Raw processing of digital images has become a standard and essential part of the serious, digital workflow. Applications like Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture have revolutionized imaging workflow. They provide us photographers with efficient and lightweight editing capabilities for our images. One might surmise that this will render Photoshop obsolete. Why invest in a complex and expensive application that takes years to master when very good images can be made quickly and intuitively elsewhere? The argument for the elimination of Photoshop might be compelling but it is also wrong.
RAW image editors have come a very long way in a short period of time. They are miraculous in what they can do and how they do it. But, in order to coax out very most in your photos you simply must use Photoshop. Maybe the first 80% of the image edit can be obtained in the RAW processor. But the last 20% is where the magic lies and my experience tells me that Photoshop is most always the way I achieve ultimate quality and impact.
There are myriad reasons for this and we'll explore them over the course of many posts. But, let's first look at the subject from an overview perspective. RAW processing relies upon parametric editing for its results. The edits are not baked into an image's pixels but rather expressed in a lightweight text file that travels along with the image file. These days, particularly if we use the DNG format, we don't even notice the text file because it's encapsulated within the container of the DNG file. But, that little file is there all the same, coming along for the ride.
This tiny text file packs a wallop for its size. It efficiently expresses and realizes changes in cropping, white balance, contrast, sharpening, noise reduction, healing and a host of other edits. Because the edits are expressed via this text file and not pixel-based layers, the overall image-file sizes remain relatively modest even though significant improvements are realized in the appearance of the image. And, since the original, RAW image remains intact and unchanged, all edits are reversible and non-destructive.
We also have extensive and intuitive automation features while in the RAW processing realm. Both Aperture and Lightroom allow us to synchronize edits with as many images that we'd like. We can establish editing presets that can even further enhance productivity. And some things, such as white balance and highlight recovery, can only be truly corrected within the RAW format. With all this, we can improve more images more quickly than ever before. The professional photographer can get his or her work out faster and better looking than could be imagined even a few, short years ago.
With all this lightweight editing and remarkable automation, Photoshop's obituary might soon be written—or so we might surmise. The argument for this is compelling. Though updated and improved regularly, the application is over twenty years old with tons of legacy code and seemingly ancient commands, filters, and processes. It may be the most complicated application ever invented, needing several lifetimes to master. Keeping up with it is like being a concert pianist. You must practice, practice, and then practice some more. If you don't keep up, you get rusty. And you start forgetting most everything you've learned. No, Photoshop is not for the casual user. It requires dedication and mastery.
Yet, Photoshop is resilient and very much thriving. It remains the gold standard in a world full of image-editing software. Its immense capability and large ecosystem of plugins, support, and resources are the reasons why. It's almost impossible to document everything this application can do, but for essential photographic work—the heavy lifting that we professionals and advanced amateurs regularly need—there are some basic categories of functions that require us to leave our RAW processors and make the roundtrip to and from Photoshop.
That's where we'll pick up things in our next post. We'll explore the unique, photographic capabilities of Photoshop and the reasons why this remarkable application will be with us for a very long time to come. Stay tuned.