Multi-RAW Processing

Intro | Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color | Converting to Black and White | Using LAB Color Adjustments | Inverting Backgrounds with LAB | Intro to Compositing | HDR in Adobe Photoshop CS5 | Using Image Apply Image | Aging Photos Roundup | Making Colors Pop in Photoshop

My first and biggest “aha” revelation about digital photography took place the day I discovered multi-RAW processing—processing a single RAW photo file more than once. For me, the ability to process a RAW file multiple times—taking the best of each processing job for the final image—is the most important advantage that digital photography has over film photography.

If you don’t multi-RAW process, you can take photos with immediacy—but you are losing out on a great part of the richness of digital photography.

Let me back up a second to explain what I’m talking about. If you have a DSLR, it can probably be set to save your photos as RAW files, as JPEGs, or as both. RAW files have different file extensions (for example, NEF for Nikon and CR2 or CRW for Canon)—what they have in common is that these files store all the information from the time of exposure.

Essentially, a RAW file is a potentiality rather than a final rendition. Ansel Adams said of his work that a negative was a score, and the print the performance. In much the same way, a RAW file is the score, and what you do with it in the digital darkroom is the performance.

Embedded within the potentiality of the RAW file is a vast exposure range—as much as +4 to 4 f-stops in either direction from the exposure you made. If you do the math, since each f-stop has twice the exposure value of the previous f-stop, this represents a 2^8 or 256 times exposure latitude. So you can use RAW conversion to salvage poorly exposed photos-but more importantly, you can process the different parts of the photo to expose properly for each different part. Multi-RAW processing means that you are not stuck with one overall average exposure, which may be good in some parts and bad in others.

You can also use multi-RAW processing to selectively change white balance, saturation, and so on.

Got you interested? The best news is that multi-RAW processing is really a snap once you get the hang of it. Let me show you how it works using an actual example.

Sample File

I’ve provided a low resolution version of the red car reflections (red-car-reflections.tif) in TIFF format for you to experiment with and follow the example in this article. I chose to provide this file in TIFF format because I needed to lower the size and resolution of the file (I’m not about to let high resolution versions of my RAW negatives out into the world on their own!).

This TIFF file has the same settings and characteristics as the RAW file of the image, and you can use to it to try multi-processing and to follow along with the example in this article.

Note: In order to make sure that the TIFF file will open in ACR, check the “Automatically open all supported TIFFs” option in ACR preferences as shown below.

Photographing the Red Car

I recently spent some time photographing at a classic car show. The cars were polished up to the nines; what interested me most were the reflections in polished chrome, including the red car I’ll use as an example.

Unfortunately, I had an exposure problem, as you can see in the JPEG version of the photo shown in Figure 1. A single RAW conversion in ACR with default settings provides essentially the same results.

If I exposed for the sky (as in Figure 1), the reflections in the grill was definitely too dark. Had I reversed this and exposed for the dark grill area, the sky would have looked washed out. If you have this kind of exposure problem, you should be using multi-RAW processing.

Figure 1: Default version of the Red Car Reflections.

Organizing Your Files

Before you can process your files in the Photoshop Darkroom, you need to organize them on your computer. Programs like Adobe Lightroom can help you do this.

My own workflow starts with using a memory card reader to copy the RAW files from my camera to my computer. I store the files hierarchically in a chronology based on the date shot.

Once I have the RAW files on my computer, I can inspect them using Adobe Bridge, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The RAW file in Adobe Bridge.

A Tour of ACR

Once I’ve had a look at the photos from a session in Adobe Bridge, I’ll pick one or more images to process. To kick off processing, I start by double-clicking on the image in Bridge, which opens the RAW file in Adobe Camera RAW (fondly known to friends as ACR).

Before I show you the actual way I multi-processed this image, let me give you a small tour of the Basic tab of the ACR application—so you can begin to get an idea of the power that this seemingly modest application hides.

To start with, ACR will open with “As Shot” white balance settings and no exposure adjustments, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: ACR with “As Shot” settings.

The “As Shot” settings mean that ACR imports whatever White Balance settings you had in your camera; if you were set on auto White Balance, you get whatever the color photospectrometer in your camera comes up with when it read the color temperature of the light at the time of the exposure.

To process the photo so it is darker, simply move the Exposure slider to the left (Figure 4).

Figure 4: ACR darker at -2.35 f-stops.

To lighten the photo, move the Exposure Slider to the right of 0, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: ACR brighter at +1.8 f-stops.

