The Raw File Shuffle

Adobe Photoshop has been around for 21 years now. Given that, I think it’s safe to say that we’re finally dealing with an adult. For the better part of that 21 years, Photoshop was the place where you went to work on, to crop, to color-correct or to manipulate, more or less, one image at a time. In the process, Photoshop became synonymous with photography. Despite the fact that most people using it were graphic designers, it was still considered the tool for serious photographers.

Over time, some of us built up quite large digital libraries of scanned photographs. But it wasn’t until the advent of what I call "viable digital capture" that the entire photographic industry realized—nearly all at once—that it had a serious asset management problem. (I mark the advent of viable digital capture to be the release of the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II.) As it turns out, Photoshop wasn’t up to that challenge. It wasn’t, in any way, shape or form, designed or built for asset management on the scale that photographers suddenly required. It was a pixel editor.

Fig. 1

Add to this that with a new generation of digital cameras and software, we also gained access to our cameras’ raw sensor data. Processing photos yourself from the raw capture into RGB had obvious benefits. At the same time, it presented yet another curve ball for photographers. At first glance, shooting raw seemed to be just another file format to be understood, cataloged and archived. But the fact that the path from raw data to an RGB image is essentially a one-way street turned out to be a blessing in disguise (Fig. 1).

Raw files had to be treated as read-only, which meant that, by their very nature, the processing instructions were nondestructive to the source image. And storing nondestructive processing instructions in a database, along with image previews and other photo metadata, turned out to be a pretty useful combination. In fact, it helped change photography.

Enter a new generation of photo programs specifically designed to address these new conditions, notably Apple Aperture and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. These programs built their image processing, workflow and output around a database that stored everything. Add rapidly expanding hard-drive capacities to the mix, and photographers finally began to realize the dream of being able to build and manage one giant digital photo library. It was a revolution. In this article, I’m focusing on Lightroom because it’s the program I helped develop and the one I use. See the sidebar "Working With Apple Aperture" to get an idea of the similarities and differences between Aperture and Lightroom.

Of course, this didn’t mean that Photoshop was headed for obsolescence. Rather, it meant that the roles programs were playing were about to become much more clearly defined. Photoshop was still the king of the hill when it came to retouching, compositing, photo design and just about any other discipline that required pushing around actual pixels. At the same time, it had just gained a new raw-processing and image-management partner in Lightroom. Now that the dust from the revolution is settling, the ideal workflow is coming into better focus. Lightroom can manage all of your digital photo assets—raw or RGB. And it can help you move things back and forth to Photoshop when retouching on the pixel level or when compositing is required. This article is about the various nooks and crannies that you’ll encounter when taking a raw file from Lightroom to Photoshop for editing. In a subsequent article, we’ll look at the workflow for RGB files.

Why Do Lightroom And Camera Raw

Need To Be Synchronized?

Adobe Lightroom and the Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop share the same code for raw processing. But that code is changing all the time, with the addition of support for new camera models, tweaks to the features or the processing code, etc. So when one is updated, they should both be updated together. At the time of this writing, Lightroom is at version 3.4.1, and Camera Raw is at version 6.4.1.

Both Lightroom and the Adobe Creative Suite applications periodically make an automatic check to see if they’re up to date. But Lightroom doesn’t update the Camera Raw plug-in (part of the Adobe Creative Suite applications), and the Creative Suite doesn’t update Lightroom, so they can occasionally become out of sync.

When you’re starting with raw files, Lightroom always tries to give the Camera Raw plug-in the responsibility of rending the raw data into an RGB image. (This isn’t always true when starting with an RGB file.) So you can see that if you’re correcting a complex lens-distortion problem in Lightroom, for example, your Camera Raw plug-in will have to be using the same code in order to be rendered properly. This is why you may see the Compatibility Dialog if your version of Lightroom doesn’t match that of your current Camera Raw plug-in.

To be sure your version of Lightroom is up to date, go to the Help menu, and choose Check for Updates. To check your Camera Raw plug-in, go to the Help menu in Photoshop, and choose Check for Updates.

Fig. 2

When you first choose the Edit in Photoshop command in Lightroom, starting with a raw file, one of two things will happen. If your version of Lightroom and your Camera Raw plug-in are synchronized, which they should be, the default behavior will be for Lightroom to hand off the raw file to Photoshop for rendering into RGB (Fig. 2).

When Lightroom hands off that raw file, it also hands off all your nondestructive Lightroom settings along with it. Photoshop relies on the Camera Raw plug-in to render the raw file into an RGB color space, incorporating the Lightroom settings. So any adjustments that you’ve made get baked into the new RGB pixels. Once it’s rendered, an RGB file opens in Photoshop, and you never even see the Camera Raw plug-in. On top of that, I’m calling the file that’s created a "phantom TIFF" file because when it’s first opened into Photoshop, it hasn’t really been saved anywhere yet. It’s just a bit of smoke and mirrors that only exists in a Photoshop cache somewhere.

Fig. 3

At this point, you’re free to play with your photo in Photoshop to your heart’s content. Create some layers, add some filter effects—anything you like. It’s only when you finally save that a new TIFF file is created. Photoshop names this new file using the original raw file name, adding "-Edit" to the end of it, to indicate that the new file is indeed an edited file. Then, one more thing happens right at the moment when you save. That new TIFF file becomes a member of your Lightroom catalog. It’s auto-matically imported for you (Fig. 3).

So that’s the basic round-trip. You’ve just taken a raw file, applied some Lightroom settings to it and gone on a round-trip to Phot
oshop and back. You now have a new RGB TIFF file in your Lightroom catalog.

