Improving RAW Photos with Adobe Photoshop Elements - Vibrancy, Saturation and Sharpness :: Digital Photo Secrets

Improving RAW Photos with Adobe Photoshop Elements - Vibrancy, Saturation and Sharpness

by David Peterson 2 comments

In our last tutorial on RAW images with Photoshop Elements, we touched on some of the things you can do with using the bundled software known as Camera RAW. There are a number of reasons why you might want to start taking your photos in the RAW format. For one, it allows you to go back to the drawing board every time you want to do a different kind of post-processing on your image. There’s no degradation in the quality of the original RAW image because you never actually use the RAW file in the end. You merely develop it into a JPEG.

In this tutorial, we’re going to cover some of things you can do to improve the colors in your images using Camera RAW. Last time, we touched on this a little bit. I showed you how to get the right exposure and brightness with an image that’s already pretty good straight out of the camera. Now I want to show you how to sharpen the image and bump up the contrast using the same tools.

The above image is the one we left off with last time. It’s mostly there, but the colors seem a little washed out, almost as if it’s a pastel. We can bump up the colors by playing with the vibrance and saturation sliders. Let’s give them a try.

The difference between vibrance and saturation

If you remember the previous tutorial, we talked about the difference between the fill light and the brightness/exposure sliders. I said I really like fill light because it’s a little more surgical. It only brightens the parts of the photo that need to brightened, and it leaves the already-bright parts well enough alone. I said it’s great because it does something the camera cannot do.

Well, here we are again, looking at a similar difference. The vibrance slider is a lot like the fill light slider. It’s similar to the saturation slider, but it’s much more surgical. It will only bump up the colors that aren’t already vibrant. It leaves everything else alone. By contrast, if you simply increase the saturation slider, all colors in the image will become much more intense.

Can you spot the difference between these two images?

The first image has a +50 value for vibrance (and a zero for saturation). The second image has a +50 value for saturation (and a zero for vibrance).

You can really spot the difference when you look at the trees. There are some rather unnatural looking greens and oranges in there, colors you simply wouldn’t see in the natural world. They’re your tipoff.

In my experience, it’s best to use the vibrance slider instead of the saturation slider. There are times when you may want to get experimental and forego the natural look, but they are few and far between.

The Clarity Slider

Before we discuss the clarity slider, I’d like to talk about the contrast slider. The contrast slider performs a sort of general purpose sharpening on your image. As you increase it, the lines between colors become much more dark and defined. What I find interesting about this slider is that it’s set to a default of +25. This value reflects the natural in-camera sharpening that automatically takes place whenever you shoot in JPEG mode.

When you’re starting out, it doesn’t make much sense to play around with the contrast slider. You’re going to want that extra sharpness in most images, and that’s the reason the default is set to +25. Without it, digital images seem too hazy.

Having said that, the contrast slider bumps up the sharpness everywhere, meaning it’s very easy to overdo it. The clarity slider, on the other hand, is a much nicer alternative. It only bumps up the contrast in the mid-tones of your image, a place where contrast tends to get lost.

I increased the clarity on the following image by +50, and I immediately noticed more definition in the snow. It seems a lot more hard-edged now. I like that because it makes it easier to follow the lines in the image.

Now here’s the same image with a bump in overall contrast by +75. There is no corresponding increase in clarity (set to zero).

This image is sharper, but a lot of that sharpness goes to the very bright and very dark colors. As a result, you end up losing some of the detail in the snow. It almost appears overexposed when compared to the clarity adjusted image before it.

I would say use the clarity slider before you start to play with the contrast slider. Just like fill light and vibrance, it’s a much more surgical tool. If you still can’t get what you want, then you should adjust the contrast slider.

Everything you want, and you haven’t even imported your photos yet

Wow, it’s pretty amazing that we can do so much with an image before we’ve even brought it into Photoshop Elements. That’s the beauty of RAW photography. You can adjust colors, exposure, and contrast with no damage to the original file. We are literally developing a digital negative into anything we want!

In the new few tutorials, we’ll go over some of the remaining settings. You can adjust white balance, color temperature, rotation, cropping, and you can even remove red eye, all with Camera RAW. Pretty amazing stuff.

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  1. Katina Reilly says:

    This was the best information for elements I have found - it totally gave me answers I have been looking for!!!


  2. Koen van Duynslaeger says:

    I always like your very informative articles, but this time I was a bit surprised to see you use and explain the previous version of Adobe Camera Raw. In the new version (2012 - see Camera Calilbration) 'fill light' e.g. does not exist any more. Your explanation does not help for the new versions. Did you realise?
    Personally I think the new version is better. The new noise reduction features should be the best available. Normally I use Lightroom and it is very much alike.

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