Adobe Bridge Revisited

I’m a rambling man, but I generally ramble with a purpose. I love CS3 Bridge and Camera Raw, and can talk all day about how I use them. However, I understand that most folks kind of get catatonic when I ramble on too much… so here is the only somewhat rambling story of how I work with CS3 Bridge and Camera Raw to make my life easier, more enjoyable, more fulfilling, well… you get the picture.

Two of the most time-consuming tasks in this digital age are image color management and making output files for the client. We’ll kill both of these birds with Adobe’s CS3 arsenal.

Using Bridge as the first line of defense in image management makes my life a lot easier. As a full-time corporate photographer, I often work under very tight deadlines – you know, the ones that go something like this… shoot the final image, then color balance and size it before sending it FTP to the printer for the deadline that was 20 minutes ago. In this tutorial, I will describe how I work from exposure to color balanced digital images, and even final output using Bridge and Camera Raw without ever opening Photoshop. Let’s start by creating the images.

I love to create images. It is part of my heart and soul. So imagine the holes torn in my soul by images on which I simply could not make the color right. Ouch. Before the release of Adobe Creative Suite 3, or CS3, image color management was often hit or miss, even when using raw images from my Nikon. Raw, you ask? Yep. I haven’t shot a .jpg image in over two years now. I love the total flexibility of the raw format. I get better quality images with less trouble than I have ever gotten in the past, either in my many years of shooting film or in my first several years shooting digital.

In the last few years, we have seen many products introduced to help with color management. One of the best I have used is the QPcard 101 (www.QPcard.se). For some reason these are a little hard to find; they are on backorder where I have bought them in the past.

When I start to shoot images, the first frame or two is a shot of the QPcard in the same light as the subject. I can even place the QPcard right in the scene by peeling off the adhesive backing and sticking it on the subject! If I am bracketing my exposure, I shoot a bracketed exposure of the QPcard. This done, I put the card back in my camera bag and shoot the subject. Each time the light or scene changes, I grab the QPcard and shoot another couple of frames. At this point the basic color management battle is over half won!
Back at the computer, I download the images and open CS3 Bridge. First things first – I rename the images as described in a previous article, Bridge Over Troubled Image Management, which has been reprinted here for reference.

Now the fun begins! I select the images in groups according to the scenes – first group is the QPcard images and all the shots from the same light conditions. Right or control click on one selected image, and select "Open in Camera Raw" from the menu that pops up. Without opening Photoshop, Bridge helps you unleash the raw power of Camera Raw… you will see the images on the left side of the screen, stacked on top of each other. Find the shots with the QPcard in them, and select the best looking shot to click on.

In the revamped Camera Raw included with CS3, there resides the wonderful White Balance Tool. It’s up there, with the tools, third tool from the left. Hint – it looks a lot like the eyedropper tool from Photoshop. Select the White Balance Tool, and click the white patch on the QPcard. Now, only one or two things can happen now… the first is you will go "WOW" when the image magically balances to neutral. This happens more times than not. If nothing happens, click the same spot again… you will probably see an error message that reads, "The clicked area is too bright to set the white balance. Please click on a less bright neutral area." Adobe knows that if you try to white balance from a blown-out highlight, the results will not be accurate. Remember the bracketed exposure? You might want to take a reading from a different frame. You can read from the mid-gray section on the QPcard, but since most of the image information in a digital sensor is in the lighter areas of the image, I feel you get the best neutrality from the white patch.

OK, while I am here I also look at other image settings… for my taste, I usually bump up the Blacks slider to about 20 as a starting point, and depending on the use, I may also increase the Saturation (especially if the end use of the image is a fine-art print).
I use the Color Sampler Tool to adjust my exposure… this is only one use of this tool, but another time-saver. That’s it just to the right of the White Balance Tool. Select it, and click once on the white QPcard patch, once on the gray patch, and once on the black patch. The window adds the RGB info of the places you clicked on just below the tools… #1 will show you the white value, which I normally try to get at about 245-245-245 to hold all the printable detail in the highlights. Watch all three samples change when you adjust exposure by sliding the Exposure slider left and right. Notice how much information you get. Not only do the three sample patch values read out in RGB values, but the histogram moves in real-time with the exposure change. While there is no perfect histogram – try shooting gray objects on a gray background and see what that histogram looks like – you can see what you are giving up or gaining by watching the RGB values and the histogram.

In short, I work on this one frame until I am happy with it.