Fig. 4

That’s path number one. Remember, I said this would be the default path if your version of Lightroom and your Camera Raw plug-in are synchronized. If they aren’t synchronized—which happens to almost all of us at one time or another—when you choose Edit in Photoshop for a raw file, Lightroom gives you a choice (Fig. 4). In this case, Lightroom throws up the Compatibility Dialog, asking if you’d like to render the RGB file using Lightroom or to "Open Anyway." The choice is pretty easy. But, of course, the outcome may be a little different, depending upon which path you take. If you choose the "Render using Lightroom" option, it will be Lightroom that creates the RGB file this time, baking in your Lightroom adjustments as the RGB is being rendered. Of course, the benefit of having Lightroom do the rendering is that you’re absolutely, positively guaranteed that what you see in Lightroom is what you’ll get in the RGB TIFF.

Also, the moment the new RGB file is rendered, it’s imported into your Lightroom catalog, whether you make any changes or save it in Photoshop at all. It automatically becomes part of your library, and then Lightroom just hands that new RGB file off to Photoshop for editing.

Fig. 5

That’s what happens when you use the "Render using Lightroom" option. On the other hand, if you choose the "Open Anyway" option, you’re back to the original behavior that we saw in the first example. The "Open Anyway" option gives you the same behavior that you’ll get if Lightroom and Camera Raw are in sync—with Photoshop doing the rendering into the phantom TIFF file (Fig. 5).

The reason you have a choice when the two are out of sync is because if you haven’t kept your Camera Raw plug-in up to date, then you may be making adjustments to your raw files in Lightroom that your Camera Raw plug-in doesn’t have controls for yet, like the new Lens Correction controls or the new Detail controls. If your version of Camera Raw doesn’t have the exact version of processing code as Lightroom, you could be creating settings in Lightroom that Camera Raw won’t understand. And even though the "Open Anyway" option is the default, if you do see the Compatibility Dialog, it generally pays to stop for a moment and think about what settings you’ve applied to your photo before making a decision because, depending upon those settings, Camera Raw may not give you exactly what you see in Lightroom. And if you do see the Compatibility Dialog, it means it’s time for an update.

Remember, the path that you go down when you choose the "Open Anyway" option is the same one that you’ll go down automatically when both programs are in sync. The phantom TIFF file is opened into Photoshop, and you can make your edits. Then if you don’t save that new file when you close it in Photoshop, the file simply disappears. It never even shows up for the party in Lightroom unless you save it when you’re done in Photoshop.

And, finally, what happens when you try to use the Edit in Photoshop command starting with a virtual copy? Well, virtual copies are no different than any other type of file in Lightroom. You can create a virtual copy from a raw file or from an RGB file. Virtual copies are just pointers to real files, so the workflow is exactly the same.

Fig. 6

If you make a virtual copy from a raw file and choose the Edit in Photoshop command, Lightroom first looks to see if your Camera Raw plug-in is up to date (as always); if it is, it simply hands the raw data, plus the virtual copies’ adjustments, off to Photoshop for rendering into RGB. If the plug-in isn’t up to date, you get the Compatibility Dialog again, asking who should render the RGB file. After that, the workflow is identical (Fig. 6).

Those are the mechanics of taking a raw file round-trip, from Lightroom to Photoshop and back, and they’re fairly easy to learn. What isn’t as easy is developing a full understanding of how and when to use the flexibility of Lightroom’s nondestructive corrections versus when it’s time to take advantage of Photoshop’s editing capability down to the pixel level. And once you’ve gone round-trip the first time, it becomes even more interesting because, once you have an RGB file in your catalog that has been edited in Photoshop, you can add even more nondestructive Lightroom changes on top of that. Mastery of the workflow becomes possible once you realize how flexible the system truly is. Even after adding Lightroom modifications on top of a layered Photoshop file, you still can go back and open that file in Photoshop again and continue refining your composition—all without disturbing your Lightroom adjustments that have been made to the very same file. And we’ll pick it up right there, delving into the intricacies of the RGB workflow in future articles.

George Jardine is a photographer, teacher and Lightroom expert. Read his blog and view a range of excellent tutorials on his website at

Working With Apple Aperture

When it comes to combining a database-driven program like Aperture or Lightroom with Photoshop, what does the word "integration" really mean? For the most part, all integration really means is that the database or cataloging program is able to hand off files to Photoshop for editing and then manage the resulting RGB files that are created back in the catalog.

There are one or two differences in the way Aperture and Lightroom handle this back and forth, but the bottom line is that all the core things that a photographer needs to do exist in both programs. First, when taking a raw file from either Aperture or Lightroom over to Photoshop, an RGB file must be created. That’s just the nature of the game. And both Aperture and Lightroom essentially do this in the same way—baking any nondestructive adjustments that have been made to the raw image right into the new RGB pixels that are created. Then that new RGB file is automatically included in the Aperture Library or the Lightroom catalog. That part of the raw workflow is the central focus of this article.

After editing in Photoshop, your new RGB file then can be further modified using nondestructive settings in both Aperture and Lightroom. That resulting RGB file can be taken back to Photoshop, as usual, from either program. Both Aperture and Lightroom give you fairly easy ways to edit the original RGB, without baking in any subsequent nondestructive edits, or to create yet another branch, by generating an entirely new file that includes any nondestructive edits that you’ve made. The user interface protocols are just a little different, but the end result is identical.

The aspect that’s not identical is that of the raw processing. Of course, Apple and Adobe have engineered their own RAW processors, and each one will give you slightly different controls and results. Not only will the results vary slightly between these two third-party processors, but they will b
e slightly different from those generated by your camera manufacturer’s raw processor, as well. In the end, many people choose one program over another because of the quality or the uniqueness of its raw processing.

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