Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw

Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is an image editing application. It exists both as a plugin in Photoshop and as a crucial part of Lightroom. It was originally built to work exclusively on raw image files — that is, raw image data captured by your camera’s sensor, with no processing of any kind — but is now capable of working with other image types as well.

There are three versions of ACR:

  • Lightroom ACR
  • External ACR (pre-processor)
  • Internal ACR (filter)

Lightroom uses — you guessed it — Lightroom ACR. Photoshop is more complicated and this is what I want to explore in this article. It’s important to note that for the most part making adjustments in one type of ACR doesn’t have any effect on the others.1 In fact Lightroom ACR and External ACR seem to be exactly the same; I’ve only differentiated them because of the aforementioned discrepancy. Internal ACR is the odd version.

Adobe Camera Raw

1The only time one ACR’s adjustmentd shows up in another ACR is when opening an image as a Smart Object in Photoshop from within Lightroom. Photoshop will open the image in internal ACR with the adjustment sliders as they were in Lightroom.

Raw files in external ACR

Whenever you open a raw image file type that ACR supports, Photoshop will automatically open it in external ACR. Here you can make adjustments to your heart’s content.

  • If you regret your changes:
    • exit out of ACR by clicking Cancel or start over by holding the alt key (opt on Mac) and clicking on Reset.
  • If you are satisfied with your changes do one of the following:
    • save them2 and exit out of ACR by clicking on Done.
    • save them and start working on the image in “normal” Photoshop by clicking on Open Image.
    • don’t save them but start working on the image in “normal” Photoshop with the changes applied by holding the alt key (opt on Mac) and clicking on Open Copy.
    • save them on a new image with a different name and/or settings, while keeping the original unchanged by clicking on the Save Image… button.

After using one of the methods that opens the image in “normal” Photoshop you will not have the ability to re-open the image in external ACR for further editing while working in “normal” Photoshop. You can still achieve this by re-opening the file as usual, but if you want the aforementioned ability (and I highly recommend it) you can get it this way:

  • save your changes and start working on the image in “normal” Photoshop while maintaining the ability to return to external ACR for further adjustments by holding the shift key (cmd on Mac, I think) and choosing Open Object.3

This only works on raw file types. You can get creative using this method and have multiple layers using external ACR by dragging in said layers from different documents.

2 When I speak of ACR saving your changes I mean that the next time you open that raw file in external ACR, all of the sliders will be as you left them. It’s still perfectly fine to reset them and go back to the original image settings. However you cannot do this by holding the alt key (opt on Mac) and clicking on Reset, as this will only reset the settings to what they were when you opened the image. If you want to reset all settings completely back to what they were when they came out of the camera you can turn off the settings for each panel (Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, etc) back to their defaults by clicking on the small Toggle button to the bottom right of the image or using the shortcut ctrl+alt+p (cmd+opt+p on Mac). This also works on files that you have saved with a different name and settings as long as the file is still a raw image type.

3 This is not the same as opening a file regularly into “normal” Photoshop, turning it into a Smart Object and adding a filter to it. This goes into the realm of internal ACR which is covered further down.

Other file types in external ACR

Raw image file types are not the only ones that can be opened in external ACR. To open other file types, such as JPGs or even multilayer TIFFs/PSDs (these will be flattened to a single layer) in external ACR, simply choose File -> Open As… (note this is not the same as File -> Open…)  in Photoshop and then choose Camera Raw  from the drop-down menu.

Even for non-raw images you will get better quality results using ACR (either internal or external — there is technically no difference in quality as I explain further down) than working in “normal” Photoshop. Check out this article and watch the video at the end.

Internal ACR

Internal ACR is the Camera Raw version that works as a filter and which we can add to any layer in “normal” Photoshop. It involves turning said layer into a Smart Object by right clicking on the layer’s title in the Layers panel and choosing Convert to Smart Object. Then simply choose Filter -> Camera Raw Filter…

This version of ACR is not available to truly raw images and it has less features than external ACR. However it still results in better image quality than using Photoshop’s other filters or adjustment layers. All of this is explained below.

Differences between internal and external ACR

Technically speaking no version of ACR is better than another when it comes to image quality. This is also true in practice when working on non-raw images since the files already have a lot less information in them.

Realize that if a raw image file is opened in “normal” Photoshop AND not as a Smart Object, it has also been converted to bit-mapped format and lost a lot of its information. Converting it to a Smart Object at this point will not make a difference. The image will only open in internal ACR at this point (through the use of the ACR filter).

Truly raw images will only open in external ACR.

In addition, there are actually less features available to internal ACR. A clear representation is shown in the image below and I would recommend playing with external ACR to see what each “extra” feature is about. Snapshots is especially useful to me.

Internal vs. External ACR


My workflow and recommendations

I always shoot raw and import my photos straight into Lightroom. From there I make my adjustments, which are never destructive since Lightroom by its nature only works with ACR.

If I need to achieve something that is only possible in Photoshop I choose Edit In -> Open as Smart Object in Photoshop… (if you get a weird pop-up, see this post for the solution). At this point the image is not truly raw anymore, but there is no way to access any of Photoshop’s exclusive features while working with a truly raw image anyway. At least by choosing to open the image as a Smart Object I am already ready to make any extra adjustments just in case (remember that adjustments in ACR always give the best results even for non-raw images). From there I can work with Photoshop to my heart’s content and hit save when I am done to automatically import my new file into Lightroom.

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