Since it was introduced, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) has been the industry-standard tool for processing RAW files—the beginning of a digital photographer’s workflow before moving into Photoshop. Sometime later, ACR extended its functionality to other file types like JPEGs. Today, you can use its full power at any point in your workflow while working in Photoshop. This opens up many new possibilities.
Using the Adobe Camera Raw Filter is useful for noise reduction, detail enhancement, color adjustment, localized lens correction, creative distortion and even tone-mapping 32-bit HDR images. Go beyond the maximum setting of Clarity, with two ACR Filters. Set different white balances for different regions of an image. Apply Lens Correction distortions locally. Global, local, double and crossprocessing—the ACR Filter can do it all.
While the ACR Filter revises workflow, it doesn’t rewrite it completely. It’s still better to do the lion’s share of image adjustment during RAW conversion with ACR or Lightroom (both offer the same RAW conversion engine)—preferably as a Smart Object so you can easily change the settings or update the process version. For instance, you’ll get better shadow and highlight detail using ACR during conversion than you will using the ACR Filter after conversion.
So when would you use the Adobe Camera Raw Filter? When the ACR toolset does something Photoshop’s toolset doesn’t. Or, when the ACR Filter does a task more quickly and easily, without sacrificing quality or flexibility. To decide this, compare the two toolsets.
There’s functionality in Adobe Camera Raw that’s not in Photoshop.
ACR’s Basic panel has two color-adjustment features not found in Photoshop: White Balance and Clarity. Photoshop’s Photo Filter (more uniform) and High Pass filtration (less halo suppression) are the nearest equivalents, yet both offer substantially different effects. It’s worth carefully comparing and contrasting them to know when to use each tool.
ACR’s Tone Curve panel delivers nothing that Photoshop’s Curves does not, and it lacks scrubbing features.
ACR’s Detail panel provides additional sliders for Sharpening; the Detail slider targets effects into different detail frequencies (think of frequency as texture—low is smooth and high is texture), something no tool in Photoshop does; the Masking slider makes edge masks easier and more flexible. The Detail panel also provides additional sliders for Noise Reduction; it provides true separation of Luminance and Color, plus the ability to adjust Luminance Detail and Luminance Contrast, as well as Color Detail and Color Smoothness. Consider this panel one more tool to add to your arsenal of detail-enhancement options. Now the tools once reserved for capture sharpening can be extended to creative sharpening.
ACR’s HSL/Grayscale panel offers a useful Luminance response (one that doesn’t compromise dynamic range) for selective adjustment of hues. It makes adjusting oranges and purples easier as it provides ready-made sliders, but unlike Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation, the transitions between analogous colors can’t be adjusted.
ACR’s Split-Toning panel is easy to use, but yields less control than Photoshop’s Curves.
ACR’s Lens Corrections panel is so powerful, it almost renders Photoshop’s filter Lens Correction obsolete, offering additional options like Upright in an easier-to-use package—almost, but not quite; Photoshop’s Lens Correction filter provides a stronger Remove Distortion slider and three sliders instead of two for removing chromatic aberration, which can be useful occasionally.
ACR’s Effects panel adds yet another noise structure, Grain, that’s different than Photoshop’s Noise or Filter Gallery’s more robust Grain, which is still only available in 8-bit. And, Post Crop Vignetting is fast and convenient, though not as customizable in shape or position as a radial gradient mask in Photoshop.
ACR’s Camera Calibration panel has less control than Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation.
While the Adobe Camera Raw Filter can be applied to rasterized layers, it’s most flexible when it’s applied as a Smart Filter. Then, whenever you want to adjust the ACR Filter settings, you can simply double-click the Smart Filter to reactivate its settings window. If the layer you want to apply the ACR Filter to isn’t a Smart Object, simply convert it to one using Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object or Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. You can even apply one ACR Filter to multiple layers, if you first convert them into a single Smart Object; simply highlight all the layers you wish to combine before making the conversion.
Remember, you can apply the ACR Filter more than once for more aggressive and/or localized effects. Applying different ACR settings to local areas is challenging at first. While each Smart Filter can have an Opacity and a Blend Mode, only one mask is provided for all of the Smart Filters applied to a Smart Object. To get around this, you can nest a Smart Object with its Smart Filters as a new Smart Object and before applying another Smart Filter with a new mask; this offers a leaner file size at the price of a less clear layer stack and more challenging previews.
Unlike using separate adjustment layers that place many solutions in multiple layers, using the ACR Filter tends to place many solutions in a single layer, which can make it more challenging to mask and preview individual components.
The challenges the ACR Filter presents are a small price to pay for its added functionality; it’s capable to do things that Photoshop alone can’t do. The ACR Filter is so robust that some are tempted to try and do everything with it, forgetting that Photoshop can do so much more. As ever, when and how you use a tool depends on the task at hand and your objectives. Try using this new feature sparingly at first, giving it a little time here and a little time there, and then one day you’ll realize that you’ve effortlessly taken a deep dive into a substantially new workflow.
John Paul Caponigro, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, is an internationally renowned fine artist, an authority on digital printing, and a respected lecturer and workshop leader. Get access to a wealth of online resources with his free enews Insights on his website at www.johnpaulcaponigro.com.