor “sees” heaps more data about the light levels and colors in the scene than it can possibly record as a single compressed image file.

If your smartphone or camera is set to shoot JPGs, however, when you click that shutter button, it processes all that data down to a small image file that you can send to your friends or post on Instagram, and it throws away everything that it didn’t need. It’s still using all the raw data to make the image, but you just don’t have access to it afterward.

But what if you want all that photo information so that you can use it when you edit your images? Well, that’s where RAW photos come in. Instead of shooting usable but compressed JPGs, your camera will save a data file that includes all the image information when you shoot RAW. You won’t be able to upload it straight to social media, but you’ll have a lot more latitude when you edit.

Most camera manufacturers have their own specific RAW format. For example, Canon’s is CRW, and Nikon’s is NEF. However, Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) format is slowly becoming a recognized standard.

The biggest downside of RAW files is that they need to be processed into more widely supported image formats (mostly JPGs, sometimes TIFFs) before you can do much with them. When you shoot JPGs with your smartphone or camera, the device does all the processing for you. When you shoot RAW, however, you have to do it yourself—which is where Camera Raw comes in.

RELATED: What is Camera Raw, and Why Would a Professional Prefer it to JPG?

Camera Raw Is a Digital Darkroom

photo open in camera raw

Adobe Camera Raw is the processing engine used by Adobe’s apps to edit and convert or develop RAW files. It’s often called a digital darkroom because it has the same role that a traditional darkroom does in film photography: taking your rough negatives and turning them into usable photos. It’s available as a plug-in in Photoshop and After Effects, can be accessed from Bridge, and is what runs under the hood in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

edited photo in camera raw
These kinds of edits are next to impossible to make with JPGs—at least, if you want something that looks good.

The advantage of using Camera Raw over, say, letting your smartphone do its thing, is that you’re in control of the process. You can use all that extra data to make non-destructive edits. Shadows a bit too dark? You’ve got the image information to brighten them up. Highlights starting to blow? You can fix that, too.

And it’s not just the lights and the darks that you can control, but the color as well. Using Camera Raw enables you to completely reset the white balance, or how blue or yellow the whole image appears. Resetting the white balance with JPGs is not always a trivial task and can be hard to get right.

If you’re serious about taking great photos, then this kind of editing control is essential.

How to Open Photos in Camera Raw

Camera Raw is a plug-in built into Photoshop. If you open a RAW image (regardless of the manufacturer’s format) in Photoshop, it will automatically start.

In other words, to access Camera Raw, open a RAW file in Photoshop however you normally like to. If you already have Photoshop running, the simplest way is to go to File > Open, navigate to the RAW file that you want to edit, and then click “Open.”

opening a photo in photoshop

If you use Lightroom CC or Lightroom Classic, all the editing controls in the Develop module are powered by Camera Raw. Just open your image in one of those apps instead, and you’ll be good to go. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the Photoshop plug-in version.

Note: Camera Raw is also available as a Photoshop filter, so you can use its editing tools on your regular images. It won’t have the same power, as there isn’t the same degree of data to work with, but you can do so by going to Filter > Camera Raw Filter in Photoshop.

opening camera raw filter in photoshop

How to Edit Images in Camera Raw

Camera Raw is a full non-destructive image-editing app. Most of its controls are in the form of sliders or drop-down menus. For example, there’s an Exposure slider that you drag left and right to adjust the exposure of your image. It’s the same for other more specific features like clarity and texture.

The editing controls are split into nine sections:

  • Basic: All the tools necessary to adjust the brightness, contrast, and color of your image.
  • Curve: A histogram and curve tool similar to the curves adjustment layer in Photoshop.
  • Detail: Sharpening and noise reduction tools.
  • Color Mixer: Sliders for controlling how colors are displayed in color images, or for controlling how different colors are converted to various shades of black and gray in monochrome images.
  • Color Grading: These tools allow you to creatively adjust the overall colors in your image.
  • Optics: Fix or minimize optical distortion and aberration either automatically (using Adobe’s database of lenses) or with manual tools.
  • Geometry: Correct for perspective and camera-angle problems.
  • Effects: Add image grain or a vignette.
  • Calibration: Advanced controls for handling how Camera Raw interprets the data in the RAW file.

editing tools in camera raw

There are also tools in the right sidebar that enable you to:

  • Crop your image.
  • Remove small spots and blemishes.
  • Apply various other edits to specific areas of your image by using a brush, a graduated filter, or a radial filter.

As you can see, Camera Raw gives you a huge amount of control over how exactly the data in your RAW file is interpreted. Even though it’s part of Photoshop, it’s rare that you’ll need to use regular Photoshop tools to make any adjustments if you process your files in Camera Raw.

How to Save Photos from Camera Raw

Camera Raw is a non-destructive image editor. Nothing in the original RAW file is ever permanently changed. Instead, all of the edits are saved to a sidecar file (or, if it’s a DNG, they can be embedded).

Saving photos from Camera Raw can be a bit confusing. Your three main options are as follows.

camera raw saving options

To save the original RAW file with your edits, click “Done” in the bottom-right corner. This will create a sidecar file alongside the RAW file in its folder. The next time you open the RAW image, the edits will automatically be applied.

To save your edits and open your image in Photoshop properly, click “Open.” You can then use Photoshop to make any more changes and export the image as a JPG.

To save your photo directly as a JPG, click the save icon in the top-right corner.

From the “Preset” drop-down in the Save Options window, select “Save as JPEG.” Then click “Save.”

camera raw save dialog

Now, your photo will be in a format that you can share on social media, post on your website, or send to a friend.

Should You Use Camera Raw?

Camera Raw is an incredibly powerful RAW processor. It does a great job of taking your RAW files and giving you the tools to turn them into incredible photos.

If you only edit the occasional RAW file and already use Photoshop, it’s probably the simplest tool for you.

If you shoot a lot of RAW images, it’s worth your while to look at Lightroom. It has the same image-editing controls, but the additional catalog features make managing all your files a lot easier.

If you haven’t signed up for the Adobe Creative Cloud, you don’t need to do that just to process RAW files. There are free alternative apps available.

RELATED: How To Process Camera Raw Without Paying for Adobe Photoshop

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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