Raw photos require a bit of extra editing. That’s why they’re called “raw.” It means unprocessed.

This article is a follow up to my last article about making the transition from shooting JPG to Raw. After you’ve changed the setting on your camera that records photos in Raw rather than JPG form, you need to import your photos to your computer and run them through a Raw editor to spruce them up.

Don’t let that worry you – you can edit raw photos in Photoshop Elements, full Photoshop, Lightroom, and the software that came in your camera box. You have lots of options.

Let’s start with a comparison of Raw photos vs. JPGs.

raw photos

It’s not hard to spot the difference in the illustration above, is it? When a camera records a JPG, it adds the following edits:

  • Contrast to make the light colors lighter and the dark colors darker. See how much brighter the backdrop is in the photo above?
  • Saturation (intensifies colors)
  • Sharpening (makes the photo look crisper)

In contrast to a JPG, Raws will look duller. This can be a big disappointment when you download that first batch of photos onto your computer. It’s also a disappointment when you compare a Raw photo to its appearance on the back of your camera.

Just remember that the camera displays a JPG, even if it doesn’t record the image as a JPG. What can be even more disheartening, if you use Lightroom, is that you catch the briefest of glimpses of that JPG as your photo loads, and then it disappears forever as the Raw image finishes loading. The JPG you catch a glimpse of is called an “embedded thumbnail” and you can’t access it except by looking at the photo on your camera.

Ok, so that’s the background info you need to know. Let’s talk about editing these Raw photos. You can do this in either Lightroom or Photoshop Elements

One note about editing Raws in PSE. If you’re using PSE, you’ll use Adobe Camera Raw to edit your Raw photos. If you have Elements, you have ACR. When you go to the File Menu/Open and select a Raw image, it will automatically open inside ACR.

Because the editing options in ACR are all in Lightroom as well, the info below will apply equally to both platforms. However, Lightroom has many more choices than ACR for editing your raw photos. That’s one of the reasons I recommend it as the photo editing software to begin with for people who are just starting out.

Editing Raw Photos: Step 1

Select the Camera Profile. The Camera Profile is a “shortcut” to getting close to the JPG that you see on the back of the camera. They are supposed to replicate the various camera styles that you can choose from your camera’s menu when shooting JPG.

To select a Camera Profile in Lightroom you will go to the Develop module and scroll down to Camera Calibration, the bottom panel on the right side.

raw photo editing lightroom camera calibration

If you use Elements, once ACR opens you’ll want to click on the 3rd icon in the over on the right – it looks like a camera.

raw photos

The options you have for choosing a camera profile vary depending on the camera you shot with. In the ACR screenshot above, you see the options that I can use for photos taken with my little Olympus.

For shots from my Canon 6D, my Camera Profile Options are:

  • Canon Faithful
  • Canon Landscape
  • Canon Neutral
  • Canon Portrait
  • Canon Standard

The options are supposed to correlate roughly to the picture styles you can assign to JPGs on your camera before you shoot them.

Simply choose the profile that comes closest to how you want your photo to look. Here is my Raw with no profile applied. It has the typical dull Raw look.

Next is the image with Camera Muted applied. The photo has more contrast, and the histogram confirms that with its pixels closer to the left edge.

And my favorite, Camera Vivid. This one has increased Saturation and Contrast.


Look at how the histogram changes from version to version – focus on the blue peak in the center if you don’t notice a difference. And read this article if you need a refresher course on using histograms.

(Are you a JPG shooter? You’ll notice that you can’t change this field because the profile was “baked in” to the JPG the moment you snapped the photo. It’s one of the few differences between Raws & JPGs in LR.)

Editing Raw Photos: Step 2

Adjust contrast, if necessary. Contrast is the difference between the lights and darks in your image. When we increase contrast, we make the darks darker and the lights lighter. This increases the distance on the histogram between the darkest darks and the lightest lights.

Images need contrast when they have a hazy feeling or a soft look that isn’t caused by improper focus. More objectively, many images need contrast when they don’t have any pixels touching the left wall of the histogram.

My favorite way to add Contrast in either ACR or Lightroom is to use the Blacks slider. I move it to the left to darken the darks until I have pixels touching the left side of the histogram and the photo shows more “pop.”

In some cases, I will also brighten the brights using the Highlights slider. If your image needs brighter brights, make sure not to blow them out. You don’t want many pixels climbing that right wall of the histogram. And check out this article for a quick method to identify where blown highlights are.

You can see from my screenshot above the the pixels are much closer to each end of the histogram. Also, note my Highlights and Blacks adjustments. This photo is one of the rare ones where I brighten brights more than I darken darks.

What about the Contrast slider? The Contrast slider works pretty well in the later versions of LR and ACR (LR 4 and PSE 12). However, I like the Control I get over Blacks and Highlights individually by using those sliders rather than combining my edits onto one slider.

If your version of Lightroom or ACR doesn’t contain the same sliders I’ve mentioned, check out this tutorial for using older versions of LR and ACR.

Editing Raw Photos: Step 3

Adjust Saturation, if necessary. I often find that the Camera Profile I select in Step 1 adds plenty of color. If you’d like more, however, use the Vibrance slider rather than the Saturation slider. It produces more natural results, especially on skin.

I moved Vibrance to 11 for the version above.

Editing Raw Photos: Step 4

Lightroom and ACR apply default sharpening to every Raw image you edit. You can see the default Sharpening of 25 when you look at the Detail panel in the Develop module of an unedited photo:

raw photo default sharpening

If you looked in the same spot on a JPG, the Amount slider would be set to 0 and the other sliders would be grayed out to indicate that no sharpening is being applied.

Below are the sharpening amounts that I applied to this photo. For this particular image, I won’t need to add any additional sharpening.

raw photo editing sharpening

I haven’t mentioned White Balance and Exposure in this list because your photo will have the same Exposure and White Balance regardless of whether you shot Raw or JPG. The difference is that you are able to improve both Exposure & WB better on Raw, because the shooting settings aren’t “baked in.”

You can see my final edit above. After the Raw adjustments described above, I added some selective darkening and worked on the elk’s eye to add brightness and crispness.

So, to sum up, the edits that every Raw photo needs are:

  1. Assign Camera Profile.
  2. Adjust Contrast.
  3. Add Saturation.
  4. Increase Sharpening.
  5. White Balance and Exposure tweaks as necessary.

After that, you would edit the raw photo as usual for any further enhancements.