As I’ve mentioned, you can play around with changing color in addition to exposure. There are a number of sliders that have a big impact on image color. The most important one is Temperature.

When you move the Temperature to the left, an image becomes bluer (Figure 6); when this slider is moved to the right, things change to the yellow end of the spectrum (Figure 7). The Tint slider plays much the same role, but along the magenta-green axis rather than the blue-yellow axis.

Figure 6: Using ACR to change the white balance to the blue side.

Figure 7: Using ACR to change the white balance to the yellow side.

Converting Your Image in ACR

To get started with an actual multi-RAW conversion, it helps to plan your strategy in advance. With the photo of the red car reflections, this is pretty straightforward.

This multi-RAW conversion scenario involves combining three individual RAW conversions of the same image:

  • First, I’ll process the image for the sky on the right.
  • Then, I’ll process a lighter version for the dark grill on the left.
  • Finally, I’ll process an even lighter version to bring out dark shadow areas.

Processing the same image three times is actually a pretty common multi-RAW conversion scenario, but other approaches are possible. I’ve had multi-RAW conversions that involve seven or eight different exposure values. When multi-RAW processing is combined with Hand HDR (the subject of my next article), things can get really complex.

Keep in mind that it sometimes makes sense to start by producing an extremely dark version from the RAW file. This works when you are photographing a subject against black. Then subsequent lighter versions are placed on top of the dark versions as layers in Photoshop.

With our red car reflections, the first step is to find good ACR settings for the right-hand side of the image.

With the image opened in ACR, if you know the light conditions used to shoot the image, you can usually get a pretty good starting place for White Balance by selecting from the White Balance drop-down list, shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8: ACR White Balance pre-sets.

Typically, I also boost the Saturation and Vibrance a bit (see the settings in Figure 9). When I’m happy with my settings, I save them as a separate XMP file using the menu shown in Figure 9. This menu is opened by clicking the tiny triangle at the right of the Basic bar. The point is that with many conversions from the RAW, you may want to be able to find your way to back to your original settings.

Figure 9: Saving settings as an XMP file.

Since the only work has been on the Basic tab of the ACR dialog, it is only necessary to save the Basic settings, as shown in Figure 10. The example only shows working with settings on the ACR Basic tab.

Figure 10: Saving settings from the ACR Basics tab.

I do like to save my ACR settings files—which are XML files with an XMP file suffix—where I can find them, namely in the working folder I am using to save my photo conversion work in progress as shown in Figure 11.

Figure 11: Saving settings along with working files.

With your settings selected and saved, the next step is to open the RAW conversion in Photoshop. Be sure to open a copy, not the original. If you hold down the Alt key, the Open Object button in ACR changes to read Open Copy—so make sure you hold down the Alt key before you open your conversion.

The impact of opening a copy is to make sure your ACR settings are not applied to the photo metadata. This makes it easier to open subsequent conversions from the “As Shot” settings.

Working in Photoshop

The first thing you should do when your RAW conversion opens in Photoshop is to save it as native PSD file. Choosing “Save As” rather than “Save” from the File menu is a good habit to have.

You now have a single image with one layer (the Background) open in Photoshop (Figure 12). Clearly, the left side is too dark.

Figure 12: First RAW conversion opened in Photoshop.

With the image happily open in Photoshop, go back to Adobe Bridge. Double click the image once again to open it again in Adobe Camera RAW.

With the image open for the second time in ACR, choose Previous Conversion from the drop-down menu shown in Figure 13 to start work on a second conversion starting with the settings of the first conversion.

Figure 13: Choosing the previous conversion.

From the starting place of the first conversion, in ACR move the Exposure Slider to the right to create a lighter version (Figure 14).

Figure 14: Moving the Exposure slider to the right for a lighter version.

Once again, make sure to hold down the Alt key to open a copy before opening this RAW conversion in Photoshop.

You now have the saved and converted background in Photoshop, and a new lighter version as well. Next, the rubber starts to meet the road when you combine the two versions.

Choose the Move Tool from the Photoshop Toolbar (located on top of the toolbar).

With the Shift key held down, use the Move Tool to drag the lighter version on top of your saved background. Holding down the Shift key constrains the move operation so that they two layers are exactly aligned. This layer constraint is crucial to the success of the multi-RAW process. Don’t release the shift key until after you have released the mouse button.

Your photo will now have two layers, with the lighter version on top, as you can see in Figure 15.

