Camera RAW 101 (A Book By Jon Canfield)

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In his new book, “Camera Raw 101:  Better Photos with Photoshop, Elements and Lightroom”, Jon Canfield teaches us everything we need to know about this incredible piece of software.  Adobe Camera RAW (or ACR, as it is widely referred) is RAW conversion companion software that comes with Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements and is built into Adobe Lightroom.  For photographers that prefer the RAW format, especially those who prefer Adobe’s line of graphic editing products, ACR is an essential tool and often the first step in any workflow.  Despite it’s wide use, however, it’s documentation was lacking – often an afterthought or a sidebar in a book about Photoshop.  Canfield’s book strives to correct that.

Overview

Before I tell you about what this book is, let me start by explaing what this book isn’t. This book isn’t about shooting in RAW.  This book isn’t even about the RAW format.  The entire focus of this book is on using ACR to it’s full potential in the editing of photographs.  Therefore, you have a few prerequisites before picking up this book:

  • You should be comfortable with the RAW format.  This means you know all of it’s advantages, disadvantages and how it works.
  • You should be quite familiar with Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or Lightroom.  It goes without saying that you should probably have one of these pieces of software as this book serves no purpose if you do not.
  • You should be familiar with the way your camera handles RAW images and you should know how to get everything onto your computer.
  • It would be a huge benefit to you if you were fully aware of the technical aspects of digital photographs including, but not limited, chromatic abberation, White Balance, Noise, Sharpness, and so on.

This book is not intended for beginners, so Canfield doesn’t spend much time explaining these elementary details.  Ideally, those who have used ACR several times in the past will benefit most from this book.  While it covers some of the basic workflow items, it really dives deep into topics that won’t make any sense to you unless you’ve already had some experience wiht ACR.

Now that all the disclaimers are behind us, lets get into the book.

The book is set up in a fairly standard technical format with the more basic tasks in the earlier chapters where advanced topics are covered in later chapters.  To be fair, it’s also safe to assume that the features used most often get covered first.  The first two chapters cover the obligitory overview of the software, of course, so it covers most items that you should already know.  Not to say you shouldn’t read these chapters, because you’ll inevitably learn something.  But as you move through the book, Canfield shares his thoughts and experiences on more advanced topics such as automation and Increasing Dynamic Range.

The book is filled with lots of examples showing photographs before and after tweaking of certain properties.  It also provides us with possibly the most valuable resource of all:  A shortcut key reference guide.  The book is indexed and color coded by chapter to help you easily find specific topics, making this book a great side-bar reference guide that you’ll want to keep by your computer.

Thoughts

Camera Raw 101 is truly intended as a reference guide and is certainly not the type of book that you would read cover-to-cover, nor should you.  Ideally, this is a book that should be read in chunks (and possibly not in cronological order) based on what you need to do with your own conversions.  Therein lies the dilemma:  The organization of this book is based on a cover-to-cover read with topics organized by skill level as opposed to arranging by function.  For example, White Balance, the White Balancing Tool, Color Tint and the Curves Control are all topics I would expect to see in close relation to each other, yet they are organized in chapters three, four, four and six, respectively.  A reference guide format would have been much more useful for this type of technical publication.

As one would expect, this book is full of examples.  A lot of the topics, such as Chromatic Aberration, are abstract in nature and good examples are absolutely necessary for the reader to understand what the sliders are actually changing.  I don’t feel that there is a single bad example in the book, and I truly feel that each example helps to explain the topic at hand.  However, there are a number of situations where some of the examples could be larger in order for the reader to fully understand the concept – especially one who has yet to develop their keen eye for detail.  The Noise Reduction discussion would certainly have benefited from larger versions of the example photos, or at least an area blow-up detail so that one could truly see the difference.  Also, as many of the screenshots are captures from ACR itself, a brief mention of what version of ACR would have helped.  The book is based largely on ACR CS4, so some of the dialogs look different if you’re using CS3 or some other version.  As I wasn’t always in front of the computer when reading the book, some of the shots were confusing to me as I looked different from what I was used to seeing.

So it sounds like I’m really beating this book up.  While there were a few things I disliked about this book, there are certainly a number of great features and exceptional discussions contained within.  For example, the discussion of converting to black and white was quite interesting.  As is the tradition of Adobe, there are several ways to do many tasks including converting to Black and White.  Canfield introduces us to yet another, but one that I may now prefer:  Converting through ACR prior to opening in Photoshop.  ACR is very powerful, in this regard, allowing you to control contrast and dynamic range prior to conversion.  Until now, I had done my black and white conversions after opening in Photoshop, which means I was atempting this after it had been converted to an 8-bit workspace (JPEG only supports 8-bit).  In hind sight, that was silly as I’ve already lost half of my data.  The end result is much higher quality if Black and White is set and compensated for before fully converting to JPEG.  Another great tip is holding down the Alt key (Option for Mac users) while using some sliders to isolate just the aspects of the image they will alter.  Alt in combination with the exposure slider, for instance, would show you only areas where your dark/light areas are clipping.  This is just a few examples…I assure you that you will benefit greatly from the tips that Canfield shares throughout the book.

Despite it’s setbacks, this is definitely a book that would be beneficial to digital photographer who uses Adobe Camera RAW (and it’s sister software).  I would certainly have to give Canfield credit for tackling a piece of software:  ACR is so very specific, yet so complicated and broad at the same time.  Covering all the bases on such a piece of software is no easy undertaking, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could explain it as well as Canfield did.  It’s almost unfair to call it a ‘101’ book, as it certainly goes beyond a typical introductory course.  So if you’re a RAW/ACR user, considering picking up a copy of this book.

At a Glance

The Desirable

  • Appendix of Keyboard Shortcuts
  • Sidebar tips (Notes) to help you avoid some common pitfalls when using Adobe Camera RAW
  • Readily admits limitations of Camera RAW and even provides recommendations for alternative tools (such as noise reduction tools)
  • Color coded page numbers by chapter

The Undesirable

  • Very few suggestions as to when one would use certain options (Such as Blacks control in lieu of curves)
  • Many of the comparison photos (pairs and sets) are too small to fully discern the subtle differences between each photo
  • Many of the examples use Photoshop CS4 without mention.  Current, of course, but the interface has changed in some cases from CS3 – at least acknowledging this fact would be appreciated.  (Note – Canfield does note many situations and features that are available only in CS4, but does not provide CS3 [or older]scenarios often)

[Rating:3/5]

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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