How to use RAW photos with Adobe Photoshop Elements :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to use RAW photos with Adobe Photoshop Elements

by David Peterson 25 comments

Once you go with RAW files, it seems like you never go back. I’ve said before that RAW photography isn’t for everyone. Even so, I feel that there comes a time in every photographer’s life when making the switch to RAW just makes sense. For me, it came just after my purchase of a high powered computer with a nice 500GB hard drive. Now that I can store all those digital negatives, I want nothing more than to take all of my pictures in RAW. Here’s how you can get on the RAW bandwagon with Adobe Photoshop Elements.

What is RAW? Why shoot in RAW?

The RAW format is the completely unaltered image data, taken straight from the camera's image sensor. Before creating the JPEG files we are all accustomed to, your camera does some basic modifications to the RAW data. It adds a little sharpening and some compression to reduce the file size. If you shoot in JPEG, you never see the RAW file because it gets deleted once the JPEG is created. That’s unfortunate because RAW files give you so much more options than JPEGs do.

You can think of a RAW file as a sort of digital negative. Nobody ever sends or prints RAW files. They process them into other image formats that then get shared with others. Why is this? Well, it’s partly due to the fact that RAW files are very large. They aren’t so easily shared. The second reason has to do with processing. You never want to modify a RAW file because if you did, you’d make an irreversible change to the original image.

I always keep all of my RAW files in a separate folder, completely unmodified. This ensures they will never get corrupted. If I ever want to modify any of my images, I open up the RAW and process it into a shareable JPEG image. I never modify the JPEGs more than once because it tends to degrade the quality.

Always do this: RAW File --> Adobe Photoshop Elements --> JPEG File --> Share, Print, etc.

Never do this: RAW File --> Adobe Photoshop Elements --> JPEG File --> Adobe Photoshop Elements --> JPEG File --> Share, Print, etc.

Importing RAW files into Adobe Photoshop Elements

To import a RAW file into Photoshop Elements, you simply open up the RAW file. The Adobe Camera RAW dialog box will open up, giving you a number of options to change your image before you import it. You’ll also see a histogram on the top, so you’ll immediately know if you’ve taken your changes a little too far. Here’s what it looks like.

There are so many options in this one dialog box,
that it’s simply too much to cover in one tutorial.
Rest assured, you can expect quite a few more tutorials
on Camera Raw in the next few months./p>

Bear in mind that there all kinds of different file formats for RAW camera data. I have a Nikon D40X, and it spits out .NEF files. Your camera might create some other file type. Most RAW files are compatible with Adobe Photoshop Elements. Just open them up with the software, and you will get this import dialog.

Let’s start with the fill light setting

We’re going to start with my favorite first adjustment. When I’m importing RAW files, I usually start with the fill light because it tends to brighten up dark shots when I’ve underexposed them. This image is a little dark because I had a few shots earlier that turned out too bright. In a bid to keep some of the definition in the snow, I upped the aperture setting and doing so made the sky a nice dark blue.

By turning up the fill light, you can brighten some of the blues in the sky without affecting the nice crisp definition in the snow. To confirm that this is actually happening, just watch your histogram as you slide this setting to the right. Most of the colors will shift to the right while the far right end of the spectrum stays mostly in place. This means the darker colors are being transformed into lighter variations.

For this photo, a fill light setting of 40 worked really well. Anything greater than that, and the rest of the image starts to look hazy. Take some time to play around with the fill light setting. You’ll see what I mean.

Notice the difference in the sky when you use the fill light option.

Exposure, recovery, blacks, and brightness

The rest of the settings are handy if you accidentally overexposed your image. The recovery slider shifts the entire histogram to the left, meaning it has a darkening effect. You can think of as the inverse of the fill light slider.

The exposure slider works by moving the entire histogram either to the left or right. Adobe tied it directly to exposure on your camera. If you want to expose one stop up or down, you can set the exposure to plus or minus one. You can also slide it until you like what you see. From my experience, I prefer not to use this slider because I would hope to have nailed the exposure in-camera. I like tools like fill light and recovery because they do things the camera cannot do.

The “blacks” slider increases the prominence of darker colors in the image. You may want to increase it if you feel as though those colors aren’t represented enough in your histogram. For this photo, I increased the blacks to +11, just enough to flatten out the histogram a little more on the left side. Sometimes you can’t really see these differences, but they are there.

Lastly, brightness does exactly what you would expect it to do. I’m not the hugest fan of it because it’s not as targeted as the fill light slider. Once again, you can simply get more brightness from the camera itself if you just decrease the aperture or shutter speed. Try to get this taken care of before you enter the post-processing phase.

Open up and save as a JPEG

If you were to open up the image right now, you would have effectively converted it from RAW to a format that Adobe Photoshop Elements can use. Clicking “open” is just like processing a negative. From that point on, you will only want to save a single JPEG. If you want to make any more of these import-time adjustments , it’s best to import the RAW file again.

