Nikon Capture

I shoot exclusively RAW files as it gives me greater control over the final image, yielding the highest quality possible, tailored to each individual image.  Since I shoot Nikon Electronic File (NEF = RAW), I use Nikon Capture - the foremost and best RAW editor available at this time for NEF files.  Adobe Photoshop CS comes with Adobe RAW Converter (ARC), and can do much the same thing with any RAW file.  However Nikon Capture offers greater control, is easier to use, and better image rendering.

Step 1:  Open File
Of course we need to first fire up the application and load our RAW file.

Step 2:  Histogram
The next thing we do is to check the histogram.  Verify the histogram appears appropriate with our particular image.  In this example, the histogram indicates this exposure is about ½ stop overexposed.

Step 3:  Exposure Compensation
We have moved the Exposure Compensation slider so -0.5 EV compensation has been added digitally.  Nikon Capture supports a live histogram where, as we are changing a parameter, the histogram is continually updated to reflect the change.  Notice our image now has better contrast, and does not appear as washed out.

Step 4:  White Balance
We now apply any white balance corrections to the image.  In this shot there are no neutral areas on which to set a gray point.  Additionally we do not have a reference gray card in the shot.  Since it was taken under ambient metal halide lighting, none of the factory preset settings, nor the auto white balance settings do any good.  Luckily, we took that shot of the reference card before starting the shooting session.

We simply go back to the reference photo, measure the gray patch, note the correction values, and plug them in.

Step 5:  Curves

Once we have corrected the white balance, we now make any gamma changes to individual color channels via the histogram and curves.  In the series of screen captures above, we have gone through this step-by-step.  In the red channel, we brought up the black levels, in the green channel we adjust both the black and white levels, and in the blue channel, we adjust the highlight level.  This allows us to maximize the dynamic range of each color channel.  The last screen shot shows the sum of our changes.

When doing this, it changes the color response and characteristics of the image, and as such we want to pay attention to the image as we are making these changes.  We do not want to make changes so drastic that we destroy our color accuracy.

At the same time we can make modifications to the curve itself - or the way light is amplified through the range.  Using the peaks of the histogram, we can see exactly which part of the curve we need to change to bring out shadow detail, suppress highlights, or any number of changes.  In this case, we will leave the curve as it is.

Step 6:  Color Balance
Now we fine tune the color, brightness, and contrast to our satisfaction.  In this example, we do not need to make any such adjustments.

Step 7:  Sharpening Off
Since we shot RAW, we have the ability to turn off sharpening. We can do this at any step since all we are doing is changing image flags - values that tell the RAW editor how to produce the final image when saved, we have not changed any of the RAW data itself.

Step 8:  Save As...
When we select save, the RAW editor will take all the flags we have changed along with flags that were set when we captured the image and process the RAW data into an image file.

Step 9:  TIFF
Here, we select 16bit TIFF as an intermediary go-between.  This format allows us to make edits and save in stages without degrading the image with cumulative artifacts.  We are using the TIFF as a working file and, with the essentially unlimited storage space and the fast I/O speeds of our computer, we are not too concerned with TIFF's space requirements.

After we have completed all of our RAW processing steps we have the image below to work with in Photoshop.