Now the timesaving begins. At the top left corner of the Camera Raw window, click the button that says "Select All," and next the button below it that says "Synchronize." Up pops a dialog box with a lot of selections. Normally I check all the top boxes – from White Balance to Saturation – except the Exposure box. I leave exposure unchecked so that when I see the images, I see the bracketed exposures as they were shot, over and underexposed. I leave the lower boxes from Parametric Curve to Spot Removal blank unless I have done something with them. Click OK and watch in amazement while all the images you have in Camera Raw take on the attributes of the test image. I can’t help but grin when I do this; it almost seems like cheating. Thanks, Adobe, for really figuring out how photographers would want to work in a perfect world.

Now for a note from the real, less than perfect world. I sometimes end up shooting photos without my QPcard handy. Two solutions to this horrible problem: first, eye the scene with the intent of finding something in it your eye says is "neutral gray" or white… then remember this and use that spot to set your white balance in Camera Raw. Second, get in your wallet and pull out a white business card or credit card receipt, and shoot this in the same light as the subject. Use this impromptu substitute to white balance the image. This is probably not as accurate as using a known reference like the QPcard, but it beats doing nothing and having to guess later.

When you are done, you can click the Done box in the lower right hand corner. Back in Bridge, you will see the images you adjusted update in their thumbnail views. Now we have our images color balanced and ready to purpose for whatever we want to do. All our work is automatically saved with our raw file in the sidecar .xmp file… something to watch when archiving or moving images around is to make sure you get all the .xmp files with the raw files.

Now, about that deadline: Bridge allows us to quickly rate our images and get down to the selects. Let’s purpose those selected images with Camera Raw. Make a selection of the images and right- or control-click on one… select the option to Open in Camera Raw. We’ll see our images on the left, already color and exposure balanced from our previous work. At the bottom of the screen there is a clickable line that tells us some image parameters: color space, bit depth, size, and pixels per inch.

Click this line and a dialog box will open. In the space I have here, I can’t get into all the whys of the settings; so if you want to know more, let me know. I typically use Adobe RGB (1998), 8 Bits/Channel for most work. Size is dependent on your needs – for e-mail size previews, I select the smallest Size – for me it’s 1542 by 1024 (1.6 MP), at 72 dpi for screen viewing. Now, click Ok to close the dialog. Click Select All at the top left of the Camera Raw window, and then move down to the lower left and click on Save Images… a new dialog box opens with the Save Options. You can choose where to save the new images, how to name them if you want to change the name – like adding "low" to the end of the filename to specify that it is a low-res preview. Finally, you select a file format at the File Extension box – you can choose .jpg, .dng (Adobe’s open digital negative format), .tif (tagged image format – uncompressed) or .psd (native Photoshop). All that is left is to click the Save button… then Camera Raw does all the dirty work for you! Say that you need a preview and a high-res version of each image – I often make the 1.6 mega pixel previews and start them saving, then without even closing Camera Raw, change the options to output a 12 mega pixel .tif or .psd file for the final output, set at 300 ppi. When you have finished your tasks, simply click Done at the bottom of Camera Raw and go get a cup of coffee – you earned it!

But, Britt, you say… you are working too hard. My digital SLR can shoot a Raw image and save a copy in some version of .jpg at the same time. Isn’t it easier to use the .jpg as the preview and simply process the Raw image for the print portion of the project?
While this can be done, I don’t recommend it. Say you shoot the images, and send your shot-in-camera .jpg’s to the art director via e-mail. The art director chooses an image, and imports it into the layout… art directors being, well, artsy kind of folks, they may use their color picker in Adobe InDesign to select a color from your shot-in-camera .jpg image to set a background or type color. Then they tell you all is wonderful, they love shot number so-and-so… you purpose the file for the print job in Camera Raw by setting the white balance and exposure, and export it for the art director. Simply put, it probably won’t look quite like the .jpg that you shot in camera… it almost never does. So, the color the art director pulled out of the shot-in-camera .jpg might be quite different from the color in the processed final output file. Of course the solution is simple – purpose the images with the Save Images button – one set for preview, one set for final output. The colors in the two versions will be much closer!

Well, I have come in just under deadline again, thanks to CS3’s great features. If only I could save up all the time I save by using those features, and take a short vacation. Alas, reality being what it is, they only make me more productive. Such is life.

Adobe’s Bridge and Camera Raw are included with Photoshop CS3 and CS3 Extended, as well as Adobe Creative Suite Design Premium, Design Standard, Web Premium, Web Standard, Production Premium… plus Bridge comes with the standalone products Illustrator, Acrobat Professional, Flash Professional, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, After Effects Professional, Premiere, Soundbooth, Encore and Contribute.