The next few photoshop tutorials will go over some of the other Camera Raw options you get with Photoshop Elements. For now, enjoy using this rather cheap software (Just $80) to import your RAW files. What a bargain!

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Phil Nolan says:

    Hi David, after reading your article and shooting jpg for over a year, I decided to try RAW + JPG and took a photo in my office (at 16mm). I was quite happy with the basic adjusts, but the most noticeable difference between the two images was the curved edges caused by the barrel distortion, on the raw file (in camera corrected on the jpg). I reopened the raw file and eventually discovered that there are only three tabs in ACR for Elements and not the nine for Photoshop and crucially the Lens Correction tab is missing. I have only had Elements for two months and now I am very disappointed. How do you correct this in your wide angle shots?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Phil,

      Elements does have lens adjustments, but it's manual and not part of the RAW import. Once your file is in Elements, go to Filter>Correct Camera Distortion.

      If you want to correct automatically for the known barrel distortion on your camera, you'll need to use PS or Lightroom.


  2. Bob Pearce says:

    Hi Phil

    I don't have to Photoshop Elements but I do to Photoshop CS6 it appears that the sliders are different can the same thing be achieved in Photoshop and is there much cross over between the two programs should I only look at tutorials for Photoshop CS6 to avoid confusion .



  3. William Barwick says:

    I've just bought an Olympus OMD E-M1 and found that my Photoshop Elements 11 (Mac) would not accept my RAW photos (Jpeg files are ok). After discussion with Olympus and Adobe Forum I downloaded the latest free DNG converter 9.5.1, but still no luck. Can you confirm that if I upgraded to PSE 14 this version would accept the .orf raw files from my camera - without the need for a converter?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi William,

      I'm not sure why they told you to download the DNG converter. The program you need is "Adobe Camera Raw". It's used by all Adobe products (like Elements and Photoshop) to read RAW image files.

      From what I understand, The Camera Raw program is all you need to update.

      Also, from this page, it looks like the E-M1 has preliminary support (not sure what that means though). You might need to wait a few months for it to be fully supported.

      Alternatively, you should have received a program by Olympus with the camera (or maybe you can download from their site) that will read the RAW files and convert them to a DMG file that Elements can read.

      Good luck!


  4. Janet says:

    I'm shooting raw and jpeg bc raw is new to me. I'm also shooting on the largest file setting. When I save the jpeg from raw, the sizing is smaller. Is this right? I need to print a 16x20 and it says the quality of file isn't's too small. What am I doing? How do I save images to print a 16x20 print?

    • David Peterson says:

      HI Janet,

      Yes, a JPG file size is much smaller than a RAW file.

      Regarding the quality, that depends on the megapixels of your camera. A 16x20 print is very large, so to print with great quality, you'll need a camera with over 20 megapixels. You can get away with less (for example, 12mp) but I would not suggest printing that large if your image is only 6 megapixels.

      I explain why in this article:


  5. Kathy says:

    I have PSE 10 and a new Nikon D5300 DSLR. I can't get anything to open it's RAW files (.NEF) except Nikon's View NX2 software, which is basically useless for editing. It lets me convert files to .jpeg. It's driving me crazy! If anyone has any answers to this, I would love to hear them! Thanks!

  6. Kathleen howitt says:

    I have photoshop elements 9 and when I open my raw file photos a box pops up and says wrong file type? Has anyone any idea what I need to do to open my raw files?

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Kathleen,

      Sounds like you need to download the free Camera Raw software from Adobe. It links in with Elements. The page to download depends on the type of computer you have, so search for "Adobe camera raw pc" or "Adobe camera raw mac" to find it.

      I hope that helps.


  7. Brian says:

    Great article, but I'm using photoshop elements 12 and seem to be missing the "fill light" setting. I appear to have everything else mentioned in your article, but am missing the fill light. Do you know why this is?

    Thanks for your help.

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Brian,

      You might be using the newer camera calibration. You can either click on the "Camera Calibration" tab (looks like a camera) and choose the 2010 settings. Then go back to the the Basic tab and you'll see "fill light". Or you can instead change the "Shadows" and "Blacks" sliders which do the same thing as fill light.

      I hope that helps.


  8. Marilee says:

    I'm very confused when I open my RAW file in PSE 11 nothing comes up like this. Where do I find the Camera Raw dialog box? Have I not set this up or deleted it somehow??

  9. James says:

    Gaby. Are you on latest version of Adobe Camera Raw? If you have a newish camera it might not be recognising the particular raw format you camera is producing. Sometimes it's worth converting the raw file to DNG to avoid compatibilty problems.

    You could also try resetting the Editing default in Elements Organizer:
    Adobe Elements 10 Organizer/ Preferences / Editing / Restore Default settings.

    Good luck!

  10. Paul says:

    Raw is not a format. Nor is it an acronym or an initialism. They are simply raw (i.e. unprocessed) files. No capitals required whatsoever - just call them raw.

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