Dealing with the RAW format is a big thorn in the digital photographer's side: the files take forever to process and vary from camera to camera. Adobe's Photoshop Camera Raw & JPEG 2000 plug-in bundle takes some of the pain out of handling RAW images by enabling you to open and tweak them within Photoshop's familiar interface. We were worried that Adobe couldn't keep up with the speed of new camera introductions, but the company seems to be churning out updates at a decent rate. You can find the latest list of supported cameras on Adobe's site. If you don't want to splurge for the upgrade to Photoshop CS, this $99 tool is a must-have.
The two plug-ins come as a single download that installs in a snap as long as you used the default directory names for your Photoshop installation; nonconformists can find all the details in a Read Me file. Both the RAW-file processor and the JPEG2000 tools integrate directly into Photoshop's File menu: File > Open gives you access to various RAW and JPEG file formats, including JPx, J2x, CRW (Canon), NEF (Nikon), RAF (Fujifilm), ORF (Olympus), and MRF (Minolta) files. File > Save provides a JPEG2000 option. The upshot is that the plug-ins' capabilities blend seamlessly into Photoshop's automation tools, Actions, and Droplets, as well as the File Browser.
When you open a RAW file or save a JPEG2000 file, the corresponding dialog box pops up and presents your options. During batch operations, you can bypass the RAW settings; they'll be visible only when you hold down the Alt key while opening files. If you're scared of curves, take heart: you make all adjustments via sliders, check boxes, and drop-down lists. Both plug-ins dynamically update their previews to reflect each change, and Photoshop Camera Raw adds a live three-channel histogram.
Since the plug-ins' functions act just like any other Photoshop operation, right down to supporting the same shortcut keys, picking up the interface is a breeze.
One of the greatest assets of this bundle is the way it fits into a Photoshop workflow. For instance, since you can suppress the settings dialog box, you can use the plug-ins with Actions. Web-graphics creators with batch jobs built around the Save For Web rather than the Save As command will have to rework their scripts, however; the JPEG 2000 plug-in doesn't let you specify output image dimensions, so rescripting may not be as simple as it should be. Furthermore, the JPEG 2000 dialog box doesn't provide a side-by-side view of the original and compressed files, and when you're experimenting with different parameters, you can't compare the various alternative images. And since these aren't filter plug-ins, they won't work with other image-editing software, such as Ulead PhotoImpact or Corel PhotoPaint, although both add-ons work without 16-bit color support in Photoshop Elements.
Adobe provides most of the essentials for fine-tuning RAW files. You can convert them to any of four RGB color spaces, including Adobe RGB and ProPhoto RGB, at 8 or 16 bits per channel. The scale and the resolution are adjustable as well. Camera Raw's three useful white-balance-correction tools all complement one another. For instance, you can start by applying one of the presets (such as Daylight, Cloudy, or Shade), then tweak the color temperature in 1-degree increments between 2,000K and 10,000K, and finally manipulate the coolness/warmth via the Tint slider.
The Camera Raw plug-in displays basic exposure data at the top of the dialog box. A floating histogram dynamically updates as you alter settings.
Though you can't adjust gamma curves, you can work with exposure (highlights) and shadows separately. And Camera Raw uses intelligent brightness and contrast algorithms; they operate in a nonlinear fashion within an image's existing white and black points. The result is a reasonable amount of tonal control. Sliders for color saturation, sharpness, and smoothness, plus an optional moiré filter, round out the RAW toolset.
The JPEG 2000 plug-in gives you both quick-and-dirty and more-esoteric saving controls. Among the basics is the ability to save with or without color-profile information; an ICC device profile is required for JPEG2000 compatibility. For optimized decoding, you can choose from growing-thumbnail, progressive, and color settings, as well as preview each alternative at a variety of standard bit rates. The format gives you the option to select lossless compression or specify lossy-compression quality on a scale of 1 to 100. Another approach is to pick a file size, then tweak it by choosing what metadata to include and discard. If you've defined any alpha channels in your image--and they must be saved, named channels, as opposed to selections--the plug-in will also let you selectively maintain their detail.
Tech-savvy artists can include supplemental Enumerated and MAT/LUT profile data, choose integral or floating-point math for the Wavelet compression, and choose compression tile size.
It's a bit early to judge whether Adobe has hit on the correct feature set. The average user will probably rely on the ability to save JPEG2000 images using lossless compression, but since browsers need a plug-in to display the resulting files, the format won't see widespread Web use for a while. But application designers creating screens for cell phones, for instance, may have a greater need for the JPEG2000 tools.
Photoshop Camera Raw integrates with the File Browser and takes on some of that feature's more-irritating habits. For example, although the tool generates thumbnails relatively quickly, its performance gets bogged down by directories with lots of files and images located on a network. The RAW thumbnails are also a bit too blurry for you to use the File Browser as a light table.
The Camera Raw plug-in integrates directly into the Photoshop File Browser; together they generate thumbnails for RAW files as quickly as for other formats. For frequent RAW users, that convenience alone is worth $99.
Similarly, if you're working with large images or on a fairly slow system, the JPEG 2000 plug-in's endless redrawing of the preview is very annoying--and you can't turn it off. But overall, the Adobe plug-ins are faster and less vexing than many of the alternatives, which include standalone and manufacturer-bundled utilities.
For the most part, you're on your own. The bundle comes with a PDF user guide that covers the obvious and never addresses the more-obscure issues, such as why you would want or need to include Enumerated profile data or why tile size matters. Furthermore, there's no integrated help system. Any Web-based information is buried deep within Adobe's Photoshop knowledge base.