Figure 15: The lighter conversion is now a layer on top of the layer stack

It’s a good habit at this point to name the new layer by clicking on it and choosing Layer Properties from the drop-down menu. I confess, I don’t always take the time to name my layers—and boy do I regret it when I have to come back to the Layer stack after some time has elapsed and I try to figure out what does what.

Combining the Layers with a Gradient

The next step is to combine the two layers so you can only see a portion of the lighter layer on the left and a portion of the darker layer on the right in the image window. To do this, use a layer mask and gradient.

To combine the two layers, with the Lighter layer selected in the Layers Palette, from the Layer menu, choose Layer Mask > Hide All, as shown in Figure 16.

Figure 16: Use the Layer menu to add a Hide All Layer mask

It can be hard to remember what Layer masks do, so think of it this way. In relation to the layer the mask is attached to, a black Layer Mask conceals and a white Layer Mask reveals.

As you can see in the Layers palette shown in Figure 17, the Hide All Layer Mask appear as a black thumbnail associated with the Lighter layer. You can see the original conversion with the lighter conversion on top as a masked layer.

Figure 17: A Hide-All Layer Mask has been added to the layer.

Next, find the Gradient Tool (it is located about half way down the Photoshop Toolbar, and may be hidden behind the Paintbucket Tool).

With the Layer mask selected on the Lighter layer, click and drag the Gradient tool from left (white) to right (black) in the image window. A gradient blend seamlessly combines the lighter and darker versions. It’s clear if you look at the image file shown in Figure 18 that the Gradient blend combines both lighter and darker versions, and is a big improvement over either individual RAW conversion.

Figure 18: The lighter and darker versions have been blended with a gradient.

Once you get the hang of it, adding a layer mask and drawing a gradient is a very quick process.

You can get a better idea of what is going on by looking at the Layer Mask in thumbnail (Figure 18), or by looking at the mask itself in a larger size (Figure 19). By looking at the Layer Mask itself, you can see how the layers will blend.

Figure 19: The layer mask itself shows how the layers will blend.

If you are curious as to how to you look at the Layer Mask, the answer is to make it visible by itself in the Channels Palette (Figure 20). The Layer Mask is the only channel that is set to be visible in the Channels Palette.

A layer mask is also a channel (if this sounds confusing, don’t worry too much about it).

Figure 20: The Layer Mask is visible in the Channels Palette.

Painting in Light Areas

The next step in my plan for this image called for lightening a few selective areas even further. So, it’s back to Adobe Bridge to open ACR with the RAW file once more. Once again, double-click the image in Bridge to open a new copy in Adobe Camera RAW (my kids would say, “Not again!”).

With the image open a third time in ACR, choose Previous Conversion from the drop-down menu (shown in Figure 13) to start work on a third conversion, beginning from the settings of the second conversion.

Make this version even lighter by sliding the Exposure Slider further to the left. Open a copy, making sure to hold the Alt key down.

With the lightest version open in Photoshop, again use the Move Tool constrained with the Shift key to place the lightest version on top of my layer stack (Figure 21). The Lightest layer is positioned with a mask on top of the Layer stack.

Next, by selecting Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All add a Hide All Layer Mask to the new (lightest) layer.

Figure 21: The Lightest layer is masked on top of the stack.

To “paint” in the areas of the lightest layer, make sure the layer mask attached to the Lightest layer is selected. Then choose the Brush Tool from the Toolbar.

Use the Brush Tool on the layer mask to paint in selective opacity. You should select White as the color for the Paintbrush. The Paintbrush should be set to 0% hardness, and have only partial opacity (about 35% is a good starting place). I like to use a partially opaque Brush for more control.

Figure 22: I use a partially opaque Brush.

The white areas in the Layer Mask shown in Figure 23 are where I’ve painted some transparency—and where the lightest layer partially shows through.

Figure 23: You can see partially transparent areas on the Layer Mask.


At this point, I like to archive a copy of my image with the layer stack intact. Then, I merge down the layers and proceed to other work in the Photoshop Darkroom, processing the image further (but that’s another article for another day).

If you look at the combination of the three layers in this simple multi-RAW post-processing (Figure 24), you’ll see that it is a vast improvement over where the image started (Figure 1). The finished multi-RAW processed image (Figure 24) is appropriately exposed in all areas.

Figure 24: The multi-RAW image is appropriately exposed in all areas.

It’s worth taking the time to get up to speed with multi-RAW processing. Multiple processing of a single RAW file should revolutionize the way you think about making digital exposures. Many photos are possible with multi-RAW that you simply couldn’t do any other way. Unlike HDR imaging, there is no requirement that you take multiple bracketed exposures—so from a shooting perspective, it is really simple to implement multi-RAW, because you don’t have to change anything you do until you get your photos home to the computer.

