Tips for Editing Raw Image Files

If you are new to shooting RAW files, one of the first things you’ll notice is that, when you import your RAW files from your camera into Lightroom, after the image preview has been on the screen for a second, it will suddenly change, and look different from what you originally saw in your camera’s preview!

Without getting into too much technical jargon, the reason behind this is that a RAW file is not really a file that you can import and view as it is – think of it as sort of an abstract idea, not something tangible. The software on your computer, and in your camera, reads the information from the RAW file, and then converts it to a viewable image that is somewhat close to the preview that you saw on your camera. Sometimes the conversion will look almost identical to the preview on your camera, but other times, it will be different.

At this point, your goal will be to make a few minor adjustments to your RAW file in order to restore it to what you saw in your preview. 

While there is no set-in-stone method for editing RAW files, here are a few common settings that you will almost always need to adjust in Lightroom upon importing your RAW files:

  • White Balance
  • Exposure/Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Clarity
  • Vibrance

Let me walk you through a quick edit on a RAW image just so you can get a feel for what is happening to the image, and how to adjust the above settings.

Import the image you would like to edit. In the camera preview, this particular image looked fine, but after importing the RAW file into Lightroom, it is a bit flat in contrast, underexposed, and the white balance is just a tad too warm. Easy fix! Seriously, this can be done in about one minute:

First, select the Dropper tool:

Look for the most neutral area in your image, preferably shades of gray. The idea here is to get the RGB values to match up as closely as possible. Once you have found the most neutral area in your image, left-click once, and this will adjust the overall white balance of your image:

Next, let’s look at adjusting the values of the settings I mentioned above. I moved all the highlighted sliders to the right, but not too much. Sometimes, you’ll find that a little bit of adjusting goes a long way, so just experiment with the sliders until you are happy with the result.  

My only word of caution, though, is to not overdo the Clarity adjustment. When you import your RAW file, you may feel like a lot of the Clarity is lost, and the image is not sharp enough. Just be careful not to over-sharpen your image, especially if you are printing. While an over-sharpened image may look fine on your screen, once it is printed, it will appear grainy, noisy, and unnatural. 

Below is a Before/After of the image right after it was imported into Lightroom, versus how it looks after making a few quick adjustments:

From here, you can do several things. You can call your image finished and move on to your next image, or you can begin to make more adjustments to your image, such as adding presets. 

When you are finished editing, you can export and save your image. Lightroom will give you different options on what type of file you would like to export your image as. If you are going to continue to edit your image later, or if you intend to make prints, you may want to export your RAW file as either a DNG or a TIFF, as these file types will retain more information in the file, and not compress the file as much as a JPEG will. If you are simply exporting to share your image online, a JPEG will do just fine.