How to process a RAW file for imaging purposes - Dot Editions style.
When we at Dot Editions are processing out a RAW file for retouching, we process it out with a wide gamut as possible. A traditional negative has a huge gamut range - so when you take it into the darkroom, you can push it around any way you want in regards to contrast, openness, masking, etc. We keep the same process in mind when a client brings us RAW files that he or she wants retouched in a certain way.
This process will give you a file that you can push or pull in any direction you see fit - though at first it will look somewhat flat and desaturated. The reason is that if you process it out with a specific style, you are nailed into that style once you bring it into Photoshop for manipulation. You may ask, what about processing it out as a smart object, and then adjusting it later? For me, this doesn't work, because once I bring it into PS, I start working on skin, dodging and burning, masking ... and all that work goes out the window if I go back and change the way the original layer was processed.
Keep in mind that with all photographic processes, there is more than one way to skin the cat, so another way may work better for you. Here's a summary of steps we take when processing out in Camera RAW. Many thanks to Michel Leroy who let us use his image.
1. Open your image in Camera RAW. Click on your workflow options (at the middle bottom of the window). Process your file out as a 16 bit, ProPhoto RGB file at its native size.
2. In the Basic adjustment window, adjust your exposure and blacks so that everything is within the histogram, nothing is clipping. Command + click on the exposure slider and move it until there is no white showing, meaning all your highlights are within gamut.
Do the same for the shadow areas by command + clicking and sliding the Blacks slider - until no shadow area is out of gamut (no black is showing, it's all white).
You can activate your histogram warnings to show you what is clipping as well. Here is an example of a good looking histogram.
Once you get your exposure and blacks set, you can adjust brightness, contrast, and clarity until you like the look of your image. Then go to the Tone Curve and adjust it until you like it - but keeping the image open so you can further manipulate it in Photoshop later.
2. Next, adjust your color in Hue/Saturation. I adjusted the reds and oranges slightly to even out his skin tone.
3. Then, I used the adjustment brush to selectively tone down his white shirt, and to bring some color back to his lips. Again, these are general adjustments so I can get a good start for manipulating further in Photoshop.
4. Finally, adjust the sharpness. When dealing with skin, we don't want to sharpen the skin too much - but we certainly want the eyes, mouth, and other details to be sharp. In the preview, zoom to 100%. If you option click on the masking slider, and move it to the right, you can mask off (in black) broad areas of the skin that we don't want to sharpen.
Here is the final result: