Destructive Camera Raw


Today’s Question: One thought relative to a recent Camera RAW question [related to the use of Camera Raw as a filter in Photoshop]. Shouldn’t your answer include a warning or caveat about adjustments made in Camera RAW being “destructive,” or non-reversible? Or am I wrong about that?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The Camera Raw filter in Photoshop can indeed be destructive to pixel values, although it doesn’t necessarily need to be. By contrast, using Adobe Camera Raw to process an original RAW capture is never destructive, by virtue of producing a derivative image based on the original RAW capture rather than altering that RAW capture.

More Detail: When opening a RAW capture in Photoshop, you’ll need to perform the intermediate step of processing that RAW capture using Adobe Camera Raw. When you complete that processing, the result is a new image based on the RAW capture, and the original RAW capture file remains untouched. In other words, Adobe Camera Raw provides a non-destructive workflow for RAW captures.

The Camera Raw filter within Photoshop provides the convenience of access to the various adjustments available within Adobe Camera Raw, but as a filter within Photoshop. However, this filter can indeed be destructive, meaning it can cause a change in pixel values within your image.

There are two ways you can work in a more non-destructive way with the Camera Raw filter within Photoshop.

The first is to simply create a copy of the Background image layer, and to apply adjustments to the resulting “Background Copy” image layer rather than the Background layer. This enables you to return to the Background layer if you decide you’re not happy with some of the adjustments you’ve applied to the Background Copy layer.

The other option is to work with the Camera Raw filter as a Smart Filter. This involves either converting the Background image layer to a Smart Object, or creating a Background Copy layer and converting that to a Smart Object. If you want to use the Background layer for this purpose, you’ll need to first double-click on the thumbnail for the Background layer on the Layers panel and click OK in the New Layer dialog, to convert the Background layer to a normal layer. Or simply create a Background Copy layer as noted above.

You can then convert the image layer to a Smart Object by choosing Filter > Convert for Smart Filters from the menu. You can then choose Filter > Camera Raw Filter from the menu to apply the Camera Raw filter as a Smart Filter. You can think of this as essentially providing the behavior of an adjustment layer in the context of the Camera Raw filter.

When you’re finished applying any desired adjustments with the Camera Raw filter, you can apply those changes by clicking the OK button in the Camera Raw dialog. If you later want to make changes to the adjustment settings, you can simply double-click on the thumbnail for your Smart Object layer to bring up the Camera Raw dialog again, where you can refine the settings for the adjustments you’ve applied.

However, applying a filter such as the Camera Raw filter as a Smart Filter can lead to some problems with a layer-based workflow. For example, if you have applied image cleanup work on a separate layer, and then make changes to the underlying image using the Smart Filter, the cleanup work you performed will no longer match the underlying image.

The bottom line is that there are some relatively non-destructive ways to work with the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop, but it is also possible to directly alter pixel values in a photo with this filter (or other filters).

Of course, if the original capture was indeed a RAW capture, and you’re using the Camera Raw filter to apply adjustments to the image derived from the RAW capture, it is worth noting that you could always return to that original RAW capture to start over with processing the image if that becomes necessary or desirable for any reason.