Other Photoshop Tutorials

Creativity in the Photoshop Darkroom by Harold Davis: Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Converting to Black and White

Advanced Photoshop Tutorials by Jay Kinghorn: Layer Masks | Smart Objects | Advanced Masking | Image Sharpening | Burning and Dodging


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text ©2009 Harold Davis.

Sign in or Sign up to post response

    • This is an excellent introduction to the idea. I would add three points.

      First, this basic technique is my favorite for HDR: import your different exposures into a single file with multiple layers, and paint the masks to get the end result you want. I’ve never been happy with any form of tone mapping.

      Second, when working with a single exposure, you can often achieve similar results simply by careful-but-aggressive use of the sliders in ACR. Drop the exposure to control the highlights; boost the fill to bring up the shadows, and finally adjust the midtones with brightness as necessary to correct what the first two have done. Go back to the highlights, repeating the entire process a few times until you get the look you want. Use the contrast slider to add “punch” or reduce blocked details.

      Last, I’ve recently fallen in love with the adjustment brush in the latest version of ACR. I’ll start with the above technique to get the image as close as I can, and then I’ll “dodge and burn” with the adjustment brush — including the kind of selective darkening of skies, etc., as described in the tutorial. For me, at least, it’s much easier, faster, flexible, and intuitive, and I’m much happier with the results.



    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Great tutorial - it will push me to do this more often. I often overlook some photographs because I am still stuck in a JPEG mindset! Multi-RAW processing is also spectacularly simple using Lightroom where you can make infinite 'virtual copies' of the same file. After processing them in as many ways as I want, I then use the 'open as layers in Photoshop' command. I work on a rather aged laptop so I prefer this method where I don't have to move back and forth between programs repeatedly.
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • This is an excellent approach. However, I wonder, whether it would be preferable to save the first version of the picture as SMART OBJECT and to continue by copying it. The copy (a layer) can then easily be reprocessed in ACR and the same results achieved as by the author's approach. Is there a drawback with using the SMART OBJECT approach?
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I agree that the ajustment brush in ACR will do pretty much the same thing but much faster! You can also use masks and gradients... I would use your technique for subjects where precise selection is necessary (i.e. object against blue sky) but even that, the auto mask fonction with the adjustment brush could work well...
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • @Ben, @Thomas, @Emil, @François: I'm glad you've enjoyed my article. These are all very good comments and tips. @Ben, @François: Very good point about the ACR adjustment brush in CS4. @Thomas: Your approach with Lightroom works just as well. @Emil: Yes, you could use a duplicated Smart Object rather than multiple passes through ACR. Photoshop is a huge program, and there are always more than one way to do anything. My approach is functional, and not always aimed at the latest bells and whistles. I like to present multi-RAW processing in the way this tutorial does because exactly what is going on is clear to even a Photoshop "newbie." Also, I want to show techniques that are the classic approach, and don't need the "latest and greatest" (many schools are still using CS2 for teaching). That said, thanks for great suggestions of refinements of my approach!
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • How is the multi-raw approach any better than simply adding exposure gradients to, and burning/dodging certain areas of, a single photo in Lightroom? In your example, I could simply slap an exposure gradient across the photo and then use the brush tool to lighten particular areas further, all using a single copy of the photo in Lightroom. Does multi-raw processing get better-quality results?
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • @Justin - I believe that adding an exposure gradient in Lightroom is a good approach. There are always many ways to "skin a cat." However, I think multi-RAW processing gives you access to the entire range of possibilities in the RAW file, as well as allowing you to change the exposure and white balance (for instance) at the same time in a given layer. So I think it is the more powerful approach, but obviously more labor intensive---so if what you are doing in Lightroom is working for you, by all means keep it up! Best wishes, Harold
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Harold, I certainly appreciate your efforts and time to prepare the instruction and willingness to share your knowledge. I've read only half way and feel the complexity, but I believe that your procedure covers more extensively. However, one of my professors advised that once should know the proper way and the "quick" way to solve/ finish a task; although the "quick" way might/might not provides a less satisfied result. By saying that ... Justin, Would you please share your procedure?
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Hi Harold, Thanks very much for the articles on multi-RAW processing and HDR. I have started using some of these techniques thanks to your article. It does help make a picture much nicer most of the times. One comment in general on software for everyone: since I am not a professional I cannot think of investing on Adobe Suites. I looked around for something that was free. The two software that works for me are Picasa and Gimp. Picasa reads RAW formats and is useful for quick viewing, mass sort and tag, mass resize etc. And since it is from Google, it is of good quality. It is also available on the MAC. Gimp, well it is not Photoshop (Adobe products has one of the best user experience in the industry). But Gimp for free is pretty nice. I did complain to myself about the UI at first. But it grows on you after a few hours. Gimp is also available on the MAC and it can open and process RAW images. Now (after 3 weeks) I prefer Gimp over PaintShop Pro which is not a freeware. For automatic HDR, Photomatix Light for $40 is worth it if one is going to do auto-HDR. So, if you are a professional or quasi-professional, Adobe is your friend. For the rest, my 2 cents may be useful. Thanks Arnav
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Thanks Harold. Excellent tutorial and very comprehensive, in fact, that I sure wish this could be downloaded as a PDF.
    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Hi There,

      A very quick and good way for me is in ACDSee Pro 3 is the Light Equalizer (\Process\Lighting\Light EQ). With sliders one can boost or temper dark or light areas of your photo similar as the sound equalizer on an amplifier.  Fast, so you use it more often. And I never use RAW since I prefer the in-camera chromatic aberration reduction of my Nikon D90.





    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Harold,

      thanks for this smart article. Being a Lightroom aficionado I'm very uneasy on PS and wouldn't even rate myself as a "newbie", but still I'd like to practice it more. just one question: I have only a licensed copy of Photoshop Elements 2.0. I reckon the pull-down menus are different, do you think however the  processing (i.e. blending layers with a single mask for each layer) is possible all the same?

      thank you very much


    • To post a reply Sign In
    • Marco, Photoshop Elements does not support layers and layer masking. My understanding is that it does support adjustment layers and the related layer masking facilities, so you can do some of things you can do with regular layers in Photoshop itself---but not easily the techniques shown in this article, unfortunately.

      Best wishes,


    • To post a reply Sign In
    • For those interested in the subject, I'd also suggest Mathias Vejerslev's Expanding the dynamic range of a single RAW file tutorial.

      ...and should someone want to get more fancy with luminosity masks, Tony Kuyper offers some great advice (and throws in Q&As :)


      A fellow photo.netter contacted me because the links I had embedded in my post above didn't show or work on his browser.  I wouldn't have a clue why this might have happened, but just in case his wasn't an isolated incident, thought would provide actual URLs folks can cut 'n' paste, so here they go:

      • Mathias Vejerslev's simple yet effective Expanding the dynamic range of a single RAW file tutorial @
      • Tony Kuyper's excellent Luminosity Masks tutorial @ (and if, after perusing the above, you still need some clarification, ref. Q&A on the subject matter @


    • To post a reply Sign In
    • I just sent you an e-mail, then starting looking around your blog and came across the multi-raw processing article. Same procedures. Here is my e-mail:

      I have three of your books: Creative Lighting, Creative Composition, and The Photoshop Darkroom. I have run into a problem with trying to  apply your procedure for multi-raw processing. You use the same procedure in all three books but I cannot make it work. I am using Photoshop CS5 on a MacPro computer. I have read the books then went back to start the tutorials, and I can't make the multi-raw processing one work. For example, in the Photoshop Darkroom, the one starting on page 33. ( I downloaded your images from the book). I hope you can shed some light on what the problem might be. 

      Page 33 - It says, go back to Bridge and double click the same image again tp open the same RAW file a  second time.  DOESN'T HAPPEN, it opens in Photoshop instead. (I'm using Photoshop CS5). My solution, I click on the on the original image and go to File menu to open it in Camera Raw.

      Page-35 It says hold down the Shift key and use Move tool to drag SKY image onto Hills image window, then release Shift key. Then the book says, now there are two layers, SKY and HILLS, and it shows two thumbnails in the layers palette. DOES'T HAPPEN. I just see one thumbnail.

      Page 37 - After adding the layer mask, and clicking on SKY layer, and setting foreground color to "white", drawing the gradient, I get a fine matrix screen on my screen covering the image.

      I've tried the prescribed procedure about 10 times and can't make it work. Am I doing  something wrong? Since you use the same procedure in all three books, I conclude the must be some setting in Photoshop which is preventing the procedure to work. Can you shed any light on this problem?

      I would greatly appreciate any assistance you could provide because I think it is a very worthwhile procedure I would like to use a great deal.

      Incidentally, I just signed up for your blog and look forward to exploring  all you have on it. 



    • To post a reply Sign In

Sign in or Sign up to post response